Building virtual teams when you can't get together

2011

Think of "team building" exercises and things like a week-long get together at a resort come to mind. But what about those teams that are scattered around the country or even the globe? Meeting in person just isn't an option. How do you help those folks build relationships, trust and find ways to come together to get work done?

John Chen knows a little about this challenge. He's the CEO and Big Kid of Geoteaming, which infuses corporate team building and leadership skills through technology and adventure. He says while activities like "ropes courses" and "geocaching" are terrific, they aren't always practical for budgetary or logistical reasons.

In an interview, he told us that what remains eternal about building teams and getting people to work together is more important than what's changed.

"All great team building starts with the foundations of communication and trust", he says. When you get together you have much more "bandwidth" (you see all the nuances of visual, verbal and vocal communication that are often lost in a simple email) and there's a lot of "bumping" (accidental and casual contact).

We're familiar with ropes courses and some of the classic teambuilding exercises…what can people do online to have that same experience?

PORTING: The easiest way is to take classic team building exercises and then port them to an online medium. These classics are there because they have been tried and true for many team building initiatives before and so they have the key properties needed for a successful team building event.

The first team building initiatives are team bonding. The easiest thing to do is for each person to introduce themselves and something unique, personal or work related about themselves. It's important for each team member to know who is on the team and what skills they have. You'd be amazed at the number of teams I see that don't know everybody on their team or find something new about their teammates.

SOLVING SOMETHING: The next team building initiative is for the group to solve a challenge. What's important here is that the challenge is solvable in a short amount of time and that you observe the team process while it's being solved. Initiatives as easy as trying to get a team to chat A-Z in order can get very complex depending on the team dynamics. The process of a team figuring out how to work with each other will give them the confidence to tackle harder and harder tasks.

  • Do test your technology with each participant before you rely on it to have a successful team building event.
  • Do make sure you practice giving clear goals and rules for your initiative.
  • Do plan for ANYTHING to happen and make sure you know how to facilitate something good out of it (even if something bad happens).
  • Do debrief at the end and get each person to commit to do something different from the team building event.
  • Do review and enforce the learnings on the next online teambuilding event or meeting, else you'll set a precedent that no one has to do what they said they will do.
  • Don't exclude anyone in the team building event. Make sure to call on those who haven't talked to check in on them.
  • Don't start late, in respect for those who arrive on time, start on time and make the late people catch up. You'll soon see that everyone will arrive on time or early.
  • Don't let your team building initiative fail! Like great web presenters, practice and have plan B's ready to make sure you can get learning from your team building.
  • Don't throw anyone under the bus. As a facilitator, you should wear a neutral hat and know that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. Instead be curious, ask questions and find value in what everyone is doing.
  • Don't lecture them during the whole time and don't try to lead them to solve the problem.

Team building is about turning control over to your team and observing what they do. It may be hard if you're a problem solver to sit on your hands and not enable them, BUT remember your goals is find out how they work as a team, something without you.

Of course, what John doesn't mention is that some things are just better when you get together. For one thing, virtual cocktail hour is just kind of sad. Still, we have to work with what we have.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.