Telecommuting and working virtually across the country or even the globe are popular and often necessary today in many workplaces. You can use storytelling to reduce the distance among virtual team members. Story prompts and triggers can be useful in bringing out these stories. Here’s how:
Get to know each other. One way to do that is through a “check-in” at the beginning of a meeting. Give each member 30 to 60 seconds to tell a top-of-mind anecdote in the phone call, followed by the words, “I’m checked in.” You can also have members share a photo as a story trigger.
One leader who had team members worldwide ran a short slide show depicting photos from a family reunion prior to the start of a GoToMeeting conference call. As people signed on, they couldn’t help but comment on what they were watching and share stories about their own experiences. To strengthen personal connections, try these prompts: “Tell us about a recent outing you took. Tell us about a fun time that you recently had with friends or family. Tell us about the favorite part of your last vacation. Tell us about the most interesting thing that happened to you this last week.”
Go deep into topics. On the meeting agenda, include story prompts that people can reflect on in advance. These could be about some aspect of a project that everyone is working on, an issue that needs to be resolved, or something about increasing effectiveness as a team. Make sure everyone knows how important their work is to the end results — and make sure everyone knows how to listen to these stories when they are shared.
Stay connected between virtual meetings. Establish a group on Yammer or LinkedIn or Facebook or another company-approved site that allows team members to interact, share stories and photos about themselves, and coordinate work. Use Google+ Hangouts or other face-to-face technologies to swap stories and build relationships.
Acknowledge achievements. When celebrating birthdays and major life events and offering recognition and rewards for work well done, share a story related to these achievements. By promoting the team in this way, you’ll raise the level of team member motivation.
When your team does have the opportunity to gather together in person, make sure that everyone has a chance to share at least one story about them personally to strengthen relationships.
Why connecting in the workplace is important
According to the book Uniting the Virtual Workforce by Kren Sobel Lojeski and Richard R. Reilly (John Wiley & Sons, 2008) some virtual work environments can create highly dissatisfied employees and terrible morale due to virtual distance. Virtual distance is created when people rely way too much on electronic tools to communicate. When this happens, their research shows a 50 percent decline in finishing projects on time, a 90 percent drop in innovation, an 80 percent drop in work satisfaction, and an 83 percent drop-off in trust.
What creates these disastrous results? Simply put: the lack of connecting and communicating in ways that promote stable and trusted relationships.
What happens when businesspeople can connect
When companies focus on reducing virtual distance, Lojeski and Reilly demonstrated that results skyrocket: Innovation increased by 93 percent, trust improved by 83 percent, job satisfaction by 80 percent, clarity about roles by 62 percent, on time and budget performances by 50 percent, and helping behaviors by almost 50 percent. Now that’s a case for business storytelling!