Keeping your virtual team together over the long term

With the outbreak of COVID-19, many employers have asked their office-based employees to work from home. Recent articles have focused mainly on how teams can work together efficiently, hold productive meetings and deliver pitches remotely. On the other hand, the various management challenges of keeping virtual teams together and maintaining good team spirit over the long term has attracted comparatively little attention. This article seeks to provide some inspiration on how to keep your teams together in such situations. 

One of the biggest challenges of long-term homeworking is a feeling of isolation. This is particularly true for those employees that are living alone. 

Demotivation is another risk. When working from home, much responsibility rests on the shoulders of the employees, for example in setting their own schedule or resolving any technical problems. There is enormous potential for frustration. More than ever, employees must maintain self-discipline and self-motivation, deriving satisfaction from the work process and their output.

Homeworking can result in a merging of life and work, the so-called phenomenon of work-life-blending, with a negative impact on family life and an increase in personal stress. 

Lastly, prolonged homeworking can harm team spirit and affect team members’ attitude towards their employer. Moreover, the decreasing interaction of employees makes problem solving, new ideas and innovation more difficult.

We have put together 10 recommendations that all teams should consider, even if not all are relevant for every team.

1. Set up daily interactive meetings

Teams need structure and guidance to support them in managing their workload virtually. While some employees may struggle to focus on their work, others may work too much. A short team call first thing every day strengthens direction and purpose, and keeps every single team member up to date. Make a few quick and easy tweaks to turn any meeting into an engaging, efficient and collaborative experience, for example by using tools such as Mentimeter*, Jamboards* or SpotMe*. Using smart project management tools such as Trello*, Jira* or Mural* is also recommended. These tools not only provide a visual representation of tasks, status and responsibilities, but can also help that every team member feels valued and part of the team.

2. Play virtual team games

Virtual games can help teams to reduce stress, boost team bonding and trust, and enhance communication. Examples are Prelude* (a creative game that builds trust in virtual teams), VirtuWall* (a competitive game that helps break down silos), QuizBreaker* (an online icebreaker quiz game for remote teams), Kahoot* (a game-based learning platform that brings engagement and fun) or Water Cooler Trivia* (weekly office trivia questions using email or Slack). Another weekly competition could be a scavenger hunt throughout the week, with a winner announced on Fridays.

3. Sustain normality and camaraderie in unconventional ways

Prolonged isolation can potentially reduce morale and productivity. Try to add some levity in different ways, for example by using the app Houseparty* and throwing virtual pizza parties, movie nights or remote happy hours where people dial in and share a cocktail. You can also shift the celebrating of birthdays, or of team goals being reached, to an online environment. 

Another possible drawback of homeworking is sitting for long periods of time. Sports activities, such as yoga classes, which are normally offered in the office after work, should be transferred to the virtual world. What about introducing virtual team sports sessions as well? One team member leads the virtual workout while other team members do the exercises simultaneously in their own homes. Some virtual activities may seem a little strange at first. But it's fun, and helps to strengthen a “we’re all in this together” mentality.

4. Prioritize virtual face-to-face contact and direct communication 

Long-term collaboration, or the integration and onboarding of new team members, exclusively through virtual means, is new territory for all of us. It is therefore essential to agree on a common approach and to define new team rules. These can later be modified based on experience. As part of the onboarding processes within remote teams, you could use the Slack extension Aloha, which welcomes new employees and encourages them to introduce themselves to the team. Meanwhile, team members can decide on different topics, for example which movie to watch on group movie nights. Instead of thinking "I don't have time for that, I need to get my work done", it is very important to maintain social contact, to foster an atmosphere that stimulates fresh perspectives, new ideas and a renewed passion for what you do. 

5. Accommodate individual circumstances and cultural needs

As a team leader, you need to be aware of the personal needs of individual team members. While the father of a family may want to have lunch with his family and the children may need to be kept busy in between, the working student wants to integrate his or her exercise program into their daily work routine. Cultural needs, such as praying several times a day, must also be taken into account. Others may feel uncomfortable that colleagues can see into their own homes via video conferences. For these and other reasons, it is essential to establish rules to accommodate people's personal situations.

6. Meet up in your digital coffee kitchen 

Why not have a quick coffee in the kitchen for a short break to recharge your batteries? Meet colleagues by chance and have a brief chat? Coffee kitchens are much frequented rooms in the office and make everyday office life more pleasurable. With homeworking, the chance meeting in the coffee kitchen is eliminated. Donut app* is a tool for a digital coffee kitchen by randomly connecting colleagues across teams for an exchange, preventing the breakdown of social interaction and offering the lifeline of informal conversation.

7. Create a virtual office space and an open team chat

Setting up a virtual office space or an open team chat gives remote employees the feel of an office without physically being there. In the morning, the first team member to start work begins a video chat that any team member can then join. The video chat room is a mimic of the office and a place where all team members can be seen working diligently on their own tasks, helping others feel motivated as part of a group. The chat allows teams to ask questions, share ideas and documents, and stay connected throughout the day. This principle can be brought into life via various platforms such as Rocket.Chat*, Slack*, Google Hangouts* or Skype*.

8. Organize virtual team events

Good working relationships boost employee satisfaction and commitment. Team events and community days play a key role in fulfilling this objective. They should be transformed into virtual team events during long-term homeworking. Virtual activities such as online escape rooms can be a fantastic way to boost team building, productivity, communication, trust and cohesion. Online training sessions and virtual classrooms can also be introduced.

9. Make time for casual conversations

Efforts put into communicating with colleagues will help to allay feelings of isolation. You could start off meetings with information sharing about non-work-related activities. The recommendations mentioned above, such as the digital coffee kitchen and informal team chats, are also relevant here. 

10. Allocate time for social interaction and engagement outside of work

Team members still need to have a life outside of work. Encourage them to interact virtually with their friends and family. Consider offering “social interaction hours” where you explicitly ask them not to work. Furthermore, use your imagination to contribute to solving current societal challenges. For instance, teams of developers can jointly participate in a hackathon to find digital solutions to challenges related to the outbreak of Covid-19. 

Try to keep people’s spirits up! Employers have a duty of care to their employees. If you think it is just a matter of giving employees a laptop and sending them to their home office, you’d better think again. With more imagination, you can reduce the negative consequences of prolonged homeworking, while fostering a close togetherness and a renewed sense of purpose.

* We assume no liability for the security of third party providers.

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Jens Niebuhr

Jens Niebuhr

Partner, Strategy& Germany