human moment in virtual teams

Breaking the Global Ice


Nowadays walking across the street can be more challenging than speaking to someone across the country. While we all have heard that companies are increasingly open to flexible work hours and allowing employees to work virtually, less is heard about the resulting difficulties. One of the most common complaints among employees who work remotely is the sense of isolation from the rest of the community.

When meetings are fully or partially virtual, the inclination is to jump straight into the business at hand and forgo the casual banter that happens naturally when people gather together in the same room. Skipping this human connection, however, often leads to decreased job satisfaction as the sense of being on a team diminishes.  As both experts on virtual work and a virtual team ourselves, we take great care to purposefully nurture that human connection whenever we can.  Taking just five minutes at the start of every virtual meeting goes a long way to bridge the distances between us.

At Bridging Distance we begin every virtual meeting with a “check-in” question to break the ice. These questions are a great way to learn about one another and to strengthen the bonds between us.  A different member is tasked with bringing and asking the check-in question; anything from weather to sports to life philosophy. Rotating this task keeps the group from falling into a rut, elicits creativity from all members.  These icebreakers play a key role in creating a trusting atmosphere, especially in the early stages of team formation and remain critical in keeping relationships fresh, interesting, and growing and time goes on.

business_group_seated_laughing_400x250Check-in questions spark lively conversation, help flesh team members out as people, and lead to mutual respect and understanding. Think of these first few minutes as an investment in your team’s cohesion and ultimate success.

I’ve found in my time with Bridging Distance that, not only do check-in questions allow us to segue smoothly into the meeting, but also bring a sense of levity and–with the right question–can bring an amount of introspection. In my experience, the questions with the most potential for humor were the ones that brought us closer together. Laughter can break quite a bit of ice.

Here are some of my favorites

  1. Where would your ideal, no-expenses-spared vacation be?
  2. What would be the first thing you did if won a million dollars? (After you were done jumping up and down.)
  3. What is the most positive thing that has happened to you this week? Can be professional or personal.
  4. Would you rather be stuck in an elevator with someone who talked too much or didn’t talk at all?  Why?
  5. “Show & tell” with your favorite mug via video or pictures.  Consider advance notice for this.  (Our favorite — “I like big mutts!” — thank you, Kelly!)
  6. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
  7. What is one thing you did not understand about the world when you were a kid? (My dad’s boss was British, and I didn’t realize that not everyone’s boss was British, though I suppose that was one day the case.)
  8. What is your greatest minor triumph? Your biggest small win?
  9. Would you rather have to walk around all day with jelly in your shoes OR sleep all night with sand in your bed?  Why?
  10. What’s the weirdest thing you have ever eaten? (Not for the squeamish.)
  11. How much cash do you have on you?big mutts coffee cup
  12. What most irritates you at a restaurant?
  13. What is the best bumper stick sticker you’ve ever seen? (Mine “You! Out of the gene pool!”)
  14. If you could change one thing about the world what would it be?
  15. If you could live in any period in history what would it be?
  16. What’s your favorite word? Least favorite?
  17. What is something you know you do differently from most people?
  18. Do you collect anything?
  19. Who is someone you look up to and why?
  20. If you were in the Miss America Pageant what would your talent be?
  21. Are you more concerned with doing things right or doing the right things?
  22. If you were just given a yacht, what would you name it?
  23. If you could rid the world of one thing what would it be?
  24. When was the last time that you did something for the first time? What was it?
  25. What would this company/team look like if your mother ran it? (source: 75 Cage-Rattling Questions by Dick Whitney and Melissa Giovagnoli)
  26. If you are pressed for time in your meeting you can always ask participants to choose between X and Y. Coffee or Tea? Cat or dog? Sweet or Salty? Superman or Batman? Beach or mountains? Morning or night? Paper or plastic? Too hot or too Cold? Glass half full or glass half empty?
  27. What is the sound you can best imitate?  Do it!

 Even though you may be tempted to respond with “long walks on the beach,” dating sites like or eHarmony are an interesting resource for “getting-to-know-you” questions; as their whole business, it turns out, is based around bridging a certain distance.

And the list goes on. You know your team best, so tailor your questions to your team.

Question for readers:  What’s the best icebreaker you’ve heard lately (or not-so-lately)?


Getting Off Your Virtual Island


Creating the “Human Moment” in Virtual Teams

As the poet, John Donne wrote, “no man is an island… every man is a part of the main.”  If you are part of a virtual team, you likely know the feeling of being an island adrift within your organization.

Virtual teams are everywhere.  Technology makes it possible for us to work together from wherever we are located.  Corporations benefit from hiring specific talent, regardless of geography.

But some things get lost in this “virtual environment.”  Increasingly, we are becoming islands as we enter into the virtual work force; or become part of a virtual team.

One of the usual first casualties of a virtual team is the “human connection” with one another.  We see our teammates’ names in our inboxes, we may hear and see them at our audio and video meetings, but too often, they remain disconnected and somehow “not real” to us.  We don’t really know them, and they don’t really know us. This lack of human connection hinders creativity, innovation, satisfaction, and performance — all the things critical to achieving professional success.

Traditionally,  co-located teams fostered “water cooler moments” (informal communications) through careful design — communal break rooms; couches; hanging out after work; going for lunch; and in those early-meeting moments before things got down to business.

The challenge becomes — how do we transpose that same purposeful design into the virtual workplace? What, exactly, is needed from leadership, to encourage and foster the human connection in virtual teams?  Read on!

Thoughtful Virtual Design that Creates the “Human Moment”


1.  Encourage Teammates to Communicate Spontaneously

This requires everyone being aware of each other’s availability.  The most successful type of spontaneous conversation are through some form of instant messaging.  Every platform has some kind of team chat function, even though you may have to dig to find it.  Set everyone up.  Encourage people to share their coffee cups, the view from their windows, the weather, their breakfast, etc.. Research indicates that as virtual teams develop patterns of communication, new communicative behavior emerges that often exceeds the value of face to face communications.

2.  It Must be Easy to Use

“Behavioral cost” must be low.  This is just a fancy way of saying “the amount of effort required to initiate and conduct” a conversation must be minimal in order for people to keep doing it.  Let’s just say it needs to be easy or people won’t use it.

3.  Leverage Technology’s Uniqueness

People on virtual teams will initiate conversation regardless of the receiver’s ability to respond.  Unlike face to face, where people use visual cues to know whether to initiate or not, technology makes starting a conversation easier.  Just now, I broadcast a “Happy Thursday” across my virtual team chat.. we will see who responds!

As unlikely as it sounds, document sharing has proven to be helpful in both initiating and maintaining virtual conversations. I think it just gives everyone “permission” to chat about something that is centered on a task, with acceptable digressions into chit chat.

4. Give Permission

The most important factor to creating and maintaining that human connection in our technology-laden world is the express “permission” by leadership for everyone to take the time to engage with one another in non-task related conversation.

Encourage your team, take the reins in initiating essential human moments between yourself and your team, and your team with one another. Watch as your virtual team gels together and establishes behaviors that lead to increased team performance and satisfaction. Be the bridge that connects your islands.



Question for readers:  Do you feel comfortable engaging in informal conversation with your virtual teammates? Why or why not?