Global Integration

Team spirit in a virtual world

For many people, working from home or virtually with colleagues from other locations and countries, has become the norm.

Today we may rarely meet people we work with and remote workers can experience a feeling of isolation and lack of community. Companies often respond by increasing the number of conference calls and other forms of communication, but these rarely solve the problem and usually place a burden on the individual and get in the way of their productivity.

There are things we can do to build team spirit, for example making time for community events and relationship building on the rare occasions when we do get face-to-face, rather than spend the whole time looking at PowerPoint presentations which could be e-mailed instead.

Even when we are working remotely we need to remember to give recognition and celebrate success. A few years ago I was working with a global team of Webmasters who invited me to their project-end celebration. We all dialled up to an online karaoke site and sang along on our headsets. It sounds a bit cheesy, but it was actually fun and a lot better than just a dry “thank you” e-mail.

Building team spirit used to be a free by-product of proximity. Because we were on the same site it was easy and inexpensive to get to know people over coffee and dinner, we could meet up in the evenings and arrange fun activities. It was normal and we developed quite close friendships with the people we worked with. As a result we came to expect that our sense of belonging and community would come from the same people that we worked with.

Today that may not be realistic, or it may be too expensive for us to deliver. I bring my own global team together twice a year, and each time it costs me $100,000. I always make sure to build in some community time to rebuild our sense of belonging because that is one of the hardest things to do remotely. Many of the global teams I work with never meet face-to-face.

The increasing diversity of teams can also present a challenge. Research shows that people tend to form relationships more quickly with people who are most like them. An increasing variety of cultures, functions and other forms of diversity in our teams can make identifying common interests and relationship building more complex – though not, of course, impossible.

One interesting counterpoint to this is that it appears that communicating through technology can “level the playing field” in diverse teams by taking away some of the cues to our differences and providing common opportunities to contribute.

People do want and need a sense of team spirit, but we may need to separate this from our team structures. Perhaps community needs more to be based on location as activity becomes more global and remote. We shouldn’t set up teams just because they feel good, but because they’re the right way to get the work done.

When I started my own business and began to work from home I felt the loss of the community I enjoyed when I worked for a large company, but I found instead that I started to get to know people in my neighbourhood. Perhaps organisations should focus more on site community building than on trying to create that same feeling in a distributed virtual team.

Social media gives us another opportunity to create regular, non-work interactions with our colleagues. It’s not as deep as meeting for drinks after work, but the regular drip feed of insights into our colleagues’ hobbies, families and other interests can be a great way of keeping in touch and creating a regular connection.

I meet a lot of managers who are working very hard to create team spirit in a virtual world and being self-critical when it doesn’t feel the same as it did when we were all face-to-face. As we have seen there are things we can do to help build a sense of community, but we also need to recalibrate our expectations about what is “good enough” particularly if we have a limited travel and team building budget.

Kevan Hall is CEO of Global Integration, specialists in virtual, matrix and global working.

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