Shaping Team Identity in Virtual Teams

This is the second post addressing the VIRTUAL elements of communication in virtual teams. 'I' stands for Identity. To consume this post in an effective fashion, have a look at the one on Visibility and blend to your taste.

Team identity is one of those concepts we rarely stop to think about: how much our team members identify with the team and how positive they feel about being part of it.

Before we consider whether our team members feel like they belong to the team and how they feel about it, we can start defining our team's identity by asking ourselves some questions.

What do we stand for?
What is our role in the bigger picture (organisation,society)
Who is “in” and who is “out”?
What behaviours are acceptable and which are not?
How do we see the world?
How do we communicate with the outside world?

Maybe we can’t answer all these questions clearly and concisely straightaway but just going through this exercise will give you a feel of how defined your identity is

By all means, feel free to carry out this exercise with your team members. It will be interesting to see whether you all see yourselves in the same way. A further conversation can also highlight any misalignment in how we want to see ourselves and our current state. Analysis of this can lead to identifying how we want to change.

For example, in answering “How do we deal with the outside world?”, we might realise that “we rarely communicate”. We might then come up with strategies to help us change this, like attending conferences, visiting clients and suppliers at their base or actively engaging in organisation-wide conversations, for example through Yammer.

If you carry out this exercise regularly (e.g. every six months) you can see how your team identity evolves over time and identify any aspects of it that you would like to change.


Why Should We Care?


How much someone feels part of a team is influenced by how respected and valued they feel by other team members.

This is important, because those who feel like they belong to a team tend to have positive team identity (a positive view of the team). This in turn, influences team performance, job satisfaction and organisational citizenship behaviour (how likely someone is to go the extra mile to do their job well or help others). (G.H. Hang and P.D. Harms. 2010. “Team identification, trust and conflict: a mediation model.”) 


“A variety of motivational mechanisms predispose us to respond positively to signs that we are accepted by the group - CONNECTING - and it also means that we are motivated to work hard for groups we identify with - HARMONISING.”
Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Matthew D. Lieberman

So, what are some of the things that help team members have a positive team identity?

Respect, for one, can give us a “sense of inclusion and will affect the way in which an individual feels about the group and what that individual is willing to do for the group” ("How Perceived Respect Affects Positive Team Identity and Willingness to Invest in the Team". Ellemers et al. British Journal of Management, 24. p. 21-37. 2013).

This respect can be either in the task domain or in the relational domain: we respect you because of your skill or your personality. Furthermore, belonging to the group and having professional goals that align with that group, will contribute to being prepared to help each other out or even to make up for others'  shortcomings.

When team members are cognitively aligned, team identity tends to be strong. Understanding team goals and being emotionally in tune with each other means they can understand the kind of behaviours that contribute to the team’s cohesion and high performance. For this to happen, you need constant and clear communication.


Team Identity in Virtual Teams


Team identity builds over time. When we regularly observe our team members' behaviour and when we regularly engage in both work-related and non-work related conversation we begin to form an idea of what our team stands for and we form an opinion about it.

When we don’t regularly interact with others, we might not quite know what we’re part of. If we rarely get information on what our team stands for as opposed to other teams/groups we’re members of, we might feel detached and hence not that inclined to go the extra mile.

To give you a “how to build your team identity” list would be to simplify the issue, so instead, here are three (+1) things you might want to consider.

Role-model and publicly recognise collaborative behaviours.

When people work together, they get to know each other’s values better and seek to find similarities or common ground to help them work better and faster (most times!). Some of these behaviours, according to Meena Dorr and Kip Kelly, are: “demonstrating appreciation of others, engaging in purposeful conversations and creatively and productively solving conflicts."

Recruit for Virtual Work

If you have a say in recruiting your team members (this is the +1), find people who are happy to work independently but who understand the importance of clear, consistent and concise communication. (For the many other things to look out for, have a listen to the podcast Recruiting for Virtual Teams.)

Use technology to keep you connected.

This includes creating a space (or making sure there’s a space) where people can informally share their thoughts on team-related issues, industry-related information and other aspects that will influence how the team operates internally and externally. (Check out the podcast on Collaboration Tools, out on 20 March.)

Advocate for your team.

How the outside world sees you will affect how you see yourselves as members of the team. Share your team’s successes and problem-solving abilities with the outside world.


Team identity is yet another aspect of virtual teams which we need to address consciously, as we can't leave it to develop over time through face-to-face interaction. It's probably the most important aspect of making sure that "virtual" does not mean "distant".