How to Create Connection and Community for Virtual Teams

By Tara Powers

Virtual teams can be a real boon for your business, but only if you’re serious about building and maintaining community and culture. As the following sections explain, you can accomplish this goal in a variety of ways using technology, setting expectations, and tracking engagement, satisfaction, and happiness levels of the people that work for you.

Personally check in with your virtual team leaders and members a few times per year to find out what’s going on with them, how they’re feeling, whether they’re happy with the work they’re doing, and how they believe their team adds value. You want to keep a pulse on how connected people feel to the overall organization.

Connect your virtual team to the larger organization

Here are a variety of ideas you can use to keep your virtual teams feeling connected to the larger organization:

  • Hold all-hands meetings. Use videoconferencing software, not audio, when having all-hands meetings where everyone participates. People need to see you and see others, especially if the team is global. Create opportunities for each location to provide feedback and ask questions if you have teams located in different offices. Provide time for each location to engage in some brainstorming while you’re having your all-hands meeting, and then have each location choose a spokesperson to share insights and ideas. Ask all virtual team members to report what they’re most excited about, have questions about, or if there is any recognition they want to mention for other team members.
  • Plan a company retreat. Even though costly, bringing everyone from your company together once a year for an in-person team building retreat can do more to build trust and open communication than you can imagine. I’ve facilitated many of these company retreats and can speak from experience that the relationships built during this time absolutely improve productivity and collaboration back at work. Face-to-face connection is valuable and makes a difference in building team camaraderie.
  • Set up a buddy system. Buddy people up located in different cities or countries. This idea worked fabulously when I built a mentoring program for a global scientific organization last year. We assigned everyone a mentor located in another part of the world after thoughtfully and specifically breaking down cultural barriers and helping team members understand the challenges and opportunities that people were facing in different areas of the company. It also helped people embrace the reality that even though the organization may be global, everyone was still one team, one company.
  • Encourage employee resource groups. Pinterest ran with this idea after looking at online employee boards where people were discussing and sharing common interests and hobbies. They used this information to create employee interest groups that have become a great way to develop culture and help people establish strong relationships through shared interests and things they care about.

Connect virtual team members to each other

Creating a connection culture on every team is an organizational and team goal important to virtual team success. You can support this at the team level by letting each team figure out what its connection activities look like. The team members need to own it if you want them to adopt it as a common practice.

Encourage leaders to focus on nurturing relationships and build opportunities for connection to naturally occur. Support recognition by providing a budget for team members to support, recognize, and reward one another. I suggest teams use virtual collaboration tools as often as possible to build personal relationships and set aside funds for teams to get together face to face at least once a year.

Another idea for keeping teams connected is to support team personalization. Examples include coming up with a fun team name, team motto, or a phrase that represents the team. Although a tad kitschy, these ideas instill a sense of belonging to something that’s personal to their team. They can help the team stand out in the company and create a true sense of camaraderie.

Fight isolationism on your virtual team

You want to fight isolation on your teams like the plague. The only way to do that successfully is to make engagement fun and interesting. Because virtual work can be lonely, your virtual workers need to know consistently that they’re valued, that you care about them, and that they’re an important part of the company.

Fighting isolationism certainly starts with the relationships that team members have with each other, the relationship they have with their manager, and the relationship they have with your organization.

Use these tips to keep isolationism at bay and be sure to train each of your virtual team leaders to do the same with their respective teams:

  • Establish frequent check-ins both personal and professional. Get to know them, who they are, and what they care about.
  • Use recognition and encouragement frequently when virtual team members are hitting the mark. This could be a simple as sharing a story of a team member’s contribution during your weekly team meeting video call or creating an appreciation blog space or award where team members can recognize each other on an ongoing basis.
  • Offer engagement incentives and make it fun. For example, the more they participate, engage, and reach out to their team to provide feedback, the more they get their names entered into a drawing for a weekend getaway.
  • Set up virtual interactive huddles. Like a sports team huddling on the sidelines during a game, your team members can do the same in the virtual world. During these interactive meetings, they can talk about weekly wins or lessons learned and everyone participates. You’ll need a video meeting and some collaborative tools to engage all team members.
  • Conduct home or remote office visits. If budget allows, team leaders can go out to lunch with their team members and spend some time getting to know each other on an individual basis.

Keep in mind that research studies have shown human beings need social interaction to maintain the highest levels of productivity. In a virtual environment, you have to work harder to create social interaction and make it a priority. If it isn’t a focus, team members will start to experience feelings of frustration and detachment, and engagement levels will quickly deteriorate, which means that results will soon suffer.

Don’t leave connection to chance and hope that teams will figure it out. Provide support, communication, training, clear expectations, and many opportunities for connection to occur. If you’re going to utilize virtual teams as a business model to grow your business, be sure to do it right.