(co-authored with Kashay Sanders)
People often ask us about how to build high quality connections in virtual teams. These kinds of teams are becoming more and more a reality in today’s workplace. Some people estimate that close to 80% of today’s workers are engaged in dispersed teams of some kind. Further, a 2019 analysis of U.S Census data found that non-self-employed remote work has grown by over 150% since 2005. Firms like distributed teams because they are often lower cost and can provide access to better talent located anywhere. Workers like virtual teams as they can mean greater flexibility in when and where someone works and opportunities to be connected to work colleagues any place in the world.
While virtual teams offer advantages, they also pose challenges in communicating, coordinating and collaborating in ways that generate sustained performance. Intentionally building and renewing high quality connections between team members can prevent and remedy some of these challenges. In order to understand why HQCs could be an effective intervention for what virtual teams face, it is important to consider “Virtual Distance." Virtual distance is, “ a sense of psychological and emotional detachment that begins to grow little by little...when most encounters...are mediated by screens on smart devices.”
The academic who coined the term, Karen Sobel-Lojeski, found striking evidence that when virtual distance is high, trust, innovative behaviors, and role clarity go down by 75-80% on teams. The question then becomes: how can we cultivate HQCs on remote teams to overcome the hurdle posed by virtual distance?
Here are five suggestions that work to build up the quality of connections, while making the destruction of connection quality less likely in remote teams.
1. Get Personal! Foster more in depth knowledge sharing between team members early on during team formation. Then continue to build in opportunities for team members to disclose personal information that they would like to share. There are many ways to do this. For example Zappos (the online shoe and clothing company) encourages team members to give virtual tours of their workspaces as a means of giving people more details about their teammates’ worlds. Many teams use the first five minutes or so of a team meeting to have everyone share a celebration or appreciation which seeds the rest of the meeting with more knowledge about something meaningful for each team member. Greater levels of personal knowledge builds trust and respect, each of which contribute to higher quality connections.
2. Appreciate Each Other’s Strengths. We know that strengths knowledge and strengths use at work contributes to engagement and more prosocial or helping behavior. Knowing a virtual team member’s strengths can facilitate the allocation and reallocation of tasks. At the same time, strengths knowledge contributes to the appreciation and respect for each team members’ actual and potential contributions to the team. Jill Drury, who is a clinical scientist working in pharma and team leader of a virtual team of health system liaisons uses the time when her team in personally face to face to build strength knowledge about each other. One concrete example of her practice involved asking team members to each list a single word that captured one observed strength for each team member. These one word strengths were then displayed on a white board and shared. The process of sharing and recording the strengths provided a visual affirmation of each member. According to Jill, when rough spots happened in subsequent conversations between team members, knowledge and appreciation of each others’ strengths helped people give each other the benefit of the doubt, leading to more mutual understanding.
3. Clarify the Rules of Engagement, Establishing clear expectations helps to reduce the possibility of disrespect or trust violations each of which can damage the quality of connections. It is wise for a team to develop a shared engagement contract that establishes baseline assumptions such as timeliness of the connecting calls, agenda sharing, guidelines about multi-tasking, asking questions, providing feedback, etc.
4. Start Strong: First moments matter. Help your virtual team members feel that they are appreciated as soon as they start, so the expectations of community and connection are set from Day 1 and so that they feel recognized as a valued member of the team. Some practices on this front include:
a. Assigning an on-boarding buddy who can be their go-to person for questions they don’t want to “bother” their manager with.
b. Providing them with a “who’s who” list of team members they should engage with to help them ramp up.
c. Taking time to randomly check-in outside of scheduled meetings to say hello, express empathy, and encourage them.
5. Enforce Inclusive Practices: There are ways to help virtual teammates feel like they aren’t forgotten during team gatherings. For instance, simply knowing and planning around a colleague’s time zone is a small, but thoughtful gesture. Or, ensuring that in a meeting where there are both in-person and virtual attendees, virtual attendees are asked to share their opinion often so they feel part of the discussion.
Ultimately, we are evolving into a work culture where there is a growing awareness that the best talent for the job may live a city, a state or an ocean away from a company’s headquarters. To fully activate the genius our planet has to offer, it is incumbent upon us to not only tolerate remote work, but elevate our standards for just how energizing, collaborative, and effective remote work can be. Fostering environments conducive to building high quality connections is a strong step in the right direction.