The magic of team identity in virtual project teams

One ring to rule them all

In virtual teams the big questions is sometimes not ‘are we all rowing in the same direction?’, but  ‘do we even feel we are in the same boat?’.

Team identity means defining yourself as a team member (the mind), being committed to a team (the heart), and drawing self-esteem from the affiliation to that team (pride). The team that is spatially closest to us is most of the time the number one identification. Virtual teams members are dispersed over locations, maybe even countries, and have much more in common with the colleagues sitting next to them than with their virtual colleagues who are miles (and time zones) apart.

But it’s precisely because of these difficulties that having a strong team identity is even more important in virtual teams. Virtual teams that have a strong identity are better able to coordinate, perform and overcome conflicts, irrespective of how far apart the team members are or how difficult and complex the task is.

So how can you create and strengthen team identity in a virtual team?

  • Share (hi)stories and build on similarities
  • Share present realities (touch base regularly)
  • Good process and visibility management

1. Face-to-face interactions

Early encounters

Meet as soon as possible after the team was set up. Don’t be afraid to kick off with some ice-breakers that require people to reveal very personal information about themselves. Research confirms that the speed of building trust and feeling at ease is much higher once people share personal information. It’s the old trick of cognitive dissonance. People consider a total stranger who just disclosed a piece of very personal information as much more trustworthy than after the same amount of interaction on nondescript topics.

Periodic face-to-face meetings

No matter how tight the budget is, periodic team meeting will help you save in the long run. But resist the temptation to cram these meetings with work only. You need to create space and time to truly talk to each other and get to know each other. Being able to put a face to the name and a personal story to go along with it will go a long way in critical moments in the future when you want to reach for help or prevent a conflict from escalating.

Location, location, location

The majority of these encounters will either take place in the headquarters or – depending on budget – in a fancy or exotic location. Big mistake. Headquarters might be convenient but can also send a message of power disparity. A more neutral location on the other hand might be good to break the ice, but risks associating the warm interaction only with ‘out there’ and not with the nitty-gritty of daily life. Why not rotate with team members becoming host for each location? No better cultural awareness training. But more importantly, you get a real feeling of the location, the daily schedule, the work flow, the constraints, the facilities, the local organizational culture, and the people. Team members will get a better sense of each other and their lives outside of the teleconference meetings.

Wine them, dine them, charm them

Part and parcel of these encounters should be outside of the office. And what better way to loosen tongues and open hearts than sharing a good meal and a drink?

Critical moments

Nobody really wants to tackle a delicate conversation or escalating conflict head on, and it is so much easier to hide behind a screen. However, it might be worth considering a visit in person. In the long run it might save you money, and possibly a relationship. If in doubt: call. If the doubt persists: get in the car or board a plane.

2. Online socializing

Use the start of each virtual meeting for social relationship building

Take a few minutes to inquire after people’s families, hobbies, whether they made it to the end of the marathon,… All questions that would pop up naturally between people waiting in the same room to start a meeting. Why not online? Sharing ‘the peak of the week’ can seem forced at start, but people get in the game easier than one imagines. Within efficiency-driven cultures you could also introduce an unspoken norm of logging in 5-10 minutes earlier to chat.

Find your team’s own ‘daily interactions equivalents’

For example, a manager leading a team located in three different countries instituted the daily morning practice of sharing on a joint playlist your ‘song of the morning’. It’s not only a very cheerful way of touching base each morning and saying hello in a less traditional manner, but people could also easily express moods and states that otherwise you would not spontaneously disclose over chat.

Touch base

‘Crisis-calling’ (if the boss calls, it must be burning somewhere) is one of the most stressful managerial practices. Especially when your boss is far away. So do not e- mail or call your team members only to check on their progress, give them tasks or give bad news. Try to systematically take the time to touch base for no reason. Have an open conversation without an agenda, and just call to see how the person is doing and how things are going (while making clear that you don’t want a report). Just like you would occasionally pop in the office for a coffee on a Friday afternoon to chat for five minutes about the weekend ahead. It’s amazing what you can learn from such incidental conversations (even relevant work information that was considered not really worth sharing).

Use of social media (internal or external) boosts identity and performance

Shared virtual spaces like social media (Facebook, Pinterest etc.) or interest groups on Yammer during work hours are NOT a waste of time. They can build similarities between people which increases their identification with the team. Redundant communication has proven time and again to increase the adaptability of teams in moments of crisis. Because trust has been built people will be less prone to escalate a conflict or to play the blame game when a glitch comes along.

Play online games instead of teambuilding (if you really want to go all the way)

There are companies tailoring virtual teambuilding experiences that have the same effect as face-to-face teambuilding.

3. Rewards and visibility

Early wins

Nothing boosts the team morale and pride like some early wins, so organize the project in such a way. 

Virtual reward ceremonies

Even without formal authority or budget, there are so many ways to symbolically recognize achievements and reward behavior. Some companies have badge systems, but you could also introduce funny icons symbolizing achievements at the beginning of a meeting, or you could offer a virtual bottle of champagne or a round of applause. No matter how serious people are, we all like to play and joke at times.

Individual recognition at the start of each virtual meeting

It shows what truly matters for you as a leader. You can reward performance, behavior, daring experiments or any other behavior that you want to trademark in your team.

Make each team member’s ‘real location boss’ aware of the member’s contribution

Share how much they work, when the more laden moments come, what they achieved and how. Through their performance they enhance the good name of their department. Everyone wants to bask in shared glory…

Make your team visible in the organization and to relevant stakeholders

One of the easiest ways to enhance team identity is to capitalize on people’s pride. The more you will make your team and their progress visible to the organization and relevant stakeholders, the more you boost your project and make sure others don’t see it as a black box draining resources from the company, but as a valuable enterprise that everyone is proud to be a part of.

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