If you’re having trouble building team spirit and comradery among remote employees, the solution to your problems could be a packed lunch.
At least that’s one of the recommendations of a recent study into recreating the “water-cooler” effect of office bonding within an online setting.
The study, carried out in Australia–which is about as remote as you can get without having to give up U.S. primetime TV–found that virtual socializing is possible if team members are given unstructured video conferencing time with each other to simply chat and hang out.
And in this casual meeting, food is essential.
The Virtual Coworker Lunch
The study, by professional services group Deloitte and PC hardware manufacturer Dell, attempted to find ways of bringing the informal aspects of traditional office life to the typically more rigid workflow of remote teams.
With 65 million people doing some form of teletravel to work each year, and companies in line to save as much as $75 million by employing remote workers, there’s clearly a solid motivation to find out how best to engage these offsite team members, especially since studies have shown that positive social interactions and friendships in the workplace lead employees to be happier and more productive at work.
The Australian study focused on creating social events centered around food, and placed employees from different offices and different companies in front of video conferencing cameras and microphones to see how they got along over lunch.
Employees attended hour-long informal lunch meetings free of agenda items or other business-related stimuli, and were instead left to simply share a conversation with their colleagues–with the inference being that since they’re at work they’ll likely talk about work.
While the results show that some found it awkward to eat in front of people in this manner, others said sharing a meal made it clear this was an informal meeting and that this made them feel freer to share “out of the box ideas”.
The research team conceded the virtual lunch would be of benefit only to small teams, and that employees would have to buy into the idea for it work, but they maintain that their innovation engaged remote workers with the broader company, and that such meetings generated higher quality ideas than straight-forward business meetings.
But it does sound a little awkward, doesn’t it?
Finding Time to Be Informal
Such an experiment is always going to be a subjective experience, but it does seem like you’d need at least a few gregarious types seated in front of those cameras to break the ice and get people talking–and perhaps alleviate the Orwellian feeling that the boss is somewhere watching you eat.
Surely virtual socializing would work better if it occurred within everyday workflows. Instead of making a point of deliberately creating socializing time, more time could be made for people to enjoy a little socializing within work time.
A simple five-minute run around the virtual table to ask what people did on the weekend before a meeting kicks off seems a better way for attendees to reveal a little more about themselves, and learn a little more about their peers.
Or, you could encourage people to use video chat instead of sending an email when they need a colleague’s input. Anytime you can humanize communication and get people making eye contact you’re encouraging them to see each other, literally, as people and so helping to build comfort and team cohesion.
In the end, though, any way you attempt to engage and socialize your virtual team is pretty much going to live and die on the strengths of your team leaders.
A New Generation of Virtual Leaders
Research shows that the leaders of remote teams have to possess an entirely different set of skills than those leading teams housed together. In fact, some of those skills are the exact opposite of the ones that benefit leaders in the bricks-and-mortar world.
That’s because remote teams are for more centralized than typical office teams, and for many team members, their primary, perhaps sole, contact is their direct report. It’s a spoke and wheel arrangement where specialized team members work on components of a project but only come together at the hub.
And if that metaphor rings true, then perhaps there isn’t a need for disparate team members to be bosom buddies with each other, and to feel comfortable enough to share a meal in order to be engaged with and responsive in their work.
Maybe they just need a strong connection in the center, one humanized by regular face-to-face communication that lets the social and the personal slip into the workaday conversation.