By Anne Whiting, Senior Consultant

Many of us have not seen our teammates in real life for more than six months now. The novelty of working from home on a full time basis has worn off and our initial enthusiasm for Zoom happy hours has evaporated after being on camera all day long attending virtual meetings. Many leaders are struggling to maintain a positive team climate and foster camaraderie among employees as the pandemic wears on and concerns around health, the economy, and balancing work and family life take their toll. We are also facing the challenge of hiring and on-boarding team members virtually. The typical methods of forming social bonds and team building are not at our disposal; we cannot have potluck lunches, go on scavenger hunts together, or spend the day around a conference table at a resort.

We are spending more time than ever working collaboratively in teams to address complex problems. Working remotely has advantages – and some significant drawbacks. Creating and maintaining social bonds is important and technology can only go so far in building rapport between dispersed team members. Working remotely, especially when combined with social distancing at a societal level, can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. If done well, bonding activities can make team members feel more connected to each other.

Here are some ways we have seen our clients get creative to support their remote teams:

Show & Tell. In one company, they did a virtual tour of their home offices. That gave them the chance to talk about some of the mementos and keepsakes that they kept nearby. They were showing off pictures that their kids drew for them, fruit harvested from trees in their backyards, and souvenirs from happy vacations. The conversation that followed fostered personal connections in a way that would have not occurred back in the office.

Conference Call Backgrounds. These are not typical times, and individual team members are undoubtedly in different places mentally and emotionally. Challenge team members to find a virtual background that reflects how they are feeling at the moment as an effective instant icebreaker for team meetings and as a way to sense how others are doing. Platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have a feature that allows users to upload any image to use for a virtual background. If virtual backgrounds are not possible, see how creative your employees can get using things from around the house. If you need help identifying positive and negative emotions or tracking your own emotions, there are several charts that can help.

Playing games, like Online Pictionary or Hangman can contribute to a more lighthearted vibe where people can get a sense of who someone is beyond their role at work. Like in the classic games, players must guess the keyword their teammate is drawing or thinking of. Technology like Zoom’s whiteboard feature can help make this possible.

Get Clear by Getting Curious

Before planning a team bonding activity, leaders should identify what they are hoping to achieve. A lighthearted game may relieve tension, but it will not solve a serious problem with team effectiveness, such as difficulty making decisions, poor communication, an unhealthy approach to conflict, lack of role clarity, ineffective meetings, or no shared vision. Maintaining team effectiveness can be difficult as team membership and/or the external environment changes. All teams create norms, those explicit or implicit behavioral expectations, that drive how team members interact, communicate, make decisions, and conduct themselves as members of the team. Those norms, or patterns of behaviors and interactions, can either support or detract from team performance. Employees also fundamentally differ in their preparedness to collaborate, voice opinions, and their comfort with ambiguity.

It is likely that your team’s behavioral norms have evolved in both planned and unplanned ways with the pandemic and shift to working remotely full time, and your team may need to revise its norms. Ask your team to reflect on this forced experiment and identify the positive and negative changes occurring in their work and the team as a whole and understand members’ constraints. As the pandemic wears on, it is crucial to know how team members are coping with the added demands so that the team is able to communicate effectively, support members, manage deadline expectations, and re-balance task loads accordingly.

Establishing or revisiting norms can help team members understand how to conduct themselves in this time of endless uncertainty. The team should discuss new protocols for communication, making requests, and collaborating with one another. Your team may benefit from a norm that addresses expected response times and sanctions “digital downtime” to help combat the blurring boundaries between work and home.

Revisiting team norms should be a recurring event and can help the team pivot together quickly as conditions continue to change or evolve.

If you need more information about how your employees or team members are adjusting, consider using a short, focused feedback tool like 3D Group’s remote worker tool or reach out for more ideas.

Anne Whiting, MA is a Senior Consultant at 3D Group. She has over two decades of experience as a global HR leader and coach. Her direct industry experience includes consumer packaged goods, aerospace manufacturing, professional services, information technology, and healthcare. Anne earned her Master of Science degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Alliant International University in San Diego.