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Time to recalibrate expectations in virtual team building


Kevan Hall returns with some pointers to make sure remote and office workers stay engaged and on message.

Building team spirit in an environment where people are working in different locations and rarely meet is challenging, we need to develop some new practices on how to do this and challenge our assumptions on how much team spirit we really need. For many people, working from home, or virtually with colleagues from other locations and countries, has become the norm.

Where in the past we tended to form close relationships with the people we worked with over coffee, lunch and even social events, today we may rarely, if ever, meet face-to-face. This can have big implications for trust, relationship building and confidence and if these are undermined, they can have a serious impact on performance, retention and engagement.

If we ask people who work from home about their likes and dislikes around this style of working, they often say they enjoy the flexibility and freedom, but are concerned about the lack of social contact and visibility to the organisation.

In very complex, matrix, virtual and global teams, it is very expensive to get a whole team together. When I bring my own global team together it costs over $100,000. So, how do we maintain team spirit and a sense of community in this very distributed, diverse and complex world? Here are a few tips.

Make time to meet face to face

How many times have you been to a meeting or conference and said, 'the meeting was not very good, but getting together during breaks and evenings was really worthwhile.' In the breaks and evenings we get to network, to meet new people and to have problem-solving conversations. Make time for community at your infrequent face-to-face meetings; the PowerPoint presentations we normally fill our day with can be emailed instead.

Develop new ways to connect through technology

There are always good opportunities to build team spirit at the beginning and end of activities. It could be to kick off the beginning of a project, a year-end celebration, or to simply capture learning at the end of a milestone. All you need is a bit of imagination.

As an example, I worked with a global team of webmasters a few years ago, they invited me to their project end celebration, where we all dialled up to an online karaoke site and sang along. It was actually a lot of fun and much better than just sending an email saying 'thanks'.

Social media can also help. In a face-to-face context, relationships are built through regular short interactions over coffee or in corridors. Social media can provide a virtual forum to do the same. For example, using Facebook can help you keep up to date with what colleagues are doing with their families and in their interests. It helps maintain a connection and gives us another topic of conversation when we speak.

Instant Messenger can become our 'virtual water cooler' where we just say 'hi, how was your day? Usually this is the end of the chat, just like it usually is if we pass in the corridor; but sometimes people will then pick up the phone for a longer conversation – it's all about keeping the heartbeat, the rhythm of communication going in the team.

Recalibrating our expectations

There are a lot of good managers who work really hard to create team spirit across barriers of distance, cultures, time zones and technology, but are disappointed because it doesn't feel the same as working in a local community.

Perhaps we should recalibrate and ask whether this is ‘good enough’. Given our constraints do we have enough team spirit and sense of community and belonging to make people feel engaged and to deliver the results? If so, then it’s probably 'good enough'.

In a single site environment, team spirit is a free by-product of proximity, but in a virtual team there is a cost attached as time and resources are needed to make it happen. As with any business investment, it must be worthwhile.

It's tempting when people feel a lack of team spirit to increase the number of meetings, conference calls and emails, but, most people are not looking for more broadcast communication, or more boring meetings. What they want is the opportunity to get to know their colleagues and to engage in some really meaningful two-way communication. If improved team spirit is the aim, work on this directly, rather than hoping for greater team spirit as a by-product of information sharing.

As simple as doughnuts

And finally, it can be as simple as doughnuts. A team I worked with recently had the majority of people based in the US and a couple based in Munich. The team leader had arranged for doughnuts to be delivered to all the people working remotely, who may normally have been forgotten. The sharing of doughnuts during a virtual meeting was a small thing, but it helped to keep people engaged and feeling part of the team.

Building team spirit in a virtual environment can be challenging, but it is the points of human engagement that make the difference, whether through technology or face-to-face.

Kevan Hall is CEO of Global Integration, specialists in virtual, matrix and global working. He is also author of the books “Speed Lead” and “Making the Matrix Work”

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