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Communication is key: Team building allows people to share their voices, builds morale

There’s a consensus among many of the key players of upper Midwest architect and engineering companies: when it comes to team building, communication is key.

Team building is important for most companies – both among project staff and their clients – because it helps put everyone on the same page, allows people to share their voices, and builds morale. 

Communication is the thread that binds these relationships, and is the means to a solution when differences arise among team members. 

The companies that Prairie Business spoke with had a lot to say about how they approach team building. 

Communication is key

For Bolton & Menk, an engineering company with 19 offices in three states, communication is paramount for both facets of team building, internal and external. 

As the director of talent management for the company in Mankato, Minn., Tonya Hobbie is involved mostly with the internal side of team building, working with all levels of employees.

“Communication is the very foundation of team building,” she said, not only because it helps put everyone on the same page, but because communication plays into the larger vision the company has about what team building means: building relationships.

“Team building is all about relationships,” she said. “It comes from respecting each other’s values and input.” The company strives to inspire its employees to take ownership of their roles, and it helps that the company offers a “very collaborative environment,” she said, where all team members are invited to contribute to the conversation.

Jim Mertz, a GIS specialist with the company based at its Fargo office and who is involved with more of its external projects, said the company values its clients as part of the project team. 

He personally approaches team building outside the office as a marketing tool, explaining that frequent interaction helps build relationships of trust and makes people feel involved. He does this from gestures of thanks in emails to face-to-face meetings with clients. 

“When you approach team building like that,” he said, “it makes it very easy because when we’re going out to meet with a client we’re just going out to have a conversation, to develop a relationship with them.” 

It is building on the foundational platform that Hobbie mentioned: communication. 

Sean Weeks, head of land management at Minot, N.D.-based Ackerman Estvold, said for him communication is one of the three “c’s” of proper team building, the other two being coordination and collaboration.

Building a Team

For most companies, team building begins with an initial phase: selecting staff members who will best serve the client’s needs. 

Weeks said since the design of a project starts at the conceptual phase, it’s important to get the players on board early. As the project grows, so does the team, including the number of stakeholders. “We don’t want to get to the point where we have not anticipated something,” he said, noting that the planning phase may be the largest part of a project and a good team can help the project work go more smoothly. 

David Doxtad, principal at ISG and the architecture company’s Sioux Falls office leader, said he approaches the selection of a project team much like a sports team, with five starting players. 

It is always best to have someone onsite who is familiar with the geographic area of a project, he said, but with employees spread in several states, the best people for a project might be scattered across the company’s various offices. 

“We select five folks from our entire organization to assemble for a specific project,” Doxtad said. “I have the best options in my organization but, depending on the project, maybe not in my own office.”

Bartlett & West identifies a project team much the same way, selecting the best people based upon their availability, capability and personality, everyone from the project manager on down, said Jame Todd, division director with the company’s Bismarck office. 

Like ISG, Bartlett & West’s team members might not always be in the same location as the project.  

“We might have a manager in Bismarck, like myself, and have staff scattered across the country,” Todd said, noting, however, that the project manager “has to be onsite.”

He said over the past several years the company has done well at leveraging its resources in these ways. Since team members might be scattered across states, communication often is done electronically or by telephone. 

Involving all Parties

Todd said once a team has been identified, a kick-off meeting is held where the client’s needs are described, as are details of the project and its budget. The project manager works closely with the client, which in Bartlett & West’s case is frequently a federal or tribal agency on rural water projects. 

Involving all parties and getting the client’s engagement is important at the very beginning. 

Todd said: “We flat out tell them, ‘You are part of this team. This whole project is for you, and you need to provide us with that direction because when we’re done you’re the ones who are going to live with this system and make sure it’s functioning the way you want.’ … By doing that and getting their involvement, it really helps the client understand that they are a really critical part of the team.”

The project team also holds monthly coordination meetings, which involve not only the management team but the client, where they all review what was done on the project the previous month, what needs to be done the current month, and any issues that need to be addressed moving forward.

For Ackerman Estvold, Weeks said the project team also tries to involve as many players as possible. “That would include the client or owner, the contractor or in some cases the construction managers. We also like to involve the agency or jurisdiction group as it relates to permitting.”

Not only do the players feel like part of the team, he said, but it may help prevent potential problems. 

“The more of the group we can get involved, the better overall expectations are understood,” Weeks said. “Typically we’re not then hit with many surprises when we do that.”

He added: “We have a lot of team players and quite a bit of organized logistics that continue with a project to help keep it on course.”

Mertz, with Bolton & Menk, said technology also is something his company uses to keep members engaged in a project, especially when frequent meetings may not be an option or when trying to involve broader-based team members such as community folk who may have important input about a certain project. 

He refers to these forms of communication as the company’s “online toolbox.”

Challenges and rewards

No matter the project or where the project teams assemble in the upper Midwest, architect and engineering companies know that building and maintaining effective teams must be built upon the foundation of frequent and open communication.

Of course there are challenges that companies face while building and maintaining strong teams, the players said, and those challenges vary depending on the project or dynamics of the team; but they also said those challenges usually can be overcome more quickly if there is effective communication among team members. 

As Hobbie said early on, team building is about relationships. To maintain a good team companies must have good relationships with their teammates, both among company team members and with members of the agency or community with whom they work. And the key to that is effective communication. 

Rewards are when a project is complete and members can take pride in what has been accomplished as a unified team Mertz said.