One of the most important reasons virtual teams struggle to connect with each other is seldom spoken about. True, information can fly at the speed of electrons. If people are honest and proactive you can learn about each other's strengths and talents. The problem is that it can seem awfully transactional and not a lot of fun. And this matters.
Fun is not to be underrated. It helps set our mood and our attitude. It relaxes us. It creates social bonds that have long-term implications for how the team works together over time. So why do people who are the life of the party in real life, sometimes come across as dull and uninteresting when communicating over distance, especially through technology? Here are some of the reasons and how to over come them:
1. We focus too much on "not wasting time". Most virtual teams are made up of busy people who are squeezing meetings in between their other tasks (often referred to as their "real work"). As a result, the meetings tend to be very tightly scripted and focus only on those tasks deemed most important. This makes a kind of gut sense, but can actually be counterproductive. When people are relaxed and actually enjoying themselves they are actually able to think more clearly. Without letting time slip away completely, lighten up a bit.
2. We don't know each other well enough to kid around. Having misspent much of my youth as a professional comedian, I can tell you that humor is a highly subjective, individual thing. It tells you a lot about both the person making the joke and the person who responds to it. Because it is so intimate, however, people are often reluctant to expose that part of themselves to people they don't know.
Online it's even worse. We can't see people try to hide their grins, or roll their eyes playfully. It often comes across as stunned silence on the end of the line. Help your team get to know each other. When you show pictures of each other in profiles or in meetings, don't use formal business pictures use (tasteful, non-incriminating) candid photos. Mix it up. And don't shut down someone who makes a joke just in the interest of time.
3. We're so stressed out by technology we aren't physically capable of relaxing. If you aren't relaxed, you can't loosen up and concentrate on anything except getting whatever is stressing you over with as quickly as possible. If you're focused on getting it over with as quickly as possible, you won't have any fun, and the cycle goes on.
The best thing you can do is to become proficient with whatever tools you're going to use, use them until you become competent and you brain will relax enough for you to have some fun. You can also take the crazy step of having someone else handle the technical details of the meeting so that you are free to concentrate on leading the discussion and doing things like actually breathing during your presentation.
4. Fun doesn't have to be unprofessional. Again, because people don't know each other well, there is a tendency to be overly formal. This is because we want to be seen as professionals who are serious about their work and humor might be seen as a sign of immaturity, or a failure to take things seriously.
Certainly there are boundaries you don't want to cross—certain words you know you shouldn't use (your mother told you what they are), or subjects that might be potential landmines (ethnicity, culture, gender). Most of us in this day and age know the lines, and if someone crosses them, you gently coach them in private.
Having fun doesn't mean you're not good at your job. In fact, research shows that when you're doing your best work it is actually - dare we say - fun.
The tone of a team is set by its leader. Try loosening up a bit. You don't have to go crazy or suddenly turn into a comedian. Think of it as going from a 3-piece suit to Casual Friday. You'll find that the team actually becomes more productive, more eager to participate and less miserable. How is that a bad thing?