Forget sports and dressing-up – it’s time to put the tea into team-building; The best way to learn to trust one’s colleagues is via daily interactions, such as a cuppa in cyberspace

Forget sports and dressing-up – it’s time to put the tea into team-building

The best way to learn to trust one’s colleagues is via daily interactions, such as a cuppa in cyberspace

By Graeme Archer

8:14PM GMT 17 Jan 2014

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work can also be one of the most frustrating. My team is spread over four sites in two countries: from North Carolina to Pennsylvania to, er, Uxbridge and Stevenage. Working across the Atlantic is fun, but it can also – in this age of austerity, when air travel is discouraged – make team-building more difficult.

“Team-building”: a phrase designed to turn any office worker’s guts to water. But it doesn’t have to involve throwing oneself from a height into the (hopefully) firm embrace of your colleagues below. Nor donning drag to address your senior executives, as the (male) chairman of ABN Amro, and former Dutch finance minister, Gerrit Zalm, did this week, adopting the alter ego of his “sister”, a brothel-owner called Priscilla.

No, the best way to learn to trust one another is through daily interactions. “How was your weekend?” “It was fine – we took the girls to three different birthday parties!” It doesn’t sound like much, and you wouldn’t be able to pitch it to an HR department for tens of thousands of pounds, but this “idle” chit-chat is the glue that binds a team of strangers together.

That glue is even harder to produce when half the team is on the other side of the Atlantic, and work-based interactions centre around meetings to discuss projects. So I’ve been trying an experiment recently, which I think is paying off. I’ll sell it to ABN Amro if they’re keen.

We’ve been using webcams for work discussions for about a year now, rather than teleconferencing. I’ve noticed that the project meetings have become less tense: when you can see the face of the colleague with whom you’re talking, it’s harder to maintain the air of outraged injustice that often sets the tone for meetings (“meeting” often being office-speak for “fight”).

So we decided that each week, we’d pair someone in Britain with someone in the US, at random, to have as many 15-minute webcam chats as they wanted. The rule was that no project-related work was to be discussed. Instead, the hope was that the two would talk about themselves. A virtual tea break.

This week, I was paired with Jin. I felt surprisingly nervous, and I could see Jin was too. None of that ineffable glue: she and I have never discussed anything except work.

I asked Jin where she was from. “Jung Doo” she said, which Google told me was Chengdu, a city in China’s south-west, the capital of Sichuan province. She had travelled from there, thousands of miles, to study maths in Beijing, where she had met her husband, who very improbably hailed from the same city, and much less surprisingly shared the same birthday (Google “the birthday problem”: shared birthdays are not a surprise).

From Beijing, the couple travelled to the US for post-graduate study. Now Jin works in Pennsylvania, while her husband travels every day to New York to work for a bank. She had to take the afternoon off, she told me, to take her three-year-old ice-skating.

I looked at the map of China in one window, and the face of this young woman in another, and I wondered just how terrifying those two journeys away from home must have been. I asked, but she brushed the question aside, from which I infer the answer to be “yes”. Instead, she replied tangentially: she worried about her parents, since she didn’t have any siblings. Neither do I, and we both smiled at this shared characteristic, relaxed at last. You do worry more about your mum and dad when there are no brothers and sisters to share the burden, whether you’re a Westerner, siblingless by chance, or Chinese of the one-child generation.

From families, we moved to tea, and I confessed my preference for the Indian variety. Jin promised that if I ever return to Philadelphia, she’ll make me Chinese tea.

Inconsequential? Yes, and no. We all tell stories about ourselves, mostly to ourselves, but also to the people around us. If you’re deaf to another’s story, if you won’t take time to listen, then you’re blind to their life as well.

That’s something to think about when the immigration debate heats up again. All those Romanians on the Channel 4 documentary Benefits Street: they have stories, too. Assimilation – glue – will happen not through government policy or lobby groups’ demands. It’ll happen through language.

On the surface, a woman raised in Communist China who lives on America’s East Coast shouldn’t have much in common with a London-based man raised a Tory in Scotland. But all it took for Jin and I to discover otherwise was the price of two cups of tea, and the time to drink them together. It made me wonder how many people closer to home would seem less distant, were we to invest that same, trivial effor

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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