COVID-19 has turned many, if not most, of our work teams into virtual teams — which means changes in work environment, communication practices, meetings, technology platforms and applications. Over three months into the “new normal,” we now take many of those shifts for granted. Perhaps we are getting used to them.

Since we don’t know when or how much we’ll return to the in-person workplace, here are some considerations:

    • We are progressing through a multi-phase adaptation: phase 1 (new), phase 2 (new normal) and phase 3 (normal). When we enter phase 3, it will be different from the normal we used to know.
    • It’s a given that our work will be increasingly tied to ever-changing technologies. Consider that different workers react differently to changes in work platforms.
    • The bell curve applies to the new remote workplace. The 10-80-10 curve applies to the resisters, the “get-on-with-it-ers” and the “excel-ers,” respectively.

Now is probably the perfect time to look at your team’s interpersonal operations. What can you do to maximize cohesion?

Danny Molnau, a consulting director at Vizient, Inc., defines team cohesion as “the extent to which team members stick together and remain united in the pursuit of a common goal. A team is said to be in a state of cohesion when its members possess bonds linking them to one another and to the team as a whole.” Team cohesion provides successive links between higher self-esteem, increased team morale and improved team performance. Who isn’t looking for better team performance?

Here are three effective ways to build stronger cohesion for remote teams:

1. Culture: All-awareness

When people work remotely, their cultural variations involve specific local factors. These variations require more than global “cultural awareness” that followed “globalization” as a buzzword of the 1980s. Instead, they require cultural all-awareness, which includes cultural concerns of all sizes and shapes.

When they work apart, team members do not become as quickly acculturated as a team. By developing awareness of all the cultural uniqueness each individual brings to the table, the team can increase engagement and harmony.

Three actions open the doors to awareness of the individual cultures team members possess:

    • Appreciate that members of the team are unique, and let them know you appreciate their uniqueness.
    • Ask team members questions about their work preferences, which times of day they are more productive, their relationship between work and life, and other relevant topics.
    • Smile with freedom and frequency, remembering that smiles can be heard over the phone.

The following activities build an understanding of each team member’s personal culture, which builds a culture that identifies and strengthens the team:

Establish Virtual Meeting Guidelines

When the team understands and establishes guidelines for meetings, members become more comfortable meeting online.

Engage in Small Talk

Small talk helps new team members become comfortable with their colleagues and provides seasoned team members with reassurance and reaffirmation of team identity. Small talk can take the form of:

    • A “chat-about-anything” virtual session offered on a regular basis — perhaps half an hour each week.
    • A “What’s new?” check-in during the first 15 minutes of every virtual meeting.
    • Regular and ad hoc remote social gatherings, including breakfast, lunch or happy hour.

Encourage Face Time

Being on camera creates personalization and improves focus.

Accommodate Different Time Zones

If your team has members in different time zones, schedule meetings at a variety of times to ensure fairness.

Respect Everyone’s Time

Different people treat time differently, especially in a remote workplace. Online meetings often seem longer than they would if they were in person. Consider having three one-hour meetings on consecutive days rather than one three-hour meeting, for example. Don’t linger on individual agenda items longer than is warranted.

Encourage Respect

Learning about each other’s cultures helps team members respect one another.

2. Conversation Dynamics

Conversations, whether among several people or between two individuals, are the primary element of team success. Conversation is the human element that electronic platforms make viable for a remote team. Even with such platforms, though, working remotely strains a team’s ability to have effective conversations.

Here are three sets of recommendations that minimize those strains on conversations:

Virtual Virtues

It will build cohesion if everyone agrees to the following “virtues” during all conversations and meetings:

    • 100% attention: not merely hearing what someone says but listening attentively to take in what he or she means.
    • 100% engagement: not merely listening to others but actively engaging in discussions.
    • 0% multitasking: not being distracted by other tasks and concerns (which is impossible if someone is attending and engaging 100%).

Meeting Mechanics

The following mechanics should be elements of every team meeting and require continual attention and effort:

    • The three-second pause: Encourage a universal practice of waiting a full three seconds before responding to someone. This lag allows for enhanced listening and greater comprehension.
    • Everyone, at every meeting: Every meeting attendee is expected to contribute to some part of the discussion or action items.
    • Musical chairs. If a different team member facilitates each meeting, everyone will see the team’s work from different perspectives.

Feedback Focus

Feedback should not be kept to manager/employee conversations. All feedback is valuable: manager to employee, peer to peer and employee to manager. Feedback will add to team cohesion if it is:

    • Frequent: Why give feedback only annually or semiannually? Create feedback opportunities quarterly, monthly and on the spot.
    • Authentic: Feedback should be personalized and specific. Focus on one type of feedback at a time, and consider task-based, skill-based and behavior-based feedback.
    • Bidirectional: To build true cohesion, every feedback opportunity should flow in both directions. Build the habit of asking for feedback after you’ve offered feedback, and ask someone who’s given you feedback if you may give them feedback, too.

3. Artful Respect

Respect goes hand in hand with trust, authenticity and credibility. The more we demonstrate respect for our team members, the more we build those traits, all of which contribute to team cohesion.

“You did a good job!” is a respectful comment, but if the way we show respect varies and is more creative, each instance becomes more meaningful and creative. Consider:

    • Including five minutes at every meeting for team members to show respect to one another.
    • A team practice of sending instant messages that express respect.
    • A list of respect categories (e.g., meeting contributions, timely responses and good writing), and encourage team members to express respect for each category every week.

As these approaches to remote team cohesion increase team members’ engagement, unity and commitment, there will be an undeniable increase in productivity — and no one denies the value of increased productivity.

Want to learn more? Watch this recording of Tim’s presentation, “Build Your Remote Team’s Cohesion, Now and in the Future,” at our TICE virtual conference “Understanding and Developing Your Remote Learners.”