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Hired new workers without meeting them in person? Our latest post will show you how to turn these workers into a strong team.
Building great teams is hard enough, but what if you had to build teams with people you’ve never even met?
In the post-pandemic era, businesses have been increasingly forced to find answers to this question. As remote-first becomes the norm, you’ll inevitably have some hires who you’ve never met in person.
This new challenge turns the entire team-building experience on its head. There are no in-person team-building exercises, no casual hallway chats, no post-work football and beer sessions.
In such an environment, building strong teams requires a much more hands-on approach. You’ll need to tweak your team-building tactics, alter your communication strategies, and even change your company culture.
In this post, I’ll explore this challenge in more detail. You’ll learn:
- How to change your communication strategy for virtual teams
- The key leadership qualities of virtual team leaders
- How to create a stronger sense of “presence”
1. Fix your video calling infrastructure
Connecting with people over video calls is tough, but it’s far tougher when you have to do it through grainy video and choppy audio.
I see so many otherwise strong teams fail to connect with each other simply because they don't have the right tools and equipment. One team member might have a bad mic (or worse - no mic!). Another might have awful lighting that makes it impossible to detect non-verbal cues. Often, the team itself is using outdated video conference tools.
Before you can fix your team-building strategy, you need to fix your core video infrastructure.
This includes, but is not limited to:
- Better video conference software
- Higher quality video cameras and microphones
- Dedicated lighting
- Faster WiFi
- Educating your team about setting up their work environment for video calls
I can’t stress the last part enough - small things such as changing room lighting or placing the camera at eye level can have a marked difference in how well people connect with each other.
Placing the camera at eye-level makes you appear more approachable (Image source: Checklist.video)
For instance, research shows that when the camera only frames the face, it leaves out a lot of non-verbal communication such as hand gestures. Simple tactics such as changing the way your team positions their cameras can have a marked difference in your virtual communication.
2. Communicate obsessively
Is there anything such as “overcommunication”?
Not when it comes to building remote teams.
At the start of any remote relationship building, it’s crucial that you err on the side of over-communication than under-communication. You want this communication to follow the rule of Four Cs, that is:
- Cadence: All communication should follow a regular cadence. If you have a weekly check-in call, make sure that you do it every week. If there’s a daily standup, it must happen daily. Team members should have the normalcy of routine to moor themselves within the virtual workspace.
- Clarity: You can’t really hop over to the next cubicle to clarify something in a virtual team. Make sure that your communication focuses on clarity above everything else. Ask whether team members understand your instructions, then double check to confirm.
- Comprehensiveness: If you’re working from home, life will often get in the way of work. Jumping in for a quick call just to ask a question requires way too much micromanagement and distracts people from their jobs. This is why your goal should be to communicate comprehensively. Send fewer messages, but make sure that every message is comprehensive. Include everything that you or your colleague might need to know so your team doesn’t have to be glued to their screens all day.
- Casualness: A team that focuses only on strict, work-focused communication is a team that will never build true relationships. You need to balance the work-focused chats with casual conversations. Don’t be afraid to hold a chat for a few minutes longer if the conversation is flowing smoothly. A certain degree of casualness and levity will go a long way towards making new team members feel at ease.
This remote-first communication can take some time to get used to. If your team is accustomed to hopping over for a quick chat, the virtual equivalent of it can (or rather, the absence thereof) can be jarring.
You have to strike a balance between relationship building and actually getting work done. Long casual chats are great for the former but can be productivity blackholes. Similarly, virtual teams that only talk about work get boring very quickly.
If you’re building a team with people you’ve never met, you have to help them get along - without impacting their productivity. The rule of the Four Cs is a good place to start.
3. Create a sense of virtual ‘presence’
In social psychology, there is a principle called the ‘Proximity principle’. This essentially means that people tend to form relationships with those they see around them.
In real-world offices, teams often build strong relationships simply by being around each other. You see your colleagues in the office, in the cafeteria, in the rec room, etc. You can have accidental meetings and casual conversations simply by being around each other.
In the virtual world, this presence is a lot harder to come by. You meet your colleagues only when you need something from them. And even then, your “presence” is limited to a small window on their monitor.
