Are you finding that your virtual team is productive but not much fun? Are you spending hours with your teammates each week but still feeling like you barely know them beyond the head and shoulders? Virtual teams don’t have to be sterile, boring teams. Here are some ideas for strengthening interpersonal connections and making your team a much stronger unit!

Different Types of Connections

Before you run off and schedule a bunch of time to shoot the breeze with your colleagues, let’s talk about four ways you can use your time together. Each of these categories is important, and you’ll want to select from each as you build out your calendar.

Structured Task-focused Time

Structured, task-focused time is time spent with your colleagues working toward a clear objective. (This could be time spent in meetings with the entire team or working on a project with one or two colleagues.) In any team, this will be the primary way you spend your time together. Unfortunately, too much structured task-focused time in virtual teams can leave humans feeling more like cogs in a machine. I sense that teams are over-indexing on structured task-focused time right now.

Take a look at your calendar and calculate what percentage of your interaction time falls into this category. If it gets into the 70, 80, 90 percent range, you probably feel the adverse effects.

So, what are the alternatives?

Unstructured Work Time

Woman interacting through her computer with a man at a whiteboardUnstructured work time is time spent with your colleagues talking about business, but with less of a structured agenda or a pre-determined outcome. This is blue sky time, brainstorming time, troubleshooting time, update time. (And no, the irony is not lost on me that I’m now advocating for more unstructured time after spending a decade encouraging more use of agendas, primer documents, and preparation to ensure that time together is optimized.)

It’s just that after working remotely for a couple of years, I’m pining for some low-efficiency time (and I get the sense that you are, too) because, in the moments that might seem unproductive, there is space for creativity, connection, divergence, and vulnerability. There’s room for sharing, and synthesizing, and serendipity. And so much innovation comes in those moments when we’re struck by something that seemed utterly tangential.

Build unstructured work time into your week:

  • Have a Friday afternoon open forum to let people ask for advice or support
  • If you’re a manager, have an open Zoom line breakfast chat each week where anyone can pop in and get your thoughts on an issue
  • Call a co-worker to have an informal catch-up about what they’re working on
  • Invite in a customer or a consultant to fill you in on trends in the industry

Spotlight: Communication Bursts

Being on a virtual team can be highly inefficient, especially when collaborating with people in different time zones. You default to sending emails, which can really slow things down. I learned this by working on a project with a team member in Asia. At 7 pm Eastern, when I finally got a response to a message I sent first thing in the morning, my option was to work into the night or lose another day.

I learned about a technique called Communication Burst, where you schedule a timeframe when everyone on the team will be working. If it makes sense, start the session with a quick video call and then let everyone focus on doing their work independently. (Some people leave the video call running on mute to enhance the feeling that you’re working together.) The magic of a Burst is that when a question or issue comes up, everyone knows that they can address it right away. They can call an individual, huddle with a few people in a quick web call, or respond immediately to DMs or Slack messages.

Running a Burst on your team might mean asking people to be online from 8-10 pm the odd time, but it will be worth it to know that there are times when you can be efficient as a team. Just make sure to schedule a proportional amount of time off that they can use for non-work activities.

Structured Social Time

This is the time you spend with your team focused on connecting as humans—no need to accomplish any tasks! In structured social time, you create shared experiences; you forge connections through laughter, you see your teammates as more complete people. And while there are options for structured social time that are just silly and fun, there are also activities that will contribute to a healthier and more constructive team dynamic.

Person gaming Add one or more of these activities into each quarter:

  • Use an assessment tool to understand better one another’s styles
  • Use one of the Virtual Team exercises I created
  • Volunteer together on a project in your community (e.g., a Habitat for Humanity build)
  • Develop your team ground rules
  • Do an in-person or virtual team building activity (I did a virtual escape room, and it was great)
  • Have a theme day and encourage people to be creative about how they bring the theme to life

Unstructured Social Time

This is the time you spend with one or more team members enjoying one another’s company. In unstructured social time, you strengthen the understanding and the bonds with your colleagues. In the office, this is the time you spend having lunch together, or perched with one butt-cheek on someone’s desk debriefing the weekend, or chatting as you walk back from a meeting.

Try these approaches:

  • Have a team lunch once a month where you leave the cameras on and hang out. Do a couple of rounds where you break out into smaller groups to chat
  • Move all meetings to 45 minutes and use 10 minutes right after the meeting to catch up with one other participant
  • Invite one person in your team or from another team to have a virtual coffee at a set time each week
  • Send a funny cartoon or video to a colleague that’s working on something particularly challenging

Spotlight: Buddies

Earlier this week, I was facilitating an in-person meeting only to learn shortly beforehand that one of the members had a Covid exposure, and he would have to dial in. So I reached out on LinkedIn to ask for advice in running an effective hybrid session when we didn’t have the swanky technology that might have made it easier. Chuck Durfee suggested assigning a buddy for the remote participant who could advocate for him. This is a brilliant idea and doesn’t just have to be for a meeting.

What if each person who works remotely had a buddy? As a buddy, you could be responsible for sharing any informal communication the remote team member might have missed at the water cooler. And you could make sure that the person is being heard in meetings. You could have the person’s back in conversations that they might not have been included in (and could remind people that they need to include the person).

It won’t be suitable for every hybrid team, but I thought that having a buddy in the room where it happens would be a real help to someone trying to feel a part of a virtual team.

Not All Team, All the Time

One last thought. Investing in stronger connections as a team should not be at the expense of either individual productivity or work-life balance. At the same time that you’re scheduling these team interactions, schedule communication blackouts. Set times when your team won’t be having meetings or calls, won’t be expecting responses to emails, won’t be open to socializing. Legitimize time for efficient independent work and time for people to be offline and not thinking about the team at all.

Further Reading

Team Building Exercises for Remote Teams

Reset Your Remote Management Approach

How to Onboard New Employees Remotely