How Inclusive Leaders Can Build A Collaborative Team In A Virtual Environment
By Caroline Ceniza-Levine
Date Published: Apr 11, 2021
What are some team-building activities for a virtual environment?
– VC communications lead
Kudos to this manager for recognizing that the virtual environment presents specific challenges when it comes to team building (not all managers know how to manage remotely). Acknowledging that you can’t just take what works in-person and have everyone do that (but remotely this time!) makes you pay closer attention to the specific requirements and challenges of working from home. The actual team-building approach and activities you choose depend on three things:
1. What are you trying to accomplish with your team?
2. Who makes up your team?
3. How do you naturally lead?
1 - Start with the end goal and work backwards
Whether your team is onsite, remote or hybrid, how are they supposed to work together? Let’s say that just some people will work closely together and others will be solo. For the people who need to work closely together, create opportunities for those colleagues to get to know each other and build trust. In a virtual environment, you don’t see each other unless you’re on a video call, and you don’t run into each other unless someone reaches out. Give collaborators the opportunity to work out their ideal schedule, but check in more frequently until you’re assured that the collaboration is actually happening (some people take more initiative than others).
The team members working solo also need opportunities to interact with the broader team and with you in order to stay engaged. Since there is no serendipitous bumping into people in the virtual world, earmark time at team meetings for lone wolves to talk about what they’re working on. Consider mixing up assignments so people who normally work solo get put on a team and vice versa. Group different colleagues together, even if it’s just in breakout sessions during the regular team meeting, so that everyone has a chance to get to know everyone else.
2 - Accommodate different personalities, experience and skill sets and needs
Some people are more comfortable reaching out and initiating more than others. These folks will find the virtual environment easier to navigate than their shier colleagues. As the team lead, you will bring out the best in everybody if you create a welcome environment for all personalities. Mix social time and ice breakers into meetings to encourage personal connections. You might take tours of each other's homes, bring your pet to the meeting (the pet-less can bring a stuffed animal) or use breakouts around fun questions like “What’s a fun fact not obvious on your LinkedIn profile?”. Have social meetings — no work needed. You can have an online book club, cook together but in your respective kitchens or play online group games like dominoes.
In addition, some people are more comfortable with virtual technology than others – e.g., appearing on video, navigating the bells and whistles of different tools. Train your team, not just on their day-to-day job, but also on how to perform at their best with the virtual tools they need to use. Don’t assume that everyone comes in with the same familiarity and skill.
Ask people individually what they think they need, and encourage them to reach out to you for help. Pay attention to whether your staff is thriving or not in their job and their team relationships, and don’t wait for them to initiate. Watch out for burnout. The best manager is a coach who develops their team and makes them look good.
3 - Build on your leadership strengths – and get help for yourself
We all have natural tendencies, which include default management and communication styles. You may naturally gravitate to encouraging social relationships among your staff, but you may forget the technical needs of the team member struggling with the video platforms or how their work process has changed for a virtual environment. You may want to be hands-off – just share the end goal and deadline and have your team figure it out – but your team may need more coordination now that their not all in the same room together.
Ask your team what is working and what could be improved. As you identify your own skill gaps, ask your manager or HR for training, coaching or advice. Don’t just manage the way you always have because shifting from live to virtual is a change that requires a change in how you lead.
The virtual environment is inherently siloed – be proactive in building an inclusive culture
The virtual workplace removes the serendipitous opportunities to meet and interact with people (e.g., sharing an elevator, meeting in the break room). Therefore, it is more difficult for people who haven’t integrated into the workplace to find a way in. People who are newer to the company, younger or older, different than the majority – essentially anyone who doesn’t already have an established support system and career path forward — will need your support to forge relationships, be visible to senior leadership and advance their career. If you want to be an inclusive leader, you have to develop people, even if, especially if it takes a dedicated effort to do so.
Caroline Ceniza-Levine is the founder of the Dream Career Club and a career coach, writer, and media personality on job market issues. Caroline helps experienced professionals in tech, media, financial services and other industries make a great living doing work they love.
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