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Insperity Inc.

09/23/2021 | News release | Distributed by Public on 09/23/2021 08:46

Virtual team building: How to create a cohesive remote team

As we move toward post-COVID-19 workplace, here's a phrase we'll hear about with increasing frequency: Virtual team building.

Even after the coronavirus pandemic eventually wanes, remote work is likely to continue in some form for the foreseeable future. For some industries and occupations, it may remain a permanent feature of the modern workplace. Many companies have seen that remote work can be a win-win for employers and employees alike in achieving increased flexibility without sacrificing productivity. Furthermore, it's popular with employees.

Those who are classified as virtual workers may either:

  • Work on a hybrid schedule in which they're in the office for a specified period of time and then work remotely the remaining time
  • Work from home 100%, either locally or from a more distant location (for example, out of state, across the U.S. or even in a foreign country)

For employers who have embraced remote work, what will be the benefits and challenges of establishing and maintaining cohesive teams whose members work well together?

What role will virtual team building play in helping to overcome these challenges? Let's take a closer look.

Virtual and dispersed work environments: Pros and cons for work teams

Pros

  • Being able to work remotely - regardless of whether the company is local or far away - is a big benefit for employees who have become accustomed to more flexibility and greater work-life balance. Although working from home gained great attention during the pandemic, companies are discovering that allowing employees to continue working remotely is a powerful recruitment and retention tool.
  • Your company isn't as reliant on a specific location or job market to find talent. With geographic restrictions removed, companies that embrace remote work along with a more dispersed workforce can dramatically expand the pool of talent from which they can recruit. This is especially beneficial when you're recruiting for highly specialized, tough-to-find job candidates.
  • Recruiting within more areas can improve workforce diversity and, as a result, mitigates the risk for groupthink.
  • People from different regions are experts in their respective markets. They know local best practices and norms for conducting business, they understand customers in their markets and they generally bring a fresh perspective to employees who otherwise all reside in the same general area. This not only helps to boost diversity and avoid groupthink, but it can also provide businesses with the insight they need to expand more significantly into other new markets.
  • No matter what happens in one region, whether it's as major as an office experiencing a natural disaster or as minor and routine as an office shutting down for the night, having remote employees distributed in different locations and time zones can help to prevent disruptions to business operations. For customers, someone is always available to support them.

Cons

  • In remote environments, scheduled, planned meetings tend to take precedence over the casual, spontaneous discussions in the office that can spark new ideas, allow collaboration to resolve project-related challenges, foster camaraderie or create workplace friendships. Same goes for last-minute lunch or happy hour invitations. After all, work can't always just be about work-people need to forge personal connections.
  • Physical distance can result in more mental and emotional distance, too. Limited face-to-face time and lack of personal interaction can leave employees feeling as though they don't really know their co-workers or their manager, and they can feel disconnected and isolated. Productivity can dip as well.
  • Virtual work environments can complicate communication. When people aren't directly in front of us - and are often limited to the chin-up view within a small square on a screen, it's more challenging to pick up on subtle social cues from body language and gestures. When working remotely, we're more reliant on electronic, written communication, such as email and IM. Given all these factors, the risk for miscommunication and misunderstandings increases along with conflict.
  • Brand-new employees who are hired virtuallyandonboarded virtually don't have as many opportunities to become introduced to and well acquainted with the workplace culture. Over the long term, this can translate into lower levels of engagement and higher levels of apathy.

Going forward, employers' big challenge will be keeping distributed workers connected and engaged, and maintaining a desirable workplace culture. How do you do that when your people rarely - if ever - see each other in person and may even occupy different time zones?

Virtual team building can help to address this dilemma.

Benefits of virtual team building

Regular team building is especially critical in virtual and dispersed work environments because:

  • It can counteract those feelings of disconnectedness, isolation, apathy and lack of engagement that can otherwise flourish among employees who work alone at home or from far away from everyone else.
  • Virtual team building helps employees practice important skills for remote work (e.g., creativity, critical thinking and thoughtful communication).
  • The more people are familiar with and understand each other, the less likely misunderstandings will occur via technologies supporting remote work.
  • It's also an opportunity to regularly reinforce the workplace culture you want to foster.

Guidelines for virtual team building

Team building refers to company-planned and hosted activities that encourage employees to bond and, ultimately, work well together and each feel more valued. It's part of the roadmap for creating a cohesive, successful team.

Team-building activities shouldn't be:

  • Overly lengthy
  • Complicated
  • Costly
  • Cringe-worthy (Past embarrassments are a reason why many employees groan at the thought of team building.)

Instead, these activities should be:

  • Shorter in duration
  • Simple
  • Inexpensive (or better yet, free)
  • Fun

When implemented with these criteria in mind, team building can introduce levity into the workplace and enable co-workers to get to know each other beyond workplace personas. The idea is that they'll see each other more as complete humans - not just someone who comes to work for eight hours per day or a face that appears occasionally on a computer screen. They'll be seen for their own unique interests, talents and non-work obligations. In other words, the experience can humanize team members.

Traditional, in-person team building typically has taken place at offices during the work day or at company retreats. Although planning and implementing team-building activities in virtual work environments may require some added creativity, these activities can be equally fun, simple and economical. At least in terms of simplicity and low cost, virtual team building can be even more beneficial than the in-person version.

