One ring to rule them all


‘One ring to rule them all’


 The magic of team identity in virtual project teams


Sometimes in virtual teams the big questions is not ‘are we all rowing in the same direction?’. Sometimes the basic question is ‘do we even feel we are in the same boat?’

Team identity means defining yourself as a member of the team (the cognitive connection), being committed to a team (the affective connection), and drawing self-esteem from the affiliation to that team (the pride connection). All these components are necessary for a person to identify with a team: the mind, the heart and the pride. Most of the time however, our most important identification happens with the team spatially closest to us. Virtual teams members are dispersed over locations, maybe countries, and have much more in common with their colleagues sitting next to them than their virtual team which is miles (and timezones) apart.

But it’s precisely because of these difficulties that having a strong team identity is even more important in virtual teams. Virtual teams that have a strong identity are better able to coordinate, perform  and overcome conflicts, irrespective of how far apart the team members are or how difficult and complex the task is.

So how to create and strengthen team identity in a virtual team? By paying attention to face to face interactions, to online socializing, and by managing the work and reward process.

1. Face to face interactions:

  • Early encounters. Meet as soon as possible after the team was set up. Don’t be afraid to kick off with some ice-breakers that require people to reveal very personal information about themselves. As a leader, set the tone to it. The speed of building trust and feeling at ease with each other is much higher once people share personal information about themselves. (Research shows that after having disclosed a piece of very personal information, one gets to view a total stranger –who did not share anything in turn – as much more trustworthy than after the same amount of interaction on non-descript topics. It is because your mind needs to adjust to having made yourself vulnerable to a total stranger, and the way it does it is by investing that person with more trust – the old trick of cognitive dissonance.)
  • Periodic face to face meetings. No matter how tight the budget is, you will save in the long run if the team meets periodically. Important to note however, not any kind of meetings: in these meetings, make sure you create a lot of space for socializing time. The temptation is great in these few days together to cram as much work in as possible. Instead, have longer breaks and institute a ‘no email and phone’ policy for some of the breaks. This way, people have the opportunity to truly talk to each other and get to know each other. Having a face to put to a name and a personal story to go along will go a long way in critical moments in the future when you want to reach for help or prevent a conflict from escalating.
  • Location, location, location! Where do you usually have these encounters? Most of the time, the answer will be either ‘headquarters’ or ‘a nice/fancy/exotic’ location (depending on budget constraints). Wrong. A neutral location is very good to break the ice, but the risk is that it makes it easy to separate the warm interaction the team has ‘out there’ and the nitty-gritty of daily life. Headquarters location, though convenient usually, also send a certain power  disparity message. Why not rotate and visit each location in turn? This way, each team member becomes the host and can organize the visit (no better cultural awareness training), but more importantly, you get a real feeling of the place, how their daily schedule looks like, how the work flow is there, what constraints they have, what facilities, the flavor of the local organizational culture, who are the people around. This way all team members will get a better sense of each other and their lives outside the teleconference meetings.
  • Wine them, dine them, charm them. Of course, part and parcel (and a significant one hopefully) of these encounters should be outside office socializing. Don’t make other plans when your virtual team is in town. You don’t get to see them so often. And what better way to loosen tongues and open hearts than sharing a good meal and a drink or two?
  • Critical moments. In critical moments (delicate conversations, conflicts escalating), consider very seriously if a visit in person (costly though it might be) will not save in the long run time, money, and possibly a relationship. No one has budget for this, but some choices are worth giving a second thought to (except we usually don’t, because nobody really wants to tackle a delicate situation head on, and it is so much easier in such moments to hide behind a screen). If in doubt: call. If the doubt persists: get in the car or board a plane.


