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Fostering Belonging with Your Virtual Teams

Although we do not know yet when the COVID pandemic will be behind us, when that does happen, we will no doubt feel more at ease doing many of the things we used to take for granted—eating in restaurants, watching a movie in a theater, and, at work, having team-building events and activities. Not everything will be completely the same, though, as the pandemic has been a tipping point of sorts, where many organizations and employees are seeing the benefits of working from home and have proven its efficacy. Remote work and virtual teams are here to stay.

The challenge now becomes how do leaders best engage and foster a sense of belonging in their virtual teams?

Before we dig into how leaders can accomplish this, let’s first start with why leaders should do this. When team members feel a sense of belonging, they are more motivated, more willing to collaborate and more likely to speak up to share their thoughts and questions. This leads to more creative solutions, faster innovation and increased productivity.

For leaders, a critical component of fostering belonging is to establish trust and psychological safety within their team—creating an environment where everyone feels free to speak up, ask for help or express opinions that are different from others, without experiencing negative consequences. Establishing psychological safety has proven to be the most critical component for high-performing teams. Likewise, when everyone’s voice matters and is heard, all team members feel a sense of belonging and of being valued. This promotes an environment where the biggest problems get the attention they need, and the best ideas rise to the surface.

Here are some ideas for how to do this:

Celebrate one another: To really feel a sense of belonging, team members need to feel valued for what makes them unique. As a leader, you have a lot of influence on how team members view one another, and setting the right tone fosters a culture of inclusion and belonging. Give gratitude for a thoughtful question, a keen insight or when you observe good teamwork. Celebrate what everyone brings to the table with specific recognition of what they do well.

Get to know one another: Without the benefit of shared office space, a virtual team has much less opportunity for cubicle banter or watercooler conversations. As such, team members have less opportunity to get to know one another, which makes it more difficult to establish trust. One activity I have used is to have team members present a “Who Am I.” This is a simple 5-minute presentation where team members put together individual collages of photos, words, etc., and then take turns presenting to the team who they are—where they grew up, what their career journey has been, what they do outside of work and what is important to them. These can just as easily be done in person as they can virtually.

Team-building activities: Team-building activities are another great way for team members to develop trust and a stronger sense of belonging. If team members live near one another, you can certainly try to meet somewhere convenient for all to do something together. For many teams, though, that is not possible, so finding some virtual activities is the way to go, such as virtual escape rooms, trivia competitions, paint nights, and dance lessons. I have taken a virtual empanada-making class from a chef in Argentina with friends from all over the country. Within Linkage, our CFO ran a virtual class teaching our employees how to make his famous guacamole. There are lots of fun and creative options out there that are enjoyable and allow team members to go through shared experiences.

Some important things to keep in mind as you select team-building exercises and icebreakers:

  • Switch things up so that you are not just doing one type of activity—just because you love trivia doesn’t mean that everyone else does too.
  • Make sure you are picking things that are inclusive of everyone on the team. Don’t hold a virtual cocktail hour if a team member doesn’t drink. Don’t schedule events at a time when some may not be able to attend.
  • Ultimately, make sure that the activity is something that will be enjoyable for everyone and that they are all able to participate. If not, you could have the opposite impact and make team members feel excluded.

Purposeful Leaders drive 2x stronger revenue growth, 4x profit growth and 9x employee engagement. Linkage’s Purposeful Leadership Signature Solution combines virtual and in-person programming and assessments designed to equip leaders with the competencies they need to thrive.