Why Team Building Is Nonnegotiable for Virtual Employees

Mark Sawyer
Posted: 08/29/2016

 

When asked “What is your most valuable asset?” almost every leader will say, “Our people.” At every level, employees are contributing to success — working with customers, innovating, building products, and more. And while there are many factors that affect output, the most important ones revolve around engagement and, by extension, camaraderie.

 

The Relationship Spectrum

 

In a traditional office environment, in-person interaction makes it easy for employees to form relationships naturally, across all parts of the relationship spectrum. From chatting about weekend plans with “work friends” while making their morning coffees to a casual smile or nod to that person whose name you’ve forgotten, they may vary in significance. All, however, are important parts of the workplace experience and sense of camaraderie.

 

Consciously or otherwise, companies are invested all the time in strengthening relationships — holiday parties, philanthropy, intramural sports, and even the ping-pong table are all opportunities for employees to interact and build connections around common interests.


Team building for virtual workers is much trickier because of the lack of in-person interaction (verbal and nonverbal) that helps people build rapport with their colleagues and others within the company.

 

Virtual Teams

 

Virtual teams are the way of the future. In 2015, Gallup found that 37 percent of Americans telecommute at least some of the time. Nearly 70 percent of job seekers said they’re more interested in companies that offer remote work options, and 65 percent said the same about employee-supported social activities. The demand for dynamic remote work arrangements is clear.

But you can’t just hire a bunch of virtual workers and call them teammates. You must help them discover shared interests to build relationships. Without commonality, employees will be less likely to help each other, build trust, feel comfortable proposing new ideas, and more. Commonality imbues teams with a greater sense of purpose in their jobs, and trust is the most powerful way to reduce bureaucracy and increase innovation and overall output.

 

Creating Employee Bonds

 

How do you build community among employees who live all over the map? You apply the same principles you use when cultivating relationships among in-person teams. The execution is a little different, but the concepts ring true in both circumstances.

My soon-to-be stepmother recently told me about a five-star general in the military she knew. For the average cadet or marine, talking to a five-star general would almost be like talking to the president himself. Yet this general took the time to learn about the personal lives of his soldiers — their names, their kids’ names, and their interests. This is a powerful way to demonstrate genuine interest in the people working with you and build relationships.

 

There are a few ways you can create similar bonds in your virtual organization:

 

1. Invest in shared in-person experiences.

 

Because relationships move incrementally along the relationship spectrum, it’s important to invest some money in bringing remote teams together at a consistent frequency. If you can afford it, fly your employees to a cool location for an in-person retreat.

 

Get employees to discover shared interests through ice breakers. Encourage them to share stories about their families, hobbies, and travel experiences with fun virtual activities. Play “Little-Known Facts About Me,” a game in which everyone shares anonymous trivia about themselves and guesses which statement matches which teammate. You can also host virtual show-and-tells (in which people share photos and stories unrelated to work) or informal coffee hours. The time spent bonding will dramatically enhance their online relationships and collaborative output.

 

2. Use videoconferencing early and often.

 

Digital communication might never replace the depth and meaning conveyed through in-person communication. From tonality and voice to facial expressions, in-person communication conveys a depth of meaning that technology will likely find impossible to replicate. That’s why bringing people together is hugely important.

 

However, videoconferencing allows everyone to put faces to the names they see in their chats and emails every day. They can also learn their co-workers’ facial expressions and communication styles, which reduces the potential for misunderstandings. Schedule virtual holiday parties or brainstorming sessions over video, too.

 

3. Invest in shared digital experiences.

 

Leverage communication tools that focus on engagement and building relatedness, not just productivity. There are countless options. You could send people items through the mail — perhaps funny pictures of company leaders. You can encourage employees to take pictures of the views from wherever they’re working — a library, a coffee shop, or their home office — and share them with the team.

 

Before national holidays, ask workers to share their plans. If an employee volunteers, have him tell some of his favorite stories to his co-workers. Above all, give permission and encourage employees to interact with each other by sharing content about their lives. That permission can only come from leadership’s recognition of the importance of building relatedness.

 

Relationships are built and maintained through thousands of verbal and nonverbal interactions that can be lost through email and instant messaging. A misinterpretation about the tone of an email can cause a deep rift. Instead of allowing mistrust and negativity to arise, create opportunities for your virtual teams to really connect and build the relationships that are so critical to forming trust and camaraderie.

Mark Sawyer
Posted: 08/29/2016

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