Virtual teams are on the rise. Other members of your team may be sitting across the city, state, country, or world. This development results in new challenges in how team members relate to one another.
A new report by Prysm, Inc. identifies five common difficulties hindering the progress of virtual teams. These five obstacles are time zone barriers, lack of proper tools and communication, isolation and social barriers, limited access to critical information and expertise, and misuse of technology.
As a psychologist whose focus is workplace appreciation, I’ve made it my work to address the isolation portion of this equation. One of the biggest barriers to overcome virtually is the lack of opportunity for those short informal encounters that occur when you work in the same location – arriving at the office in the morning, getting something in the break room, walking through the hallway, or sitting together in the conference room waiting for a meeting to start. These informal encounters allow people to chat for a few minutes, “check in,” and hear more about a team member’s life.
Employees who lack these small but important interactions because they work virtually are more at risk for becoming discouraged, not producing to their capabilities and eventually quitting. One way to reduce isolation is to help employees feel appreciated for the work they do, whether they are local or spread across the country or world.
Overcoming the challenge of communicating appreciation in virtual teams
Many companies have a recognition program in place, but the challenge is to know what actions hit the mark and how to effectively communicate appreciation to each team member. I co-wrote The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman (best selling author of The Five Love Languages) in part to solve this dilemma. In the book, we identify five languages, and then give action steps for each one. The languages of appreciation are Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Tangible Gifts, and Physical Touch.
We have found that each person has a primary and secondary language of appreciation. Our primary language communicates more deeply to us than the others. Although we can accept appreciation in all five languages, we do not feel truly encouraged unless the message is given through our primary language. When messages are sent repeatedly outside of that language, the intent of the message misses the mark and loses the impact the sender had hoped for.
The virtual environment creates an additional challenge for teams: How can co-workers effectively communicate appreciation to one another in the context of flexible work arrangements? (In fact, this question led us to develop the long distance version of our Motivating By Appreciation Inventory – to provide practical action steps with remote colleagues.) Communicating appreciation in virtual teams can be done effectively, but it requires more planning and intentionality than in same location relationships.
Using the 5 languages of appreciation for virtual teams
Even though words can be easily communicated across long distances, perhaps the message is off or the receiver may respond to appreciation in another form. You may connect more with your team if you convey your message in the language of appreciation that each team member prefers.
Most interactions with your virtual team members are focused on work and the tasks at hand. This can make your relationships lack personal warmth. One of best ways to overcome this challenge is to intentionally schedule some time to focus on personal recognition.
Words of Affirmation happen when a team member uses words to communicate a positive message to another person. Affirmation can be given by praising them for a specific accomplishment or a positive character trait.
In virtual settings, consider the following actions to encourage team members who value words of affirmation:
After a project is complete, take time for a video conference to review how each team member’s contributions positively affected the outcome.
Think of a characteristic you admire in a team member, and tell their supervisor what it is you appreciate about them. It will likely get back to the team member and make their day!
Many of us work closely with others, but at the end of the day, can’t think of any time that wasn’t rushed or distracted. For a team member who values quality time as their primary language of appreciation, focused attention can go a long way to help them feel valued. Quality time can take the form of meaningful conversation, shared experiences, or small group dialogue.
For those who feel valued when others choose to spend time with them, the following actions can be helpful in virtual work relationships:
Schedule a call occasionally just to chat.
Give them your undivided attention when you are talking on the phone (don’t multi-task).
Set aside some time to talk about non-work related topics at the beginning of a scheduled call.
Set up a video conference with the whole team to chat and get caught up with one another informally.
For team members whose primary language is acts of service, demonstrating appreciation by helping them with a task communicates caring. These individuals feel actions speak louder than words. While many people in our culture are motivated to get involved in social service projects, the idea of serving someone at work may be a foreign concept. If that’s true for you, commit to growing in this area.
We have found the following actions to be effective in communicating appreciation in virtual teams:
Agree to schedule a meeting or call when it is convenient for them, not according to your time zone.
Assign staff assistance in completing some menial task for them, so they focus their energy on tasks only they can complete.
Work out a plan to answer their phone calls or emails for a specified period of time, so they can focus solely on a getting a project done.
Giving the right gift to a person who appreciates tangible rewards can send a powerful message of thanks, appreciation, and encouragement. When getting some small gift for your virtual team members, a little extra effort can be quite impactful. Try one of these approaches:
Find out their favorite lunch, coffee or dessert spot and purchase them a gift certificate.
Send them some food, spices, magazines or sports memorabilia that are hard-to-find where they currently work.
Send them something related to one of their hobbies, like concert or sporting event tickets.
There are a limited number of situations involving touch that are appropriate for the workplace. When used appropriately, actions such as a warm handshake or a friendly pat on the shoulder have been shown to positively affect learning, emotional healing, and create a sense of acceptance. Touch can communicate a variety of positive messages like trust, connectedness, and caring. Typically, those individuals who freely touch others in an affirming manner are the same individuals who would welcome affirming touches from others.
In a virtual setting, physical touch is not an option. For this reason, it may be important to schedule some face-to-face time a couple times a year so team members can connect and celebrate successes together.
Commit to Appreciation in Virtual Teams
While communicating appreciation in virtual teams takes time and forethought, it can be done and it is important to do so. Teams with a significant number of remote employees should invest the time and effort to communicate specific and individualized appreciation. The return on the investment will be well worth the cost.
How do you show appreciation in virtual teams?