When we entered our work-from-home bunkers, many teams stumbled.

With a noisy, scary, mysterious health crisis swirling around us, we tried to figure out how to keep working. Feeling obligated to our organization and teammates, we did our best to stay focused on the tasks and projects that mattered most. We missed the familiar comfort of our office and the camaraderie that comes from strategizing with colleagues in person.

It was clunky at first. “You’re muted!” rang out repeatedly. Barking dogs and interrupting toddlers pushed meetings off track. Eventually, however, we adjusted. Like everything else in 2020, we just figured it out and kept moving forward.

We soothed ourselves with the notion that we could work this way for a few months. Our team already knew each other and had established processes that would surely translate to working virtually. We worked hard to keep surfacing the best ideas and vigorously debating problems, and we kept harnessing the team’s collective wisdom, ensuring that we reached the best possible decisions.

For many organizations, team meeting frequency increased, and teams became better at sharing information — especially global ones. Before the pandemic, organizations invested a substantial amount of travel time and budget to gather teams in the same physical location. But it is easier and more cost-effective to click a button and be in the same virtual room. Transitioning from meeting once per month to meeting as frequently as three times per week felt like a worthwhile trade-off in 2020.

Combatting Virtual Team Fatigue With Virtual Events

In 2021, however, there are reports of severe virtual team fatigue. It manifests in the form of overly transactional meeting content, a lack of engagement, artificial harmony, and a fractured sense of purpose and belonging. Senior leaders are struggling with the compounding impact that exclusively virtual communication is having on their teams.

Humans possess the ability to endure even extremely difficult situations for a short time. Many people, regardless of physical training, can dig deep and run for about a mile. Last March, teams were up for a short sprint, but they didn’t realize they were committing to running a marathon — which takes different training and a longer-term, more dedicated approach.

We all understand the importance of belonging. There is research demonstrating how important individual relationships are on your health, and there are practical ways you can cultivate them in 2021. But your teams need the same care and attention as your relationships.

Virtual team tune-ups are the fuel your team needs as you round mile 13 in this marathon. You can restore team camaraderie and engagement with virtual events. Initially, I was skeptical about how far teams could progress in this format. After all, the industry has spent decades leading traditional in-person team development workshops, where team members show up engaged, open and vulnerable. These workshops can quickly break down barriers and build plans to improve the team’s health.

With these in-person opportunities vanishing in 2020, organizations were forced to pivot to virtual events — and they work! Not only can a facilitator guide a team through a process to surface and solve team problems, but the virtual format encourages more candid conversations and productive team problem-solving.

Why? With a skilled facilitator guiding the conversation, participants share in a deeper, more candid manner than when they are in the same room with their teammates. Then, once the honest perceptions, views and feelings surface, there are many great online meeting tools to help the team process information and make tough decisions. Polls, breakout rooms, whiteboards and even emojis can contribute to a productive team development session.

The result is not only connecting on a human level and helping team members recharge their batteries for the next leg of the race. The team can also create and document important charters, decisions and commitments to help them govern in this new virtual format.

Is Your Virtual Team Stuck?

How do you know if your virtual team is stuck? Ask yourself these 10 questions to find out:

    • Do all team members consistently contribute to their fullest potential?
    • Are there regular misunderstandings regarding decisions?
    • Are there conflicting work ethics on the team?
    • Is there candor and productive disagreement among team members?
    • Can everyone state, with clarity, the team goals, objectives and values?
    • Are tasks organized with due dates and accountabilities?
    • Do team members appreciate each other’s differences?
    • Does everyone help each other achieve and be his or her best self?
    • Is ownership for team results shared equally?
    • Is the team having fun, and do members look forward to virtual team meetings?

Looking Forward: The Blended Environment

For better or worse, virtual team management is not going away when it is safe for us all to be back in the office. Organizations are signaling that workers at all levels should expect some form of blended work arrangement. Don’t expect your team to be back to all in person, all of the time, anytime soon.

A blended workplace will bring yet another dynamic for teams to navigate, a steep hill to climb at mile 22. The dynamic we created when we all started working remotely will change when we are in a blended environment. What happens when some of us are in person and some are remote? Teams need to build the right muscles to be ready — strong communication, extreme trust, appreciation of difference, courageous leadership and many other advanced team skills.

Teams that are trained, hydrated and fueled up will perform better in this dynamic, work-from-anywhere team environment. Conversely, teams that are not cohesive will fracture, and productivity will quickly break down. They will cramp up, unable to finish the race.

Invest in your virtual team. Schedule team process meetings and events to move beyond a virtual happy hour to serious team development. While your team may not be showing signs of melting down at the moment, hidden dysfunction could be lurking. Make sure your team is healthy enough to sustain the marathon run still in front of us.

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