How to Keep Your Team Close When They Are Far Apart

Five tips for better virtual teams.

Posted Apr 18, 2020

Co-written by Nicholas Caplan.

The real challenge posed by switching to virtual work isn’t interrupting kids, video call burnout, or faulty technology. These problems are comparatively easy to solve. It’s the lack of human connection that may be the most insidious threat.

While we may be unable to change the physical distance between colleagues, there are ways that you can help bring distant coworkers closer together. Georgetown University professor Michael Boyer O'Leary and his colleagues have demonstrated that, in fact, “perceived proximity … not physical proximity … affects relationship quality.”

Schedule Regular Communication

Identify important relationships and schedule regular communication. Regular communication has been shown to boost feelings of closeness. But don't overdo it, keep a few goals in mind. Regular contact can serve as a reminder of what others are doing and decrease the risk people will feel like others are shirking their duties. It can also play a key role in reducing career-related uncertainty and fear. Further, frequent communication may keep essential colleagues salient and, in turn, make them feel closer.

Open a Window to the Whole Self

Another potential pathway to reinforcing the salience of colleagues is by using video chat to open a window into the whole self. Rather than standing in front of a blank background in your standard business uniform, consider using the opportunity to let others see you as a complex person. Sharing more details about yourself can help keep you in mind while you’re far away. And, perhaps even more important, it provides the opportunity to forge a shared identity. Maybe you and a colleague both love photography, or you are reading the same book. Even if you don’t find anything in common, self-disclosure increases liking. As a leader, model this sharing for the rest of your team.

Reiterate Your Identity and Mission

Third, even if you are remote, continue to reiterate your company’s culture and mission to remind your team of their shared purpose. And, ask your team how they see their role contributing to that mission. Doing so can help them feel valued. O'Leary’s work has demonstrated that shared identity is linked to feelings of perceived proximity. You can employ similar methods as you did before, but reiterating your culture may even be more critical in virtual space. So, explore ways to bring your identity into the virtual realm. Can you bring company branding onto your online platform? Can you create procedures for virtual communication that mirror your in-person identity and priorities?

Emphasize Commitment and Achievements

Fourth, consider a greater emphasis on publicly acknowledging great work or how team members have demonstrated their commitment. As we lose the ability to see our colleagues hard at work, it becomes easier to imagine them sitting around playing video games and binging TV shows. Sharing achievements can be a way to assure your team that everyone else is as committed as they are. Additionally, some team members may be prone to feeling left out and excluded. They may be concerned about the safety of their job. Recognizing their achievements and hard work can be a way to counter these feelings. But, be very careful of alienating those not recognized. When working remotely, it may be easier for colleagues to feel out of the loop or excluded.

Use Smaller Groups When Practical

Finally, try to keep meetings small when possible. Just because you can have 500 people on a video call doesn’t mean you should. Research shows that tight-knit groups may have higher trust and group identification, both essential for feeling closer while far apart. While at times you may need a large meeting to reach a wide audience, we would recommend that the core of your online communication strategy centers around smaller groups and one-on-one conversations. Although, you must remain vigilant that no team members feel estranged from the group.

Nicholas Caplan is a partner at the training and consulting firm Team Good, LLC.

References

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363–377. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167297234003

Burt, R. S. (2005). Brokerage and closure: an introduction to social capital. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Leary, M., Wilson, J., & Metiu, A. (2014). Beyond Being There: The Symbolic Role of Communication and Identification in Perceptions of Proximity to Geographically Dispersed Colleagues. MIS Quarterly, 38(4), 1219-1244. doi:10.2307/26627969

State of Remote Work 2020. Retrieved from https://lp.buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2020

Wiese, J., Kelley, P. G., Cranor, L. F., Dabbish, L., Hong, J. I., & Zimmerman, J. (2011). Are you close with me? are you nearby? Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing - UbiComp 11. doi: 10.1145/2030112.2030140

Wilson, J. M., Boyer O’Leary, M., Metiu, A., & Jett, Q. R. (2008). Perceived Proximity in Virtual Work: Explaining the Paradox of Far-but-Close. Organization Studies, 29(7), 979–1002. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840607083105