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Can You Have a Real Celebration With a Virtual Team?

We all know that team morale and a positive attitude are important for any well functioning unit -- whether you're all in one location or scattered across the globe. Pizza parties and rounds at the pub are great tools, but often they can make those working remotely feel left out and actually do more harm than good. What's a good manager to do?

A friend of mine recently asked his LinkedIn connections for suggestions on how to celebrate team wins when everyone works remotely. (If you are a LinkedIn member you can read the whole question and answer post here). The answers were the usual mix of terrific ideas, hare-brained schemes, and admissions of failure. It was fascinating.

First, it's obvious that many people still believe that it's impossible to have an effective celebration without everyone getting together physically. This is somewhat depressing because it either means a.) remote teams by definition can truly come together only if they meet physically, which logistics, finance and corporate culture might render impossible, and b.) a lot of people, including many managers, are so trapped in the traditional work paradigm (and I have now used up my yearly quota of that particular piece of jargon) that they can't imagine any solution that might help their remote team in the absence of physical connection.

Some of the folks did have great suggestions, though, and I'm eager to hear yours as well. Add your ideas to the list:

  • Here's a crazy notion: ask them what they want. Many people work remotely because they like it that way. Traveling long distances and leaving hearth and home for a "celebration" may not be what they actually want. Reward and recognition should make the recipients happy, not stress them out. A better choice might be personalized tokens of appreciation like gift certificates to a vendor of their choice (one might want a massage, one might want books, another might want gardening supplies). The more personal, the more rewarded and appreciated they'll feel.
  • Even if the tokens are personal, celebrate as a team. One thing that came through in a number of the suggestions is the idea that this is a team celebration. Assemble everyone virtually, and the more connected the better. If you can get the team visually connected by webcam or Skype, that's terrific. At the very least have everyone on a conference call. Celebrate what the team has accomplished, giving attention to the contribution of each member. In remote teams, many times the efforts of individuals aren't obvious to the other team members, so make sure people know how hard everyone worked.
  • Make time off a shared experience. Sometimes a simple thing like a shared day off is appreciated. Many companies are offering teams the chance to dedicate a day to a charity and then let everyone know what they did with their time (and yes, Finance, I know that's a cost but at least no one has to issue a purchase order for it).
  • Try online gaming and meeting up. That's gaming as in playing online multi-player games, not gambling. One project team got gift cards for a coffee shop with wifi. If they were in the US, it would be Starbucks; if they were international, the card would be a small Visa gift card. Then they would arrange to "meet" for lunch or coffee. Each employee would set up their laptop at the Starbucks or lunch place and they would web conference. It was a unique idea, and the team loved it.
What suggestions do you have? I'd love to hear them and share them with everyone here.