When you feel bonded with a team, a part of your self-identity has merged with the collective identity of the team. The process of losing a little bit of your individuality and taking on a bit of the group identity is what underlies the passionate reactions of sports-team fans. When you join a team and feel bonded to it, you care about the fortunes of the group, because your own fortune is tied up with it and you have an emotional connection with the group that matters to you.
In a virtual team, the fact that you don’t meet in person means you have to make more conscious effort to facilitate the process of creating a team identity and encouraging people to bond with it. You have to make those emotional connections via technology or phone calls, often at strange hours.
When a team has a strong bond they have a bias towards members of their own team; an “us” vs “them” mindset. The team is “us” (the in-group) and the team members are clear about “them” (the out-group). At one level, this bias has a healthy effect of keeping members of the team bonded together and loyal. A too strong “us vs them” bias spawns conflict, stereotyping of out-groups, silos and an inability to collaborate in a multi-team system.
Here are four tactics that you can use to build a strong team bond, even when the group is cross-functional and/or virtual:
1. Technology is key. Utilise ways to connect spontaneously and informally with each other, alongside the necessary scheduled meetings. Collaboration tools with internal chat, file sharing, and video conferencing, such as AIIR Consulting's Team Zone are helpful, as well as social media platforms that allow you to share pictures and video. Using these platforms mirrors your natural social behavior, much as the coffee/drink/lunch with team-mates who are co-located does. Some organizations I work with use Snapchat and Whatsapp for sharing travel plans and experiences. Some have created team challenges that are shared using Fitbit or Instagram with collaboration across different parts of the virtual team necessary to achieve the goals.
2. Team lingo emerging from informal communication technologies, where acronyms or nicknames or in-jokes abound, help to create shared identity. One team I know have styled themselves “The 51st State” as the only non-US based team in the business.
3. Use “We” and make sure when you say it that you mean the collective virtual team, not just your part of the team (i.e. “We, the global pricing team” not “We here at head office”).