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Skilled workers going remote are now at 50% and counting. I wonder why. Groceries are considered safe when they give off a mild antibacterial fragrance. Facemasks are an accessory without which fashion is no longer haute couture.

Countless Zoom chats later, your average line manager frantically searches for a realistic set of virtual team building activities in the hopes of keeping his or her team responsive at the upcoming conference call. Remote is the hipp new norm. A recent survey by Deloitte seems to suggest so.

is virtual team building effective

The shift from downtown real estate to a mix of virtual TelCo infrastructure is already here. Facebook and Twitter made news announcing permanent work from home plans, but if you ask me, the real headlines belong to giants like Nationwide Insurance. Based out of Ohio with close to 100 years in business, their brand image isn’t synonymous with disruption or any other fancy silicon valley jargon.   

Server bandwidth vs. a monthly lease reduction isn’t the only advantage either. While board members and executives pioneer decisions across real estate or infrastructure, line managers are the ones left picking up the tab on the hidden costs of the new remote wave.

Tasked with building virtual teams from scratch they are often forced to do so with no prior experience. All the while watching their quarterly targets grow ever more ambitious and keeping performance KPIs in check.

Despite understandable ambivalence after putting together, in many cases their very first, remote team in just under nine weeks of time, 44% of middle management personnel label their direct reports to be more productive; to the utter delight of the board and the executive team, it seems.

“Companies shifted almost their entire office workforce to remote work as the virus spread in the US, and 73% percent of executives say it was a success.

Have we, unknowingly so, stumbled upon something extraordinary? According to NPR’s recent interview with Kate Lister, who is the president of a workplace consulting firm that measures and champions remote work —yes, we have.

“The biggest holdback against remote work for the past 20 years has been middle managers who didn’t trust their employees to do it…and the biggest difference between managers who support it and those who don’t is those who have done it.”

Can My Team Walk Out on Me?

The flip side of the coin on these positive numbers is efficiency. 29% remain ambivalent about being on a remote team. They are less sure about being productive. For Lister, reporting structure and organizational procedures are a critical part of remote employee productivity.

“One of the top reasons for high employee turnover in remote workers is the lack of understanding in managers on how to properly set up a remote team…especially when they do so for the first time”.

In other words, it’s one thing to surrender a lease on your office space and download Zoom — but building out effective processes that both deliver results and keep your team from churning, is not so simple to do without prior experience.

Doing anything for the first time is bound to come with a learning curve. According to an estimate from SpotMe, a company whose business of building event apps has been transformed by the pandemic: “66% of event and meeting planners have never hosted a virtual webinar”. If you ever hosted one, think of how productive it was on the first attempt and how many of the attendees were ecstatic at the prospect of a second round.

work from home employee productivity

And if you are not thinking about employee churn rate, reasoning that the current economic climate should act as a deterrent from changing jobs, think again. I am not only referring to traditionally introverted IT units who are well paid and in many cases have an existing culture of remote work.

I mean divisions like marketing, sales, or customer service who are always in demand and have now spent an unprecedented amount of time working from home. Can you really be sure that in between conference calls they aren’t looking for what else is out there?

And if joining a potential competitor just isn’t something you have envisioned for most members of your organization, what about the spirit of entrepreneurship? How many countless hours of life coaching ads should your average marketing manager or customer service representative watch before they decide to start some sort of a side gig on YouTube?

France 24, for example, recently ran a segment on the state of affairs for french startups & entrepreneurs that register them. The government channel reported the number of new business registrations to be at their historic high when compared, seasonality wise, to any other fiscal year on record. Blomberg backs up the state media channel by data from Insee.

A spokesperson from Cloutboost, a marketing agency that consults its clients on how to find gaming Youtubers, backs up the conclusion that these numbers are driving at. “We have seen a 25% increase of new talent joining our network throughout the lockdown period.

