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By Dan Colgan

Managers in 2016 are grappling to develop strategies that nurture workplace communication and morale in an ever-accelerating technology era. With the rise of new office communication technologies, such as chat functionalities, virtual workspaces, video meetings and conference calls, communication between employees and senior management can often be misinterpreted or even dismissed altogether. Poor communication up, down and across an organization, adversely affects productivity, culture, and overall business longevity.

Today, many professionals can perform their jobs from anywhere using laptops, mobile phones and wireless services, with employees in different geographic locations, some telecommuting from home or hotels. The technologies have made “virtual” teams common – that is, workgroups made up of members in different physical locations.  In a recent survey of knowledge workers, almost 80 percent reported they always or frequently worked in dispersed teams.

Across all virtual communication platforms, the following qualities will best cultivate positive team spirit within a company.

Build Team Spirit

When in a virtual workspace it can be easy to ignore the idea of “team-building”, but organizational health relies heavily on happy employees. Managers with good team building skills can unite employees around a common goal and generate greater productivity beyond the effort each individual is able to make alone. Team building is an ongoing process that must be regularly nurtured. It helps a work group become a cohesive unit, in which members share expectations for accomplishing group tasks, trust and support each other and respect individual differences.

Team building across technology interfaces in a virtual workspace can present difficulties. Employees in the same office often engage socially and talk about their lives, something more difficult to do in a virtual workplace. Virtual meetings are often very task-focused so that important or nuanced information may be left out unless managers make concerted efforts to create a “virtual water cooler,” a means of informal interactions among employees to share information and reinforce social bonds.

Turn Virtual Communication Personal

If you have a monthly meeting, you should be able to accomplish your meeting goals within the space of an hour. There are three easy ways to build personal relationships while simultaneously accomplishing the meeting goals.

  1. Introductions – Everyone should introduce themselves and share their location, their role and participation in the particular project or meeting subject, and answer a quick personal question, like saying what they’re looking forward to most this week, or what their favorite meal was last week.
  2. Get on Board – If there are over 6 people, pick 2 at each meeting to share a positive experience from the last week or share an area where they may need positive thoughts and energy for an upcoming event. No need to get into specifics if people don’t want to; however, sharing the general topic and cultivating a feeling of openness helps build trust between team members.
  3. Get To Business – Share the successes of what’s been happening, education on any new developments that have occurred, and look at the upcoming action items or project plans. Ask for ideas or input from team members to keep the meeting personal.

These three steps will ensure that virtual employees feel personally invested in the meeting time and in the project. For an idea on timeframe, spend about 10 minutes on the first two sections, and use the rest of the meeting time for the third.

Show appropriate, sincere appreciation and encouragement

Managers should recognize and reward employees who take initiative and contribute ideas on how best to increase productivity and improve efficiency. An environment that welcomes and encourages such creativity demonstrates to employees that their opinions are valued. In addition, employees are likely to remain more engaged and committed to projects in which they have contributed and have a role in managing.

Building relationships

An essential foundation for effective teamwork is building relationships and trust among the team. Members getting to know each other better both personally and professionally help create a shared vision and a set of guiding principles for how the team will work. By learning the skills, capabilities, and synergies of co-workers, employees are better positioned to approach projects in ways that best utilize the individual strengths of each team member. Team building activities can create a sense of community and camaraderie among a group with a singular shared goal – the success of the company. These bonds among co-workers serve as the foundation for a more productive and enjoyable work environment.

The ability to give constructive feedback that is well received

When trust is established among team members, there can be open dialogue. Some have termed this “observable candor,” and consider it to be a foundation of successful teamwork, with research showing it as the behavior that best predicts high-performing teams. However, this requires a supportive organizational culture. A recent study of 50 financial firms found that leaders of dispersed groups needed to actively push group members to be candid with one another. It is important to frame negative feedback as caring criticism, such as suggestions or alternatives, to prevent alienation.

Encouraging cross-departmental conversations

Job titles and responsibilities, as well as department divisions can often inhibit communication and the free flow of ideas. However, a company’s success depends on how effectively employees can interact with those in other departments for the common goal. Team building activities can allow people from different departments and position levels to work together, encouraging employees to be focused on goals and people instead of feeling constrained to rigid roles. This can in turn create greater job satisfaction, higher employee retention and increased productivity.

Giving employees a voice

With trust and more open communications, employees feel they have a voice and are more invested in the outcome of a project or success of the business. Managers should be clear and direct in assigning tasks and with instructions so that the responsibilities, execution and goals are clear and encourage questions. Explaining how each project fits in with the company’s larger goals helps emphasize the value of each member’s contribution to the success of the company. Team building activities can help develop a level of interaction that promotes communication and creative thinking among employees, which then carry over into the work environment for more engaged and enthusiastic workforce.

Effective team building can be one of the most important investments in your employees – increasing their engagement, collaboration and creativity, encouraging communication as well as mitigating conflict. In the context of the virtual workspace, managers need to proactively engage in team building because of the limiting tendencies of the communication platforms and technologies.

Dan Colgan is the founder of Rock Paper Team, LLC, a team building company that blends customized, interactive experiences with clients’ goals and objectives. Dan leads events and offers workshops for corporations, wedding parties, educational institutions and non-profit organizations that include Picture Scavenger Hunts, Blind Wine Tasting, Sand Sculpting and many more to facilitate team building and effective communication. Dan has 20 plus years experience with youth and adults. Some clients include General Wayne Middle School, Lincoln Tech, University of Arkansas, Priceline Group, JP Morgan and Facebook. He is also a Stand-up Comedian who uses his performance skills to engage audiences with both professionalism and humor.