Building social capital in remote teams


Remote teams rely on trust forming a framework that allows communication to flow freely. What enables all that is something often called social capital. A working definition is, “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively”.

Why is social capital so vital to the workings of remote teams? How do we go about building it on purpose, rather than assuming it will build organically? Good questions, and for that we turn to someone much smarter than me.

Suzanne Edinger is an associate professor of Organisational Behaviour at Nottingham University Business School. In the second part of our interview, (you can see the first part here) she discusses the importance, and maintenance of working relationships.

We think of social capital as building up over time. How do you "kickstart" your team if it's just forming or you're just now taking over?

Research strongly suggests that an initial face-to-face meeting, or an annual one at minimum for long-term virtual teams, is vital to team success. Organizations often view this as an unnecessary expense, but their investment will be repaid several times over in efficiency and effectiveness.

When considering a face-to-face meeting, it is important to schedule social time into the agenda. Give team members time to get to know one another. Create opportunities for them to socialize outside of their project meeting time. The data shows that team members who are friends, and not just work colleagues, are more likely to share strong social capital ties.

Whenever possible, celebrate birthdays, team milestones, and company successes with get-togethers that help employees build relationships. Even if those are webmeetings are online. Just because a team is virtual doesn’t mean the members can’t socialize with one another. Organizations just need to be more creative in figuring out how to do it.

Many people avoid social interaction on virtual meetings in the interest of "saving time". How do you create positive relationship building while respecting people's time and attention?

Building on what I said above, social interaction is vital for virtual team success. Virtual meetings should be structured based on the norms of the organization. If a face-to-face meeting would typically begin with 5-10 minutes of discussion about the weekend’s football match, then the virtual meeting should be structured in the same way. Breaking the ice or laying common ground before a meeting is a bona fide strategy that has been shown to improve member’s engagement in meetings and the overall quality of the work the team eventually produces.

If organizational norms do not include small talk at the beginning of face-to-face meetings, then the virtual ones would typically follow the same model. In this case, time for social interaction will need to be found outside of regularly scheduled meeting time.

Social interaction plays an especially important role in culturally diverse teams. Many cultures see ‘getting down to business’ immediately, in the way that Americans or Brits typically do, as rude. The social niceties of small talk and personal conversation lay a foundation for trust-building that is necessary before work can really begin. Providing some cultural sensitivity training to teams with diverse memberships can help Western members better understand why avoiding social interaction is not, in fact, saving time.”

What Suzanne Edinger points out so clearly here is that these dynamics are always present in teams. When we’re co-located there is a lot of accidental, incidental, and tacit communication that helps form social bonds. When leading remote teams, these things must be done purposefully.

Of course, if we were to be more mindful of our in-person team dynamics, and build social capital with forethought rather than leaving it to fate, that wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

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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.