A Workplace that Actually Works

Lydia Snow

June 06, 2021

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What secret ingredient holds a workplace team together? According to Lia Garvin, a certified executive coach who designs and facilitates workshops on healthy team dynamics, it's trust. "When trust is present, you can really overcome any challenge," Garvin said, "because you know that you're part of something bigger than yourself, and then if you need something, your team's there to back you up."

Garvin, who also works as the Senior Design Program Manager at Google, has spent nearly a decade maximizing the effectiveness of workplace teams. As a coach, she assists her clients as they "use the power of reframing to approach challenges they're facing at work" in order to view them "through new perspectives."

"My greatest passion is figuring out how to remove the roadblocks that prevent people from feeling fulfilled in their work," Garvin said. "A big part of that work is making sure that teams are inclusive."

To Garvin, this inclusivity involves the incorporation of "different perspectives and different backgrounds" or even "different work styles," as well as "different ways to recognize and reward different kinds of approaches to work."

According to Garvin, inclusion is threefold. Part one consists of keeping team members "in the know." In order to feel valued, a company's employees need ready access to any discussions or details which give them "what they need to be able to do their job effectively." Employees can't be expected to make adequate contributions if crucial workplace information is withheld from them.

As part two of an inclusive team, members are "encouraged and empowered to take risks," an advantage which Garvin describes as "the foundation of psychological safety." According to Garvin, the heart of true workplace motivation rises from having a chance to pitch into a greater whole. An inclusive team system ensures its members' thoughts are incorporated into mutual dialogue - dialogue free of constant interruption from others, and dialogue wherein team members are free to be transparent and safe to be vulnerable, as they speak up about their "cutting-edge ideas," communicate their concerns, or even "share a dissenting opinion."

Part three is a system of recognition and rewards. According to Garvin, inclusive workplace leaders take the time to see and acknowledge worthwhile contributions. "Everybody has a different way that recognition is most meaningful to them," whether monetary or verbal, Garvin said. "The more that we get to know our team members and our peers, the more we can recognize them in a way that's most resonant with their style." In her eyes, inclusive workplace leaders recognize employee effort of all sorts, including effort that "doesn't always get the spotlight," but is "critical for ensuring a project is successful."

"The more we look across our teams and make sure people are sharing the spotlight around recognition," Garvin said, "the more included people feel and the more motivated they feel in their work."

"When a team is working well," Garvin explained, "they often enter into what's called a flow state," which she described as a position of clear communication, proper understanding of responsibilities, and mutual trust. The presence of these factors indicates psychological safety, which Garvin stated to be "the most significant signal for an effective team."

To some, being the only woman in one's workplace might be a reason for fear. In an inclusive team, however, all participants are valued and seen as equal, thus laying a foundation of psychological safety. "There's fewer of us than there should be," Garvin said of women in technology fields. "It's important we have strong ideas to share."

When asked about the largest-looming threat to a healthy, cooperation-based professional environment, Garvin discussed a common workplace roadblock: the belief you must trade speed with making sure "everybody's on the same page" about major decisions - and the resulting lack of agreement on how inputs on those decisions are shared, and on who is in charge of making those decisions.

If an executive decision shifts the direction of work, communicating the steps of reprioritization can be difficult - not to mention time-consuming - to coordinate. Because of this, according to Garvin, professionals often negligently "circumvent many of the steps" of effective communication, sacrificing transparency for speed.

Investing time to keep employees aligned, united and on the same page is important to Garvin. "If people are working towards different deliverables or different success criteria, or even interpreting the team's mission and vision differently," correcting their trajectories takes significantly more time than if teams spent the time to get people aligned in the first place, she said.

Garvin believes companies should balance getting information across at a fast pace with keeping all hands on deck - maintaining, and not preventing, proper communication about priorities, expectations and workplace decisions.

"Everyone has different styles for how they take in, and understand, and filter information," Garvin said, singing the praises of using multiple modes of communication. Garvin said she believes that while smaller companies can "rely on just word of mouth to get updates and decisions around," larger companies likely need a more structured process.

For larger companies, Garvin emphasized the importance of repetition, such as sending updates about a company decision multiple times, or conveying its message in a variety of ways. Specifically, she mentioned combining basic communication tools (e.g. email), digital discussion platforms (e.g. Slack), and in-person (e.g. All Hands / team meetings). To Garvin, the use of "a variety of mediums" ensures understanding of direction, allowing information to be heard by all involved, and heard quickly.

The truth is, not all companies are skilled at brainstorming ideas, moving them "up the chain," and then communicating decisions back down. Thus, Garvin illustrated the kind of workplace almost every professional dreads: a disconnected realm wherein "duplication of efforts" runs rampant, and "deadlines keep slipping." When a workplace's priorities are unclear, and decision-making information is not relayed back and forth, "all those communication gaps start to throw off everything that's happening on a team," Garvin said.

These gaps rise from a lack of trust and of regular conversations - and on a deeper level, from a "territorial mentality around how work has to get done," as opposed to a mentality of "thinking about the bigger picture."

With this in mind, Garvin encouraged a framework for bridging these gaps and putting "everybody's ideas out there": participation-based brainstorming, which involves an "idea funnel" wherein participants start by "thinking really big and abstract" and putting "any ideas on the table," proceeding to narrow down those ideas through "a series of democratic voting rounds."

Voting encourages equal engagement, preventing ideas from only being "shared by the most senior person in the room or the loudest person in the room." In large meetings, Garvin recommends the use of hands-on technology to assist with this process, including chat polls and collaborative slides as workplace-applicable voting tools.

An innovative environment incorporates techniques for ensuring all team members can contribute to it. Likewise, "a clear decision-making process for how ideas are whittled down" comes with "blending a variety of tools and having some sort of democratic process for ideas being surfaced," ideally giving "both introverts and extroverts [a] chance to speak."

"I think it's going to be really important to ensure that, both real time and asynchronous, collaboration is factored into how decisions are being made and how ideation is happening," Garvin said, mentioning how workplace teams are increasingly "spread across more geographic boundaries," thus raising the necessity for unity.

Garvin explained that, as professionals are entering a new post-pandemic phase of work, they must focus on inclusion more than ever. "There's an opportunity to come out of this better than we went in, if we're intentional," she stated. As working from home becomes more prevalent, communities like WITI become more important.

According to Garvin, "The more women in tech have communities, and support each other, and help build each other up, the more we can be force multipliers for the impact we're having."

Join Lia Garvinat the WITI Summit
Lia Garvin's LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/liagarvin/
Lia Garvin's website: https://www.reframewithlia.com/

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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