2. Online socializing:

  • Use the start of virtual meeting (each time) for social relationship building. Sharing ‘the peak of the week for you so far’ can seem forced at start, but people get in the game easier than one imagines. Finding a theme to share every time, and taking a few minutes to inquire over people’s families, sport team’s wins, whether they made it to the end of the marathon are all questions that would pop up naturally between people waiting in the same room to start a meeting. Why not online? If working with efficiency-driven cultures, introduce an unspoken norm of logging in 5-10 minutes earlier to chat.
  • Find your team’s own ‘daily interactions equivalents’. For example, a manager leading a permanent team that was located in three different countries instituted a daily morning practice of sharing on a joint playlist each member’s ‘song of the morning’ (the song you heard over radio by accident and you keep humming in your head). It made for a very cheerful way of touching base each morning and saying hello in a less traditional manner, but also people could easily express moods and states that otherwise you would not start spontaneously disclosing over chat.
  • Touch base! As the leader of a virtual team, do not email/call your team members only to check on their progress, give them tasks or give bad news. ‘Crisis-calling’ (if the boss calls, it must be burning somewhere) is one of the most stressful managerial practices- especially when your boss is far away. Try to systematically take time each week or every other week to touch base for no reason with your team members. Have an open conversation, where you don’t have an agenda, and just call to see how the person is and how things are going (while making clear that you don’t want a report) – just like you would occasionally pop in someone’s office for a coffee on a Friday afternoon to chat for 5 minutes relaxed about the weekend ahead and how the week was. It’s amazing what you get to learn from such incidental conversations (and I am referring here to information relevant to your project that did not reach the critical level to be shared, but by learning about it early on you can prevent sometimes critical situations).
  • Use of social media (internal or external) boosts identity and performance. Shared virtual spaces, even if they are outside socializing platforms (like Facebook, Pinterest etc.), or interest groups in your company’s online tool (i.e., a photography group on yammer), are NOT a way to waste time during work hours. They are a way to find and build similarities between people, which increases their identification with the team. Redundant communication has been proven time and again to increase the adaptability of teams in moments of crisis – because you accidentally learned once that a colleague has a skill unrelated to their job, but which comes in handy in the project. Because you socialized, found similarities, and are now less prone to play the blame game when a glitch comes along. Because you socialized, built trust, and are now less prone to escalate a conflict, but instead have a solid enough human base to be able to address it.
  • And if you really want to go all the way…play online games instead of teambuilding. There are companies now that tailor such online teambuilding experiences. It has the same effect as face to face teambuilding, but this time the environment remains the same as the one of regular work interactions – namely virtual.


3. Rewards and visibility

  • Early wins. Organize the project in such a way as to have some early (and not very difficult to reach) milestones. Nothing boosts the team morale  and pride like some early wins.
  • Virtual reward ceremonies. Yes, you may not have formal authority over your team, nor do you have an outstanding budget, but there are so many ways to symbolically recognize achievements (small or great) and to reward behaviours that make people’s life in the team just a tad easier. No matter how serious people are, we all like to play and joke at times. Some companies have badge systems, but simpler than that you can introduce funny icons to accompany a person’s name at the beginning of a meeting (symbol of their achievement), offer them a virtual bottle of champagne (or even a car, while you’re at it) or a resounding round of applause.
  • Along the same lines, funny symbols aside, giving individual recognition at the start of each virtual meeting is a good way to start a meeting, show what truly matters for you as a leader (you can reward not only performance, but also helping behaviors, daring experimentation – even if not successful or any other behavior that you want to trademark in your team).
  • Make each team member’s “real location” boss aware of the member’s contribution. Let them know that when their team members are not working on local tasks, it doesn’t mean they laze around. Share how much they work, when the more laden moments come, what they achieved and how, through their performance, they enhance the good name of the department they come from. Everyone wants to bask in shared glory…
  • Make your team visible in the organization and to relevant stakeholders. One of the easiest ways to enhance team identity is to capitalize on people’s pride. The more you will make your team and their progress visible to the organization and relevant stakeholders, the more you boost your project and make sure others don’t see it as a black box (the usual expression is ‘money-sucking black box’) that drains resources from the company, but as a valuable enterprise that everyone is proud to be a part of. Who wouldn’t want to be part of the champion team that everyone knows about?


So, to sum it up. How to strengthen team identity in a nutshell?

  • Share (hi)stories and build on similarities
  • Share present realities (touch base regularly)
  • Good process and visibility management


Prof. Smaranda Boros
Vlerick Business School