How to Strengthen Team Unity in a Virtual Workplace

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Research from Stanford leadership expert Behnam Tabrizi reveals that with strong cross-functional collaboration, teams have a 76 percent success rate—compared to just 19 percent for projects with “moderate” cross-functional support.

Unity. It’s one of the most important traits of any successful team—whether in the office, in the military, or on a sports field. But in today’s work environment that often sees the use of hybrid teams, actually achieving true team unity can feel easier said than done.

After all, how are you supposed to unite a team that is dispersed between remote and location-dependent positions? Especially with workers continuing to quit jobs at record rates, building a strong sense of unity can feel like an impossible task.

However, regardless of the exact makeup of your hybrid team, unity—and the enhanced productivity and retention that go along with it—is possible.

Build a Shared Team Identity

For better or worse, tribalism is part of human nature. We seek to form connections within our own group of similar people, and distrust those who are considered the “other.” In a hybrid work environment, this could easily lead to friction between remote and location-dependent workers. This can be especially true if workers from these separate groups rarely—if ever—interact with each other.

In a recent conversation, Todd Allen, owner and managing principal of Midgard Self Storage, explained, “To maintain a sense of unity with a hybrid workforce, there needs to be a shared team identity. Remote and location-based workers need to understand they are part of the same team. They are all working toward the same goals—and for the same company. That needs to be a stronger driver of identity than where they are doing their work.”

In fact, research from Jay Van Bavel of NYU reveals that negative biases are significantly reduced when people are told that they are part of the same team. Leaders must create a shared team identity that encompasses both remote and in-office workers. A strong identity as part of the same company should focus on the company’s mission and goals—a key trait all team members should have in common.

Emphasize Cross-Functionality

One of the most effective ways to enhance organizational solidarity is to use cross-functional teams. These teams, made up of both hybrid and location-dependent team members, should also comprise individuals from a variety of functions within the organization. 

“More often than not, a key project will require the input of individuals from a broad range of locations and disciplines,” Allen said. “This can include both internal company matters like innovation and employee well-being, as well as customer-facing initiatives. The more that our hybrid and location-based teams can engage directly with each other on these projects, the more they come to understand and appreciate each other — and deliver better results for our customers.” Breaking down these barriers fosters trust and a sense of shared purpose.

In my own research experience, I’ve found that working together as a cross-functional team can go a long way in building a sense of belonging, even among team members who may be geographically distant. You can’t form solidarity if you never interact with other employees. Leveling the playing field by re-onboarding the entire team for a cross-functional project is one way to do that.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that hasn’t experienced some degree of fracturing since the pandemic began. Social connections have eroded, and cultural cohesion has been strained. The challenges of working remotely, the clumsy process of figuring out what returning to the office could look like, the erosion of work-life balance, and the mass exodus of workers fed up with cultures that make them feel devalued have further eroded employees’ sense of community. 

On top of all that, most virtual team communication has been with our immediate colleagues and focused largely on the tasks at hand. It’s hardly a surprise that research from Microsoft suggests that cross-functional collaboration went down by 25 percent during the pandemic.

But there’s good news. Research from Stanford leadership expert Behnam Tabrizi reveals that with strong cross-functional collaboration, teams have a 76 percent success rate—compared to just 19 percent for projects with “moderate” cross-functional support. When your team has a sense of unity and belonging, the results follow.

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Accelerate Shared Learning

To successfully implement cross-functionality and achieve unity between hybrid and location-dependent workers, a business must have strong leadership with a clear vision. Leaders set the tone for relationships between hybrid and location-dependent workers. Team members will follow the behaviors and examples they see—not just the words leaders say.

Unfortunately, traditional leaders who are used to an entirely in-office team can struggle to drive results from remote team members and treat them with the respect they deserve. This is easily apparent in industry leaders continuing to disparage “working from home” despite the large numbers of employees who want this option.

In my own line of work, I’ve found that building leadership cohorts is key to establishing the proper approach to a hybrid workforce. These groups of roughly a dozen leaders work together for several months to consider how they must rethink leadership for a hybrid team. Leaders work together across disciplines on real projects that align with the organization’s strategic goals.

By exchanging insights and identifying areas for development and improvement, these leaders build strong cross-functional bonds. They learn by experience how to connect effectively with their peers, and then pass these lessons on to the team through organizational updates and improvements. They can then lead by example and serve as valuable mentors to help remote and location-dependent employees work together effectively.

Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.

Reprinted with permission from Forbes.