Q4 · 2020Build a cohesive leadership team - virtually

“It feels like I’ve known you all longer and I’ve built more trust with you than if we worked in the same office together!” This is what a member of an executive team I have been working with commented to wrap up our recent session. It was not the first time that I had heard this.

The challenge

More than ever, during the COVID-19 period, leaders have reached out to me to ask whether and how they can build a cohesive team in a virtual format.

Some of them are hesitant to take action as they say it will not be possible to create the same emotional bond as if physically together in the same room. The believe the opportunity to connect during the breaks and over a dinner cannot be replaced. And “getting” people’s non-verbal language over the screen is difficult.

When I then check in with the leaders to ask what they find hard about virtual teamwork, they say:

  • They miss energy recharge from office interactions and corridor discussions
  • They need to invest more time to get to know people
  • It is more difficult for new team members to integrate and build strong working relationships
  • How do we celebrate successes digitally?
  • There is more room for misunderstanding
  • Communicating in a bi-dimensional way – without the face-to-face advantage of clear verbal and physical cues – requires (too) many emails, to ensure clarity.

I get it. But these obstacles can be overcome.

Planning the virtual approach

I have been working with leadership teams that have never met in person. In fact, the quote at the beginning comes from the member of an executive team that has never met in person. They have created such strong cohesion that I believe it will inspire you do the same with your teams.

If you chose the right approach, and you run the virtual sessions in a considered and well-structured way, it will lead to similar outcomes as if you would meet face-to-face: each team member focuses more on collective results, embraces accountability, achieves commitment, masters conflict, takes part in healthy debates, and further builds trust.

Here are three key elements for you as a leader to consider:

Make it personal:

Invite and allow for team members to share their personal stories and backgrounds – things that have affected their view of the world. The more that team members understand about each other, the more they will be respectful, inclusive and embrace diversity. The virtual format has the advantage that you can ask everyone to prepare this in advance, for example in PowerPoint with pictures, making it as visible and tangible as if you were face-to-face. This is especially effective in bonding global teams, where people are come from, or operate in, varied countries and cultures.

Empower your team members:

Ask them to lead some aspects of team building. For example, select a few volunteers to run some breakout sessions, where a small number of team members come up with proposals for the entire team, before bringing these back to the team to finalize together. Such proposals could include the key rules of engagement in the virtual context, or how the team will support the onboarding of new members. The virtual format has the advantage of making the breakout group highly engaged and focused in its discussions, as there is only a small number of people involved. In addition, the chairing of the groups is shared on several shoulders, avoiding excessive workload for any individual.

Ensure continuous feedback:

Strengthen relationships by scheduling short one-to-one Zoom calls between the team members to give and receive feedback on what they appreciate, what they can do differently/better, and how online collaboration can be improved even more in the future. The virtual format enables these calls to take place in a personal way, with nobody else around to distract participants or overhear them, and therefore allowing them to be honest, constructive and highly productive.

Make a difference

As a successful leader, you know that simply doing nothing with your team – especially during these unprecedented times – would not be a wise decision. Not only would this ignore your people’s needs for a sense of belonging and motivation to achieve constant progress, but it would also risk you falling behind other teams that act decisively to adapt to change and turn it to their advantage.

In challenging times, it falls to you as a leader to set the right tone. Your decisions will create new opportunities. Your actions will make the difference. Especially with your teams.

All the best