When you feel bonded with a team, a part of your self-identity has merged with the collective identity of the team. The process of losing a little bit of your individuality and taking on a bit of the group identity is what underlies the passionate reactions of sports-team or pop-group fans. When you join a team and feel bonded to it, you care about the fortunes of the group, because your own fortune is tied up with it and you have an emotional connection with the group that matters to you.
In a virtual team, the fact that you don’t meet in person means you have to make more conscious effort to facilitate the process of creating a team identity and encouraging people to bond with it. You have to make those emotional connections via technology or phone calls, often at strange hours.
When a team has a strong bond they have a bias towards members of their own team; an “us” vs “them” mindset. The team is “us” (the in-group) and the team members are clear about “them” (the out-group). At one level, this bias has a healthy effect of keeping members of the team bonded together and loyal. A too strong “us vs them” bias spawns conflict, stereotyping of out-groups, silos and an inability to collaborate in a multi-team system.
Here are four tactics that you can use to build a strong team bond, even when the group is cross-functional and/or virtual.
Technology helps. Utilise ways to connect spontaneously and informally with each other, alongside the necessary scheduled meetings and project-related systems you use. Internal chat systems are helpful, but even better are social media platforms that allow you to share pictures and video with your team-mates. Using these platforms mirrors your natural social behavior, much as the coffee/drink/lunch with team-mates who are co-located does. Some organizations I know use Snapchat and Whatsapp for sharing travel plans and experiences. Some have created team challenges that are shared using Fitbit or Instagram with collaboration across different parts of the virtual team necessary to achieve the goals.
Team lingo emerging from informal communication technologies, where acronyms or nicknames or in-jokes abound, help to create shared identity. One team I know have styled themselves “The 51st State” as the only non-US based team in the business.
Use “We” and make sure when you say it that you mean the collective virtual team, not just your part of the team (i.e. “We, the global pricing team” not “We here at head office”).
Finally, while it’s true for all teams, it’s especially necessary in a virtual team to be clear about why you are a team; why you cannot achieve this without each other, what makes you interdependent and where the points of connection are most important. Make this part of your regular communication with each other, in team meetings and informally. Most people today are members or leaders of many teams so you need to make sure that they want to put this team first.
The next article in the series on virtual teams will look at how to motivate your virtual team and manage performance from a distance.
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