Bringing Your Virtual Team Members Closer Together

Working in teams has become the norm. With the recent need for companies to be “agile” and foster innovation, there is now doubt that informal communication can play a key part in a team’s and organisation’s growth. We don't want people to exchange their views and ideas only at formal meetings. We now recognise that small talk can develop into more meety conversations, which can help us to trouble shoot, gain valuable information and think more creatively.

We want to facilitate people to interact in a relaxed way, away from the pressure of formal meetings where we feel we have to “get it right” , where we might be worried about making fools out of ourselves. Indeed this was the main reason vocalized by Marissa Mayer from Yahoo when the company called back all remote workers to the office, earlier this year. This left the whole HR and learning community baffled. Surely a technology company should have worked out by now how to promote these kind of conversations and exchanges without having everyone in the same physical space. Whether this was the only (or even the main) reason for the change, remains to be seen.

Creating an informal online space seems to be the best way of helping members from a virtual team interact in a way that will benefit the team's creativity and development. In the article 'Who Moved my Cube?' (HBR July/Aug 2011) Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks suggest there are three factors affecting the success of an informal online space.

These are:

  • Having a high level of awareness of others in the virtual space (really feeling like there are other people around us in the same way that we would do in an office).
  • Having a reason to engage voluntarily (reasons to come and have a look at what other people are saying, to engage in conversation, to post your thoughts).
  • Having some rules for participation.
    A virtual space is still a public space, so if we're afraid of posting something that is wrong or of saying something we shouldn't be saying or using the space for a purpose for which it wasn't designed, then we’re going to stay away from it.

In order to address these factors that affect how much people engage in conversation in an informal virtual space,  the authors suggest we look at proximity, privacy and permission. In this first post, we'll have a quick look at Proximity.


We can see how in a physical space we’re more likely to have informal interactions with the people nearer to us. You might pass someone’s desk and say "Hello" or even stop to have a short conversation with them, just as we are less likely to have a casual conversation with someone who is on the fourth floor, unless we happen to bump into them in the lift.

The equivalent of these kind of interactions might be how visible we are to others in an online space and how present and available we look.

Does your team use a chat? Are you always online on Skype? The authors of 'Who Moved My Cube' suggest that one click away is the online distance that signals proximity and that having to click beyond that is like having to walk up to the fourth floor (my comparison, not theirs!). We can signal our visibility by having an online chat status which shows we are sitting at our desk with a smile ready for a conversation. Or you can also signal unavailability through, for example, "do not disturb, send me an e-mail". Having a status that shows that you're not available is really important so that people don't feel scared of interrupting your work when that status is not on. You can also have a status that says "Would anyone join me for a coffee break at 3:15?".

No matter where your imagination takes you, it is important to create some sort of protocol around this with your team. An informal set of rules which shows a range of ways in in whichteam members can make themselves available for others to drop in.

As well as facilitating one-one chats, you will need an online space for groups of people to have conversations. You will of course need to use it yourself to provide resources and reasons for others to join in the conversation. Also, don't be afraid of making participation in this online space compulsory at least in the early stages of its set up, so that the space gets used. In this case, make sure you provide your team members of guidelines of what they could post about and make the reasons for keeping this space ticking clear. There is nothing worse than having a virtual space that nobody uses - when people do enter it they are likely to leave straight away: it’s like entering an empty room, you’re unlikely to linger for long.

Want to encourage informal conversations in your virtual team? Read the next article, Why You Should Respect Personal Time in Virtual teams.