The growth hasn’t stopped since and we are confident that these numbers will continue to increase in the coming months.” This makes sense because those sales, marketing, and customer service reps thinking of going off to start their own business are more than likely college grads, often armed with a Masters’s degree and enough disposable income to invest into their next, perhaps small, yet still entrepreneurial venture.

And if their savings aren’t enough, various stimulus packages and furlough schemes are there to help.

The Brave New World

Whatever your position on churn, employee turnover can be a risky metric to neglect. Companies with headcounts of 150+ full-time employees rely on HR to mitigate this risk. Large multinationals traditionally rely on HRBP’s (Human Resources Business Partner) to be the stewards of employee experience 

Dave Ulrick attributes the mitigation of this risk to what has colloquially become known as a culture workplace process. If this sounds abstract, don’t worry, it is.

Seemingly quoted by every authority on the topic of HR, Dave’s work boils down to what we’ve all known to be true yet lacked the vocabulary to say out loud. Human Relations and departments designated to deal with them have been rapidly evolving for quite some time. Responsibilities of HR in the early ’90s differ from those today. 

Classic HR functions are out the window. Perks, bonus structures, off-site retreats, and quarterly happiness surveys have long been the new norm. I recently consulted for a startup that invested in an unknown French HR management software.

Their HR department – a brave army of one executive assistant tasked with recruitment, client billing, and facilities management – needed support when the team expanded beyond 15 full-time employees. The first message displayed in everyone’s inbox once the software went online – rate your happiness on a scale 1 – 5.

My point is that a day spent without a reminder of the important role that people culture plays in an organization’s efficiency, is a day spent under a rock. And I’ll be the first in line to admit that my worst day in 2020 beats anyone’s best day in an era when recruitment specialists advised against wearing short sleeve shirts to an interview or urged applicants to disclose their height, weight, and whether or not they own a home. 

The fact that HR is preoccupied with making sure that the office cafeteria is stacked with ingredients for soybean frappuccino lattes is nothing less than a dream come true.

To the best of my knowledge, the fact that a company is not considered progressive unless someone on their LinkedIn is titled Happiness Manager does resonate with the young, millennial, creative workforce they aim to attract. It certainly resonates with me.

Whether or not this trend is financially sustainable to maintain for small startups in a market for cheap HR management software is a separate topic entirely. But the likes of Google or Facebook don’t get a choice as superb office spaces and friendly HR staff have become nothing short of the industry standard.

Lines separating facilities and recruitment should be blurry. Because the fog tends to make future tendencies all the more pronounced. Through personal interviews of over 400 HRBP’s Gartner predicts 4 main trends that the role of an HRBP will entail between now and 2025. Trend #2: HRBPs become stewards of the employee experience

HR functions will shift from expanding support for what employees need at work to expanding support for what employees experience at work. This shift will require HRBPs to identify the experiences employees value most and help eliminate the work that’s least valuable to employees.

June 2019, Gartner

What should then HR do in the age of public quarantine and social distancing? Keeping a team happy and motivated when public venues are open is hard enough. Keeping them happy and motivated through a living room crawling with kids or a distant coworking facility is even harder. Add to that the stress of indoor confinement and you got yourself something I would call an HRBP dilemma.

Is Teambuilding Effective?

Well, this will have to depend on which camp you are in. Beating the drum of proverbial ivy leaguers, team building is an essential component of success. Especially in trying times of confinement and social distancing. Corporate culture is the DNA that codes how your employees will perform.

“At Mars, we learned that to get people to work together, we had to let them figure out how that would actually improve results.

HBR, Sep 2018

In marketing, we have a funny metric called Return On Ad $ Spend (ROAS). The amount of revenue earned by a business for each dollar it spends on advertising. Market, industry, or channel type aren’t really relevant. What is relevant is the bottom line. Especially when it comes to human resources in the digital age.

But this should not come as a surprise. MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab proved the notion of ROAS in HR as far back as 2012 with Professor Sandy Pantland and his collarbone sensor experiments with Bank of America.

