7 ways to knit a virtual team together

The companies have been riding the wave and welcoming distributed teams in their workforce more than ever before. This presents a challenge for Agile coaches and Scrum masters brought in to establish a culture of innovation and build effective teams, relying on, in spite of their location, on trust.

Check our complete guide to remote team-building activities and games here.

We wondered how they cope with the new reality and asked all the burning questions to Gerard Chiva, a well-known Agile Transformation coach with a solid technical background and 20 years of experience in the field, holding management roles in international corporate environments. One of the many things we learned about was using the icebreakers Gerard often applies to create close-knit virtual teams. Here he talks us through the selection of his favorites and explains their value.

32% of employees work remotely, while 62% are “regularly taking advantage of flexible working practices offered to them.” Source: the survey by Polycom, 2015.

What it is really like to coach a virtual team

From my experience, the success and performance of virtual teams depend on overcoming two potential issues: one issue to deal with is distance, and the other is trust.

With distance, it’s pure biology. The human brain is wired to like and accept something tangible rather than something that is remote – we need to consciously overcome that every time. With regards to trust, I would say that it is important to have in any sort of team, but with virtual teams, I think, it’s key.

Interestingly, building trust within a virtual team requires the same things you would do for a co-located team, but done more intensely. You can minimize the risk of struggling from both of these issues by using icebreaker exercises. I rely on them heavily in my projects to build trust and develop culture within new agile teams.

I recommend practicing icebreaker exercises often within a virtual team. As I mentioned earlier, if we cannot see or feel the person, our brain doesn’t accept them as easily. So, you need to get creative and familiarize virtual teammates with each other as much as you can. At least for the first few months, you may want to warm up the team every day. Remind yourself of the importance and be insistent. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Obviously, as the team becomes more trusting, you don’t need to practice as intensely. Doing it from time to time, you may offer the participants the option to choose the exercises they prefer: “Hey, guys, what can we do today?”

AS YOU CAN SEE, VIRTUAL ICE BREAKER EXERCISES CAN BE BOTH USEFUL AND FUN. Keep in mind that when the team has grown in trust, there is no need to practise everyday. But, compared with co-located teams, virtual teams at the starting point require more intense and frequent work to build trust. Remember that and try to exercise.

What is an icebreaker exercise?

Icebreakers are warming-up team exercises to encourage vulnerability and, subsequently, form trust – a key aspect for any performing team. Trust grows naturally in co-located teams, but with virtual teams you must commit to building that culture and team feeling.

Favorites exercises of Gerard Chiva

1. My needs, your need, our needs

This exercise is for newly formed teams and people that don’t know each other very well yet. The gist of it is that you answer three simple questions – what you need from the team, what you need from the coach and what you can offer to the team. It is a very simple exercise. A team member states their needs and also says what they can offer.

2. Who do you trust?

Ask everyone on the team to think of someone who they trust. Lead the discussion by asking “Okay, what makes you trust that person?” The team members will start thinking out loud: “I trust this person because they behave this way and do these things”. This is the way to begin an interesting conversation about what trust means for everyone on the team.

3. Introduction with a shield

For this exercise, the teammates will need five minutes of preparation. They introduce themselves to the group, mentioning four things about themselves.

These are the four topics:

  • The main strength or value that you bring to the team;
  •  Something that others don’t know about you;
  •  Something you feel especially proud of;
  •  Something that you have recently done.

“The shield” is the opportunity to comfortably talk about private topics in front of strangers, getting to know them just enough. This combination of answers can crack the shell and create vulnerability to start building trust.

4. The Drucker exercise

This exercise is very good for playing in teams and requires everyone to prepare in advance.

The teammates answer four questions:

  •  What am I good at?
  •  What do I value?
  •  How do I perform?
  •  What contribution can be expected from me?

Though the exercise is similar to the previous one, it is actually more complex and powerful, as it’s asking about values.

5. What do you value?

Bring up the following question with the team: “What are the three things that you value: choose an object, a relationship and an idea.” Having answered that, everyone will get to know each other better and open themselves up to vulnerability.

6. Two truths and a lie

This is a very fast and funny exercise. Every team member writes down three facts about themselves. Two of them are true and one is a lie. Teammates present the facts in turn to the rest of the group, who are trying to guess which is which. If you get creative, the guess will be a difficult one!

7. Personal map

This exercise is one of my personal favorites. The underlying concept is one of a mental map. Everyone takes five minutes to draw a diagram of themselves and then explain it to the others. This is a very nice way to introduce yourself, especially in a new team where people don’t know each other. As a coach, you will also understand a lot of things from this drawing: what is important for everyone on the team, what they value, and what their life is made of. It is fun, visual, and quite fast. Miro is a great tool for this exercise, as everyone can draw their own personal map to share it later.

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