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8 min read

How to Overcome 3 Key Virtual Team Building Challenges


While team building has its place - believe me, I am the first to volunteer for the ‘office Olympics’ - there are some shortcomings to traditional team building activities, particularly when they are translated to a largely virtual environment.

These challenges are quite serious to building effective, high-performing teams: and they are not limited to a single industry, company size, or level of team seniority. Rather, the challenges to team building today are very human characteristics that can be found in a variety of environments, but are underscored by working in a remote environment within a geographically dispersed team. The primary team building issues that are exacerbated by remote teams are:

  1. Increased psychological distance
  2. Loss of clarity
  3. Intensified fatigue

Each of these challenges has effects that can be felt throughout the team, and throughout the organization. Increased psychological distance can erode communication channels and social connections, leading to feelings of isolation. Loss of clarity and connection to the larger goals of the organization reinforces this isolation, and increases silo behavior. Finally, the loss of a reliable network to provide both business and social support causes increased fatigue among teams, leading to lost creativity and innovation.

1. Increased psychological distance

The Harvard Business Review recently noted that there are three different types of distance in remote collaboration: physical distance - the actual geographical distance in space and time; operational distance - changes to team bandwidth and skill levels; and affinity, or psychological distance - a perceived gap in values, trust or interdependencies.

Despite the Zoom calls and frequency of meetings, remote work has increased psychological distance in teams - leading to feelings of isolation from others, as well as causing difficulties communicating. A recent study found that two challenges were tied as the most difficult part of working from home: loneliness (20%) and difficulty communicating / collaborating (20%).

There is a business risk associated with increased psychological distance, as communication and connection are two critical factors for high-performing teams. Isolated team members are less likely to include others in decision-making, and the idea of relying on the team to complete projects, devise strategies, and support initiatives becomes less an assumption and more an exception. To help to reduce the negative impact of remote work on psychological distance of team members, consider:

Vulnerability matters

Leaders need to allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of their teams. While few people have mastered emotionally-intelligent virtual meetings, there has been some research around the idea that when a leader expresses vulnerability in a virtual meeting, it gives other members of the team permission to be vulnerable themselves - in a safe space, without judgement.

This vulnerability, demonstrated and supported by leaders, is then used to reinforce the connection between team members, and as a reminder that team members can be empathetic, provide support, and see one another through difficult times, regardless of location.

Structure more to empower more

see6 ran an experiment recently, during a virtual team simulation: one team was given total freedom in how they worked - video technology, chat messenger, AI systems.  The second team, on the other hand, was provided with much more structure throughout the simulation - more check-ins, frameworks, and tips and resources.  The results were significant and conclusive: the second team, with more structure in place, significantly outperformed the first team, achieving much better overall results and reporting greater engagement with the mission and with each other.

Unite teams with a shared challenge

Teams that are presented with a performance challenge requiring them to each contribute specific knowledge, skills or expertise come together in a special way.  The team goal should ideally be derived from a larger corporate goal: with the team tasked to make an advancement, change or innovation that will meet a specific goal, but also with visibility to how that will help the business as a whole meet larger, organizational goals.

2. Loss of clarity

A very real problem that remote teams face is a loss of clarity.  In the office, it is easy to have brief, informal chats to keep everyone updated to new information, and to do a temperature check to see how employees are feeling.   These unstructured conversations are crucial to help leaders achieve clarity together in an informal and iterative way - both providing necessary information to their teams, and getting information from their teams.  Informal, unstructured interactions become far more complicated in a virtual environment, where all communication must, by nature, be intentional. Without significant effort to create new channels of communication, and support for different types of communication (formal and informal), silos will emerge - presenting significant business risk.

Drive clarity of intent, focus on outcomes

Inertia, fatigue, and complacencies are the enemies of clarity (Zoom fatigue is real).  A drifting, meandering, pointless Zoom meeting will not accomplish the goal of replacing informal conversations to improve clarity - it will actually work against that goal, causing additional fatigue, confusion, and communication issues. However, if a concerted effort is made to stimulate conversations - incorporating rituals to consistently review intent and desired outcomes - focus can be improved, engagement ignited, and clarity improved. Feelings of inclusion will soar!

Set collective priorities and lead collective action against them

We have spent many years working with teams doing this in a room all together - achieving this virtually is extremely difficult.   Process is your friend here with strong facilitation to align on interdependencies and areas that need further discussion.

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Get your team interactions (meetings) right

Meetings must be short, in order to be effective.  A good guideline to follow is that if one individual speaks for more than 3 minutes without asking for input from the team, then something is wrong.  If a longer meeting is scheduled - for example, an hour-long meeting - consider a short 2-minute break every 15 mins, after which the team can reconvene.  This keeps all attendees engaged, and prevents the loss of attention that makes clarity in remote teams so difficult to achieve. This takes time to master, and for teams to become accustomed to: but if you can improve virtual interactions within your team and make meetings more effective, you can improve transparency, clarity and alignment and therefore, competitive advantage.

3. Intensified fatigue

While remote workers are generally more productive than their in-office counterparts, this productivity can increase chances of fatigue and burnout. After the coronavirus pandemic caused a massive shift to telecommuting for many businesses, job board Monster conducted a survey and found that more than half of respondents reported that they were experiencing burnout, but only 52% had planned to decompress or take a vacation.

Where is the recharge button?  An organization can plan for teams to experience fatigue, and create a strategy to inject energy back into them. This may include setting a new performance challenge, setting new goals, changing up the routine, and providing the team with new mountains to climb.

Inspire through curated experiences

Re-energize your team by creating a curated experience designed to increase engagement, and get the team to communicate and work together in new ways. The trick is to create a strong affective context for the experience, so that employees genuinely care about, and are invested in, the changes that can be initiated by a curated team experience.

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Keep setting the challenge

Again, complacency is the enemy of progress. Keep re-evaluating, testing, and improving with every new project, task, meeting, and phase of work, and use these as opportunities to keep setting the challenge to our teams.  Don’t make a list of priorities and forget about it - keep it top of mind, and consistently evaluate progress toward each goal, and re-prioritization as necessary.  What are the overall goals of the organization, and how will the team efforts help to reach them?  Challenge teams, and individuals to exceed that expectation - this will drive engagement with your teams.

Team building is changing, driven largely by the transition from in-office to remote work. Virtual teams may be more productive than others, but they are also prone to fatigue, communication breakdown, loss of clarity, and increased psychological distancing. To create, and maintain high-performing teams, it is important to present thoughtful, curated experiences to energize your team and focus their efforts on shared goals and objectives.

If you are interested in improving virtual team building at your organization, contact see6 today. Our simulations are fully customizable to help your organization improve team performance and communication, to reach your business goals and gain a competitive advantage.

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