Building rapport with virtual team members can be challenging—especially for virtual managers who don’t see employees in an office setting every day, where they can slowly, over time, get to know individuals’ personalities (and unique quirks).

But the good news is, in many cases those “water cooler conversations” are now taking place virtually, through conference calls, instant messaging, and using the many available team building and collaboration tools available to virtual teams.

Despite this change, the principles that lead to building a strong office culture and team environment are similar to the principles needed to build a successful virtual team.

It starts with trust.

“Trust is the grease between the wheels of effective work teams,” says Jeff Skipper, CEO of Jeff Skipper Consulting, a Calgary, Alberta-based company that designs profitable strategies for top companies in North America. “Knowing one another is a foundation for trust, so remote team members need opportunities to get to know how to work with each other. We need to provide opportunities for remote bonding.”

According to a PGi article (PGi is the world’s largest dedicated provider of collaboration software and services), workforce stats predict that employees will increasingly work apart, requiring the use of virtual meetings to stay connected. Already, about 49% of employees telecommute at least one day a week, according to PGi’s 2014 State of Telecommuting report.

Translation: the need to create team building/bonding exercises and opportunities for remote teams is only going to increase.

Skipper, who has a master’s degree in organizational psychology and works with Fortune 500 companies (IBM, BP, Goldman Sachs) and aspiring non-profits, suggests these team building ideas for remote workers:

Interactive/Real-Time Virtual Activities

Ask team members to do some research, looking for a few activities they would like to do in another team member’s city. Then ask the team member located there to do one of those activities on their behalf and share the experience live or through video and pictures, Facebook, or Instagram posts. Discuss the experience and share some background info or history with the team. Make it a virtual, interactive experience.

Buzzword Bingo

Start a game of “buzzword bingo” during meetings. During online meetings, award points when team members catch one another using acronyms, phrases, and assumptions. “This is a fun way to break down barriers when people ‘speak in code,'” says Skipper. “It helps team members learn each other’s language.”

Ethan Rasiel, CEO of Lightspeed PR, grapples with the challenges of how to build a cohesive virtual team every day.

“Managers have to understand that team building isn’t a luxury,” says Rasiel. “The team may in fact be scattered around the country or even the world, but they still need to feel like a unit building towards a common goal, not like strangers. When colleagues get to know one another as people, not just an email address, we see dramatically increased trust, responsiveness, mutual support and overall morale.”

Keep team chat fun.

Sure, most remote workers use team chat tools like Slack, Google Hangouts, or Hipchat, says Rasiel. But he likes to encourage a more relaxed atmosphere so people can chat about their weekend or the movie they saw, not just work stuff. “It’s a virtual water cooler since we don’t have a real one,” he says. It’s even better when employees have their own one-off conversations—perhaps discussing Sunday’s NFL games, or common interests (kids, yoga, favorite restaurants).

Meet in person when possible.

“We may not have an office to see each other every day, but meeting occasionally or even just once can make a big difference,” says Rasiel. If team members are in the same city with others, it could be beneficial to set up a lunch or dinner meeting if available. Or, go to dinner at an industry conference and hang out outside of work.

Respect work-life balance.

One way to alienate a virtual team is to expect people to reply in real-time all the time. Just because the technology makes it possible doesn’t mean it should be done, says Rasiel, adding: “I try to avoid sending emails or chat messages after close of business. Even if my personal work style is to work late, I compose messages but don’t click send until the AM, or I use Outlook to schedule them automatically.”

John Waldmann is the founder and CEO of Homebase, a San Francisco-based startup that offers free technology tools that help 60,000 small businesses eliminate the paperwork of managing hourly and freelance employees. Homebase has 35 employees all over the country and the world.

“We view our remote workers as a key strength of our company, and we do a lot to ensure that no matter where our employees are working, they feel like the full member of the team that they are,” says Waldmann.

Here’s an example of how Homebase employees connect virtually:

Virtual Projects

Homebase employees can often be found working together, at the same time, on the same project. “We also have regular hackathons that involve every member of the company, no matter where they are located,” says Waldmann.

According to PGI, teams need to make connections a priority. Upgrade technology with virtual meetings, turn on the webcam for face-time and remember to set aside meeting time to get personal. Play show and tell with workers’ personal goals, charity projects, or holiday plans, or get creative with virtual team-building activities.

Bottom line: make virtual team building a priority. It’s not a trend, it’s not the future. It’s the now.

“Instead of competing with each other, people want to help each other succeed,” says Rasiel. “All of this happens organically when people work in the same office. So that’s why, when people work remotely, we have to take steps to replicate this relationship building in different ways. Smart managers understand that this time investment will pay off many times over.”

Photo Credit: bigstockphoto.com

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