How to Build a Great Virtual Team, According to Behavioral Science

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In-person interactions are a critical aspect of team-building, yet face-to-face contact is one thing that today’s virtual workplaces simply cannot replicate. The lack of these interactions has a direct impact on team cohesion at both the individual team and companywide levels. As a result, organizational structures are changing from traditionally hierarchical models to looser and more flexible ones, according to Carita Lilian Snellman of Metropolia University of Applied Sciences in Finland.

The body of social science dealing with team-building has been growing significantly, especially since the start of the pandemic. It’s important that companies look to this science when attempting to craft experiences that enhance virtual team-building.

At Emeraude Escape, we aim to provide venues and platforms for virtual team-building, so we’ve been paying close attention to what the research says. In our opinion, the following four science-backed insights can help companies of all kinds develop stronger teams in the hybrid workplace.

1. ‘The IKEA Effect’ and Psychological Safety in Virtual Team-Building

“People care more about their IKEA furniture because they have to assemble it themselves,” writes behavioral scientist Jon Levy. “If we want greater trust among teams, we have to find ways to have team members invest effort in one another. This will cause them to care more about one another.”

These opportunities to invest in one another don’t just pop up during the course of regular virtual business. They must be created by savvy virtual leaders. Multiplayer virtual games are one way to provide the right setting for team members to invest effort in one another. As Levy writes, “When we participate in a game, activity, or project, it allows for people to open and close vulnerability loops quickly, and as a byproduct, trust will be increased.”

Do This: Give employees the chance to socialize naturally and learn to care more about each other through multiplayer games.

2. Even Casual Friendships Can Boost Team Cohesion

Encourage kindness among your employees. This may sound incredibly obvious, but the effects it can have on team-building are powerful, according to researchers Teresa Almeida and Grace Lordan from the London School of Economics.

“Research has shown that weak ties (or acquaintances) have a (surprising) positive impact on subjective well-being and feelings of belonging,” Almeida and Lordan write. “At a time when working at home has been thrust upon us, there is an opportunity for managers to encourage the formation of weak ties within their organization, bringing together people from geographically distant sites.”

Almeida and Lordan note that kindness initiatives in the virtual workplace can do wonders for inclusion: “Small acts like emailing a thank-you note to a colleague or offering to tick something off their to-do list can brighten someone’s day.”

Do This: Encourages employees to participate in random acts of kindness toward their coworkers and reward them for doing so.

3. Be Clear With Your Communication.

People don’t always know what you know, especially in the virtual workplace, according to behavior change consultant Natasha Ouslis.

“We think [others are] aware of how hard we’re working, what roadblocks we’re facing, and what we need from them,” writes Ouslis. “The distance between us [in virtual work environments] forces us to get better at explaining our situation; we can’t hope that people will ‘see’ what’s going on without an explanation. Fortunately, this can force us to communicate more clearly.”

Open and clear communication between members of any team is imperative. A good strategy to facilitate that communication is to show team members how their tasks drive the team toward its ultimate end goal, according to Ouslis.

“Team members will see what you’re doing and why it’s important,” she writes. “This keeps the team focused on its objectives.”

Do This: Set aside time each week or month for employees to explain their work in detail to their team members. The walls between employees will start to break down, and people will have more clarity into what their colleagues are doing every day.

4. Leaders Can Take an Active Role in Building Trust

Trust is one of the most important factors in virtual team-building, according to Carita Lilian Snellman. “Trust is more critical in virtual environments than in traditional team settings [because it is] the necessary condition for successful work in virtual teams,” she writes.

But to build that trust, teams must first go through certain stages — and it’s up to leaders to shepherd their teams along the pathway to more trust. Snellman concludes that leaders can set mutual expectations, enhance coherence, and inspire and motivate team members to cultivate more trust.

“Empirical analyses show that teams with highest levels of trust began their interactions with social messages; set clear roles for each team member; and showed positive attitudes and eagerness, enthusiasm, and an intense action orientation in all of their messages,” Snellman writes.

Do this: Set clear goals for the team before each new project and keep a positive tone while setting expectations for all.

Virgile Loisance is the CEO of Emeraude Escape.

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Virgile Loisance is the CEO of Emeraude Escape, where he leads a team of game designers as they build tailor-made corporate gamification solutions for global corporations.