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Forming, Storming, and Norming: Making Online Teams Work

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Recent research by Microsoft made the news when it confirmed what many have felt all along: for those who work from home (WFH), professional networks have contracted, poor methods of communication like email have proliferated, and people are craving more human connection to colleagues. A 2020 Atlassian survey backed up many of these same points. Online work has become more siloed, and virtual work can diminish creativity by removing chances for spontaneous connection and interactions with our teams and groups.

All this reflects the need to double down on understanding how leaders can build strong, resilient teams remotely. As the coronavirus has slowed the return of in-person work and school, many school or work leaders are forced to do what would normally be a natural and enjoyable process in person over the computer. The typical group process of forming, storming, and norming can seem like a pipe dream for virtual team leaders. Yet the same phases of group development can still occur online; they just require more creative and intentional work.

Forming Your Team
First interactions are crucial for all teams and especially virtual ones. Trust between team members is being built from the outset. It’s important to take the time upfront to get to know your team members. Have team members give a virtual tour of their workspace. Open a Slack channel for pictures of pets. Have some fun with a virtual icebreaker game, like online Pictionary using random image generators.

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Beyond icebreaking, leaders should not wait to set rules, expectations, and norms within an online team. Establish your purpose and set goals for what you will accomplish together. Create a team contract that details expectations of group members. Discuss norms of how quickly team members should respond to messages, what steps should be taken when messages aren’t being responded to, and how team members should interact on video calls. These detailed structures act as a security blanket for remote participants who lack the assurances and non-verbal cues of in-person work.

Storming: Avoiding the Happy Trap
Every team passes through a time of testing and challenge before it finds its identity and strength. After the happy first interactions between team members, conflict unavoidably arises. Miscommunications are more likely in a virtual setting when communication is more disjointed and in shorter supply. If leaders don’t help the group transit through this phase, team members can get stuck in a zone of “artificial harmony”where interactions are pleasant, but disagreements simmer beneath the surface. How can leaders guide their virtual teams through this tricky phase?

A huge piece of any team development is ensuring the psychological safety of each team member. This is where openness, honesty, and disagreement are welcome without penalty. Although participants lack some of the social cues that make in-person communication the gold standard, they can compensate for this by being more careful and considerate with their communication. Keith Ferrazzi suggests using a form of “caring criticism” to deliver feedback or bad news to team members. Phrases like “I might suggest” or “perhaps you could consider” soften feedback and dampen any potential hard feelings. Feedback or criticism should always be delivered with the richest form of communication available, such as phone or video chat.

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Similarly, it’s important to continue to make time for social interactions, water cooler talk, and team-strengthening exercises. Being all-virtual doesn’t mean all conversations have to be all-business. It’s easy to forget that colleagues in the same office often talk about their personal lives, politics, religion, and other deeper subjects than small talk. Unrelated conversations and small talk have a way of humanizing our team members. Provide informal places like chat boards or “hang-out” rooms where these can occur. Better still, set up a call where everyone brings their lunch and no administrative topics are allowed, but team members take turns running discussion on outside topics of interest.

Norming: Resist the Urge to Stay in the Spotlight
Virtual teams have entered the norming phase and are well on their way to “performing” when team members clearly understand their purpose and goals, have more confidence in their work, and actively support each other. Team leaders begin to fade out of the spotlight as the “sage on the stage” and take on the role of “guide on the side” as team members begin to self-direct. This is the time for leaders to work behind the scenes to meet with team members one-on-one, recognize individual and team efforts, and provide ongoing learning opportunities.

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Don’t forget the fun in this phase too. Assign group members to come up with remote team-building activities. For example, a remote gift exchange can be a great way to build camaraderie. Each member picks a gift they want to give and places a picture of it on a digital board. Then a white elephant-type game commences. At the end, each member mails their gift to the one who ended up with it. Teams can also have fun brainstorming through Jam Boards and other collaborative spaces or holding raffles using the Wheel of Names spinner.

In summary, virtual teambuilding takes more creativity and intentionality online, but it can produce equally strong and resilient teams through all phases of team development. What have been the most challenging phases of team development for your virtual teams? And what have you seen work in leading teams online?

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