In collaboration with Sociometric Solutions, Pantland’s lab put the strength of team building to the test by analyzing behavioral patterns of call center employees across 30+ multinational corporations. Measured through an indicator referred to as “account handling time” (ACH), Pantland was able to empirically prove the effects of team building on an organization’s bottom line.

Even then the hypothesis that increasing employee break time will increase annual turnover sounded seductive. Who would think that enabling customer service reps to mingle by the water cooler will have an indirect impact on an organization’s cash flow?

Well, Pantland’s hypothesis was correct and the implementation of his techniques boosted ACH by 8%. And when MIT checked in a year later, their pilot got implemented across 25,000 call center units worldwide. Forecasting to yield $15M in RAOS by year-end.

There will always be someone to argue that revenue is a poor metric for gaging emotions. After all, what else is a happiness manager supposed to manage if not employee emotions? I can relate to this argument and direct its proponents to Pantland’s earlier 2007 collaboration.

Together with the Center for Collective Intelligence, they take on a German bank. One would think: what could be more disciplined? The marketing department is divided up into multiple groups across separate rooms and floors. Germans aim to measure how this layout affects work satisfaction. Armed with prototypes of location-based sensors Pantland and his team go to work.

Sensors hang on the collarbone, tracking which way a participant faces when talking. Over 2,000 hours of data on everything short of the actual conversation are recorded over a 30 day period.  Voice patterns, speed of speech delivery, agitation, flirtation, anxiety – you name it. Needless to say, results underscore the social nature of human beings. On average, respondents who report more frequent interactions are happier.

Interaction in the Era of Virtual Teams

So if interaction with one another is the foundation that forms a happy team, and at its core happiness equals RAOS, then the HRBP dilemma is solved. Make sure the team is engaged; the more the merrier, and ideally several times a day. And therein lies the answer to making them perform. 

Although before tackling how it may be prudent to, at least briefly, take a crack as to the why. After all, we are only in our 5th month of confinement. Meaning that your average line manager may not have yet learned all that he or she should – at least as far as remote work is concerned.

According to Melanie Pinola at Zapier – unplugging is the culprit. The top 3 challenges of a remote employee in 2020 relate to overworking. And again this isn’t quite in with the new but rather out with the old – the same old data going as far back as 2019 before the world had gone remote.

struggles with working remotely

22% out of 2,471 respondents report not being able to distance themselves from their work. Poor work-life balance, depression, and ultimately decreased productivity are factors to blame. In an age of multinationals whose most valuable assets are employees – not listening to this is just bad math. Employee productivity will take a nosedive without proper motivation. And if that nosedive isn’t properly addressed turnover spikes may inevitably follow.

Virtual Teambuilding Costs (How Much?)

13 years since the German bank, team building has been proclaimed to be a measurable component of the bottom line. Recent polls point to people having real issues connecting while being remote. It’s safe to assume that by not practicing remote team building – you may be looking at a hit on your balance sheet.

How much exactly this hit may cost depends on obvious factors: the size of the workforce that is remote, the time zones between which it’s dispersed, the role that it plays in your organization, and a range of other things that go beyond the scope of a single article on this topic.

The good news is that the manual on how to avoid incurring these potential costs is ubiquitous. From IBM all the way to a mom and pop operation, if you’ve got wifi – you are in.

All that you, your HRBP, or your line managers have to be willing to do is put in the time. A few hours of dedicated planning will always lift team spirits. Choose among hundreds of fun and engaging activities enabling your team to bond over zoom. Games, quizzes, bucket list challenges – you name it. Whatever you choose, invest yourself in making this special for your teammates.

The entire sectors of our economy are shutting down. How bad can a few incremental gains through a fun video session with your teammates really be?

Written By
Former Googler 🚀applying Linguistics, Content Marketing Automation, Domain Information Architecture and a splice of Natural Language Processing across my research into a wide array of fields. Vitaly Lenskiy is typically busy parenting a Jack Russell Terrier while assisting projects like teambuilding.comand cloutboost.com in their understanding of search engine algorithms.

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