Article: How important is team building for virtual employees?

By Sudeshna Basu Roy, Co-Founder, Marg

Successful organization helps their leaders and managers develop a focus on team dynamics that gets embedded into their daily work. While our work is getting increasingly project-driven and departments’ deliverables depend on team performance, ensuring that a team is working smoothly has become critical. Recruitment process now includes more personality tests to ensure that individuals can fit/improve the “team chemistry”.



So, what is the team dynamic that organisations look for? The (continuing) success of Patrick Lencioni’s Five dysfunctions of a team reveals how difficult it is for a manager to create the right balance between people and create a resilient team culture that can meet and beat the challenges thrown at it.

Managers often are parachuted into teams that already have their own culture, deal with attrition, hire new talent, and still try to keep team spirits high. Traditionally, there is where a beleaguered manager turns to HR and asks for a team-building program.

When asked specifically the Manager and HR colleagues would acknowledge the challenges that the team has and start with “trust-building.” If the team has already progressed down that road, then a broader canvas of “Team Building” would be brought-in. With the admirable and much-needed aim of allowing people to relax and “be themselves” (through games) and in the process, develop relations (vs. being transactional at the work-place). Over the years, the team building interventions have matured to exploring how to build “high performance teams”.



Building a team identity, developing/identifying norms in the team, articulating a team culture

Understanding which level the team is at i.e. forming, storming, norming or performing

Teams, or Managers, articulating “pain points” to be addressed which may be performance oriented (like for example, improving problem solving, ability to brainstorm and arrive at the way-ahead, ideation, innovation) or not-so-obvious behavioural aspects(like for example, inter personal relation, subtle conflicts, trust issues, not sharing information, keeping individual targets above team goals.)

Similarly, the team-building activities themselves are evolving with a greater focus on what can be brought-back to the workplace.

Expectation of the activities designed for team building to be enjoyable but the debrief being facilitated towards resonating with the situation back at workplace- and leading to an energetic problem solving discussion.

Teams are looking for experiences that they have not encountered before and facilitators ensure that the lesson-learnt (and not the game itself) drives the discussion

Discussions are real enough, to lead into concrete action.

The facilitators are expected to think and design simulations and activities around the above so that the team bonds better and moves on to the next level of performance.

There are some unstated assumptions in the above. Such as,

The manager knows and understands (or seeks to understand) her team and the team dynamic

The team understands each other as professionals in respective roles (vs. transactional owners of tasks/job responsibilities)

The team is seeing team-building as an on-going evolving activity

Team building is not relegated to such interventions alone

So far, so good.

Now let us say the manager has had a change in her role and is now leading a virtual team. Do any of the above change?

Yes – almost all of it!

In a virtual team the manager frequently may not know (until told) what is a team-members’ attitude, work-ethic, or cultural orientation. The team would naturally be diverse, may not have worked together before, and are looking at the “virtual-team” exclusively in terms of outcomes to be delivered. The team’s identity, to start with, may only be to the extent of sharing a manager.

Virtual teams are today’s reality. Project teams situated across different countries of the globe having interdependencies, individuals of a team working from home, sales teams located in remote areas, experts sitting across various functions or even companies coming together for mutual benefit, are all situations very common across all types of organizations.
So, what changes? The maturity level of these individuals is expected to be higher to work cohesively, get information at the right time, be self-driven and meet deliverables without follow-up. Essentially, we expect everything of a “high performance team” in them – without giving them the benefit of face-to face interaction. We ask such teams to demonstrate mutual trust and respect –when they may not have seen or worked together for any length of time.

While these are not impossible asks, it is a recipe for a transactional team culture where team members form opinions of each other based on outcomes alone. Effort, intentions, and conflicting priorities are seen as “excuses” to justify poor performance. More important, team members feel shared agenda and shared objectives as being onerous vs. being assigned tasks that can be accomplished alone.



What are some things that virtual teams (and their managers) can do–to start with?

Create Communication Channels: The fundamental connection between people is lost when the team is virtual. What a team laughs at, sneers at, gets shocked at, needs explanations for, disagrees with or congratulates each other for are all things that drive team chemistry. It’s also these reactions (from both formal and informal conversations) that offer a manager an opportunity to develop a team culture. Technology improvement in the form of conference calls, video calls, emails, IMs makes information sharing and “being in touch” much easier but depend on how these tools re used. Managers sometimes use mechanisms setting up a specific time in a day to “chat on informal topics “as a regular practice, forums to share knowledge and information and keeping all posted of all developments how big or small, etc. etc.

Personalise the relations: Remote member tend to get alienated or isolated and feel lonely especially during stressful situations. So the virtual teams should have ways and means in the normal course of work to share personal updates such as a daily huddle, team meetings having a section on personal updates, end-of-the-week live chat on weekend plans, keeping the photographs of the team members in shared virtual workspaces, have skype / video calls frequently etc.

Virtual teams cannot afford to wait for a structured team building exercise to address issues. They should be structured as to have platforms where they can share formal and informal updates, be more vocal about problems so that the team can feel the bonding and enable the remote workforce to feel that they belong. The emotional attachment, sharing of information, building platforms for mandatory meetings and “virtual coffee breaks” can be very effective and build a strong well-bonded team who can do without a structured team building.

Managers should try and assign joint tasks (esp. where they can leverage one team member’s interest with another’s learning need) and emphasise shared agenda and priorities frequently. Symbolism is very powerful for such teams – esp in terms of team logos, clothing that has the team names on them, recognitions being announced in the respective locations that the teams are in (that cements the team members with their virtual teams).

Managers who have instituted such practices must look to opportunities such as an offsite or team gatherings with a lot of planning and an approach that merges team-building games with the creation of team priorities. For virtual teams, it is critical that the team “plays” together and sees and hears each other in their “natural” selves. The team-games would provide the energy the team would later associate with the decisions jointly taken.

Managers should tee-up such gatherings with distributed responsibilities for the success of the event, ensuring that each stage has a “fun” element that leads to the actual topic. For example, developing priorities for the next year can be led by a role-play of a Investment contest – where each team member raises a priority and a judge-panel (that has three other team members playing stakeholder-employee-customer)decides on whether they would “invest” into that priority.

Team-building for virtual-teams is in many ways as much a continuous effort as in “local” teams. Understanding that people communicate best when the relation is built on trust, and that mutual trust is a stepping-stone to all other team-development goals is critical for both teams. The challenges are however different. Virtual teams, are teams only in the eyes of the organisation and the manager – till the team accepts a team-identity. Managers of virtual teams need to build the team from scratch and this requires a higher effort and awareness on their part.

Team building for virtual teams is continuous and on-going process – one that no Manager can take for granted. 

Sudeshna Basu Roy, Co-Founder, Marg









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