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26 jul

Psych! Making the people in your virtual teams feel like they belong

As I discussed in a previous article, a strong team identity is a huge part of helping to bring your virtual team together. When people feel like they belong, they’re happier. But how do you create that sense of kinship across distance? In this post, I’ll delve into that idea in a bit more detail.

 

Belonging

Belonging is a fundamental human need. Back in 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a pyramid model for the hierarchy of needs which is still widely used in motivational psychology today. At the base of the pyramid are physiological needs; food, water, rest. Next up are safety needs like shelter and security. The third most fundamental category to human happiness? Belonging.

So, after a person has the fundamentals of life; air, water, food and shelter, the very next thing they need is to belong. That’s why your telecommuters’ engagement, happiness and motivation – their well being, depends on them feeling that they are a part of something.

If you ask a psychologist to tell you how to create a sense of belonging, they’ll talk about how it takes effort and practice. They’ll advise looking for the things you have in common with other people, and avoid thinking about the differences. But how do you get your virtual team to do these things when they’re split across different sites?

 

Something to belong to…

You don’t need to be a genius to create a team identity. Many of the techniques involved in doing so are the same as you would use for colleagues who share an office, but for others you need to add a definite virtual twist to achieve the same result. Here are some suggestions:

Presence

Because so much of communication is nonverbal, the intended meaning of a message can get lost when you’re communicating in text. I’m sure you’ve all had experiences where something you said was read the wrong way by the receiver, and that sort of misunderstanding can be a minefield for the virtual team where language and cultural differences come into play.

It’s important for you to create an online persona – finding a way to express your personality via text message or email. This will enhance your authority and help your remote team relate to their virtual project manager as an individual, not just as a job title or screen name.

This takes a bit of thought and planning. Consider what you want to express and what tactics you might use to do that; for example, the best manager I ever had was highly organized and proactive. I could be sure that he would pop over to my desk regularly to check how my work was coming on, especially if a deadline was approaching. On top of the qualities I’ve already described, that made me feel like he cared, that he was on my side.

If he’s a virtual project manager now, I expect he pops up on Skype regularly to check in with his team.

Team Vision

Although the task that you’ve been given has probably been handed down from the powers that be, the way your virtual team chooses to approach it, and what values they hold will be unique. It’s important to get your remote working policies right. Use one of the social media solutions available for remote workers, and let your team brainstorm their way to a shared vision of what their virtual team represents.

Processes

The next step from deciding what you do, is how you do it. This is a great opportunity to let members share their skills and experience, so you know who your go-to-gal is for that one thing that only they can do.

There are plenty of cloud based collaboration tools to choose from if you don’t have one in your toolkit already; get your virtual heads together (bonus: less chance of catching head lice that way too!)

Authority

In a remote team, it can be harder to spot when someone is slacking off, taking on too much, or bypassing others to get what they want. If you’re not privy to every virtual chat, and someone isn’t checking in, it’s possible that things could go awry.

First, make sure that each role is well defined; secondly, check in regularly with your employees and stay on top of what they’re doing to avoid anyone going rogue (avoid asking if anyone is going commando, though, that’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen).

Champions

Unless you’re the MD, it’s likely that you’ll have others making judgments of your team’s work. If possible, find one who will champion your team. Foster that relationship and ask them to let your team know they have support from higher up the food chain.

This makes even more sense if your organization has set you the task of running a pilot remote team; have someone who is familiar enough with your work they can advocate for remote employment in management meetings.

Team Health checks

Be proactive about following up on the health of your team and how all the members are feeling, both collectively and individually. In a physical team you might have an ‘open-door policy’ but this is harder to convey when you are working in different locations.

Pay attention to any perceived divisions in the team

Are some workers local and others remote? Do the remote workers feel that the locals are favored, or get more of your time? Are employees who share a language or culture bonding into a splinter group rather than being part of the cohesive whole? As a virtual team manager, a big part of building a strong team is in touching base with your team, and making sure they all feel valued, and that they get an opportunity to air their views.


Managing a virtual team takes slightly different skills, but when you get it right, as many companies have, it improves both the organization and the lives of its employees. If you’d like advice on how to hire the best remote employees, including remote team managers with all the skills we’ve discussed today, then get in touch – we’d love to help you find the right people for the job.