If you want to build stronger teams, you have to create a stronger sense of virtual presence. Team members should know that their colleagues are right there with them. If they need to, they can hop over for a quick chat. Perhaps they can even gather around a virtual watercooler to talk about last night’s game.
For instance, Microsoft Teams creates virtual spaces to give team members a sense that they’re sharing the same room.
Facebook went a step further and created an entire virtual workspace in VR.
While this might be a more extreme example, it shows the importance of presence. Something as simple as keeping your video on as you work on a specific day (say, Video Fridays instead of Casual Fridays) can help teams bond with each other better.
4. Create a dashboard for every team member
In the real world, information asymmetry is usually easy to reconcile. If you don’t know something, you can just ask about it the next time you see your colleague at the watercooler. Office gossip, for better or for worse, ensures that important information usually finds its way to everyone.
In virtual teams, this information asymmetry can lead to chaos, confusion, and strained relationships. A colleague who forgets to forward an important email or accidentally withholds vital information can jeopardize projects and careers.
This is why if you’re building a team with people you’ve never met, you must make your information as transparent as possible.
Every team member should know at a glance:
- What they’re supposed to be currently doing
- What they should prepare to do next
- What other tasks, projects, and deliverables are coming through the pipeline
For instance, the Workamajig ‘Today’ dashboard shows creatives exactly what they are supposed to work on.
While this transparency is obviously good for productivity, it also removes uncertainty and lack of accountability. Since everyone has the same information, there is no way to withhold information, play favorites, or engage in any sort of office politics.
Keep in mind that team members who’ve worked together in-person in the past will naturally have a stronger camaraderie than new, virtual-only team members. It’s common for these new members to feel out of place or even insecure about their place in the team.
By creating a transparent work dashboard, you ensure that everyone is on the same page. For mixed teams, this transparency can create a more equal, comfortable work environment.
5. Don’t skip team-building activities
When you think of “team-building”, you usually think of formal events with tasks and competitions.
That, of course, is hard to pull off virtually.
But that doesn’t mean you have to abandon team-building activities altogether. For new teams (and new team members), a shared activity is often the easiest way to break the ice and cultivate relationships.
The nature of these activities has to be different - obviously. They have to be more impromptu and informal. They also have to be scheduled carefully since your team might be spread across time zones.
Try replacing real-world competitions with eSports. Give virtual improv a shot. Go “out” for a virtual happy hour. Play “guess the desktop”. Try personal quizzes as an icebreaker. And so on.
Refer to this guide for a more comprehensive list of virtual team-building activities you can try today.
6. Show clear leadership
Leading a remote-only team requires exemplary management, communication, and leadership. Team members who have never met each other can easily fall into a pattern of work-only conversations. Not only does this stifle productivity and collaboration, but it can also lead to fatigue and loneliness.
As the leader, you have to step forth and cultivate relationships. You will have to push, prod, and cajole people into getting to know each other (especially the group introverts!). You will often have to go beyond your management duties and be a friend and confidant to team members living alone.
While the recipe book for virtual team leadership is still being written, the old leadership maxims still apply, namely:
- Be an active, close listener. Your team members will often drop hints if they’re feeling unmotivated, lonely, or insecure.
- Treat everyone the same. It’s natural to be more friendly with team members you’ve actually shared an office with, but it can make your new hires insecure. Always treat everyone the same - regardless of your prior relationships.
- Be accessible. This might even mean being up at odd hours if your team is spread across time zones. For new team members, knowing that there is someone who can guide them through the chaos is a huge source of confidence.
- Stick to the script. Working from home can quickly become unstructured and chaotic. It’s your job to bring order and structure to your team’s work. Have fixed schedules for meetings. Use the same communication platforms consistently. If there are any “office rituals”, make sure to follow them. These might not seem important, but they give your team some order - a scarce quantity for remote workers.
Over to you
Building a virtual, remote-first team is always a challenge. When the team members haven’t even met each other, you have your work cut for you.
Follow these six tips to help bring your virtual team on the same page. By combining these tactics with an agency-first project management system like Workamajig, you’ll ensure that your virtual teams thrive for years.
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