And, thanks to technology, one need not be restricted to cultivating relationships once a quarter or year. In fact, the same technology that helps connect everyone to collaborate can be used to foster professional collegiality.

7 meaningful ideas for continuous virtual team building

1. Leverage technology.

If your company has embraced remote work, your teams likely have already been videoconferencing. This is essential for enabling colleagues to see each other face to face.

Videoconferencing certainly isn't the only technology you can harness to reduce the perception of distance between people. Also consider using:

  • Technology platforms (e.g. Slack, Microsoft Teams) through which people can post messages, chat and share pictures, for example
  • Social media (e.g., private Facebook chat groups or similar)
  • IM

These additional options promote more frequent, direct communication between individuals, and can help to recreate some of the spontaneous or more relaxed conversations that people would have in the office.

2. Schedule regular virtual meetings.

It's one thing to videoconference at all, and it's another thing to commit to doing it regularly. If you want your teams to feel a real sense of camaraderie and familiarity, scheduling meetings at least once per week is optimal. This includes both:

  • Team meetings
  • One-on-one meetings with direct reports

Allot time in each meeting for small talk and personal discussion, during which employees can talk about what's going on with them either at work - including how they may need support - or outside work.

When scheduling these meetings, be courteous of employees in different time zones. For example, if you're located on the U.S. East Coast and have employees on the West Coast, don't schedule a meeting for 8 a.m. - that's 5 a.m. their time.

To accommodate employees located in areas in which there's a significant time difference, consider scheduling some meetings during your "off times" - within reason - to better align with their schedules. For example, schedule a meeting at 7 a.m. local time so that an employee in Western Europe can participate in the late afternoon, before they stop working for the day.

Perhaps you can even rotate schedules so that, at other times, the distant employee participates in calls during their evening hours and more local employees don't have such an early morning on a regular basis.

3. Take personal quizzes and share the results.

An essential component of teamwork training is understanding where other people are coming from, and how that impacts their working and communication styles.

Why not have your team take a personality quiz, such as the popular DISC assessment, and share their results with each other over a video call? This has the benefit of:

  • Increasing self-awareness
  • Educating colleagues about each other
  • Enhancing empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ)
  • Decreasing the potential for conflict

4. Host virtual events.

Who says you can't throw events in a virtual environment? If you videoconference for work, you can also videoconference to socialize and strengthen relationships among colleagues.

Invite your team to gather virtually for lunch or happy hour - whatever is appropriate for their time zone.

During these events, you could ask employees to share a few photos of their favorite memories or major life events over the last year to discuss with the group. Or, you can play some fun games (more details coming up next). Have a bigger budget to play with? Try coffee or chocolate tasting sessions.

5. Play games.

The possibilities here are endless, but the goal is the same: To have fun and share a laugh and friendly competition with colleagues while learning about each other.

Game ideas:

  • Online bingo
  • Online escape rooms
  • Getting to know each other games"; for example:
    • "This or That", during which employees answer a series of questions about their personal preferences and can talk a bit more about themselves, such as:
    • Kahoot, which is an app in which game administrators can pick a few categories (ex., favorite vacation destination or pets' names), employees create their own questions and answers, and then their colleagues have to guess the correct answers

6. Establish virtual mentor-mentee pairings or virtual work buddies.

Mentorship programs can exist in virtual spaces, too. Similarly to how entire teams and managers and direct reports meet regularly, mentors and mentees should also videoconference on a regular basis to check in and give mentees an opportunity to ask questions or obtain coaching.

If a remote employee is new to the organization or has recently changed roles or teams, it can also be helpful for their manager to assign them to a workplace buddy. This person can help to facilitate their transition, answer questions and just serve as a familiar face.

Having either of these relationships can help to enhance a remote employee's connection to a company and increase their engagement.

7. Move employee resource, or affinity, groups online.

Employee resource groups and employee affinity groups can be a great opportunity for remote employees to get involved with an organization and establish connections with people who share their life circumstances, interests or hobbies.

For example, employees who are former veterans or who are interested in supporting veterans in the workplace could videoconference regularly to discuss those issues and share ideas.

Or, employees who enjoy reading or movies could form virtual book and movie clubs. Similarly, employees who are interested in fitness and personal well-being could create virtual groups focused on those topics - and even create virtual challenges.

Perhaps other employees may want to focus on charitable endeavors within their communities, and could focus their virtual meetings on volunteer challenges and fundraising.

Summing it all up

When it comes to creating a cohesive team and a desirable workplace culture, nothing can truly replace face-to-face, in-person interaction. However, the reality of the modern workplace is that remote work is likely here to stay. And it's opened up other, beneficial possibilities for companies, including the opportunity to hire talent outside their geographic area.

Keeping these remote teams, and especially faraway workers in other time zones, connected and engaged is the main challenge for remote work. Virtual team building is essential in addressing this challenge. These activities can be quick, simple, fun and inexpensive, but they should also be meaningful for individuals, teams and the company as a whole. Ideally after a virtual team-building exercise, each employee needs to feel valued, included and understood, and they should also feel a sense of familiarity, understanding and camaraderie with their colleagues.

Have you considered how a professional employer organization (PEO) might help your growing, dispersed company to maximize your talent and team cohesiveness? Download our free e-book: HR outsourcing: An essential guide for middle market businesses.