6 Experiential Learning Elements To Create High-Performing Virtual Teams

6 Experiential Learning Elements To Create High-Performing Virtual Teams
Summary: As companies and employees adjust to the realities of sustained remote work, they need training to support sustained performance. Employees and companies alike want not only to survive but to thrive and shine.

Remote Workforce Development For Thriving Teams

As a Learning and Development manager tasked with creating your company’s remote workforce development plan, the list of performance areas you want to boost with training can be overwhelming. Some areas may urgently demand attention, like creating systematic, sustainable onboarding for your remote teams. Beyond putting out fires, common wisdom and opinions abound about the best topics and approaches to invest in. It would be great to cut the static and focus on foundational elements that elevate remote team performance across the board.

So what are those key foundational elements that make a high-performing team?

Luckily Google wanted answers to that question too. They created Project Aristotle to find them.

Google’s Quest To Build High-Performing Teams

Google’s Project Aristotle researchers looked at over 180 teams across the company, gathering and analyzing data on the characteristics of team members, such as education, experience, and communication styles. But those did not correlate consistently with team performance. They even found cases where two teams had mostly overlapping members, but the teams performed at wildly different levels.

In other words, team performance was less about the qualities of each individual and more about how team members worked together. For Learning and Development leaders, that’s good news because you can impact team behavior with the right training—and Google found specifics to target. As journalist and author Charles Duhigg relates [1], “Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”

What Is Psychological Safety?

To paraphrase Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is the confidence that my team won’t embarrass, reject, or punish me if I take an interpersonal risk like speaking up or revealing something real and personal. When a team feels psychological safety, team members trust each other to mutually respect and support each other when they are being themselves.

It’s easy to see how the greater honesty and openness that go with psychological safety can improve team performance in many ways. A few examples might be:

  • Process/product improvement
    Every team member feels welcome to speak up when they spot a problem with the group’s—or the manager’s—plan.
  • Idea/solution generation
    Everyone contributes instead of just a few people, resulting in more options.
  • Interpersonal issues
    Team members hash out friction points before they require external intervention.
  • Failure prevention
    People request and offer help fluidly before preventable failures occur.

Not to mention that it just feels better to work with a team that accepts and supports you and values your support in turn. That contributes to better mental health, productivity, and employee retention, all things with tangible value to employers.

What Builds Psychological Safety On A Team?

As Duhigg details in his article, some specific behaviors that signify—and create—psychological safety on a team include:

  • Conversational turn-taking
    Team members speak in roughly the same proportion.
  • Empathy
    Team members notice how others are feeling based on the tone of voice, expressions, and other nonverbal cues.

For full success, these behaviors must be supported by healthy group norms. Group norms are the (usually unwritten) rules for how group members act together, how they treat each other, what behaviors are expected, rewarded, and punished. If official policy conflicts with unwritten norms, people almost invariably follow their group’s norms, even over their personal inclinations. As Duhigg reports, norms are so powerful that "Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google’s teams.”

How To Train Healthy Norms And Psychological Safety

For L&D professionals, it’s important to remember that psychological safety and healthy norms are inherently social. You can’t train an individual in isolation on them, and traditional “push” knowledge transfer won’t get the job done. Imagine these scenarios, and you’ll see why:

  • The "Tell Me" approach (“push” knowledge transfer)
    If a WBT module tells me “you’re safe” and lists cognitive arguments why that is the case, I might think, “Uh-huh. Someone else can go first and see how that works out for them.”
  • The "Show Me" approach (scenario-based, but still training individuals)
    If my training includes footage of real people on real teams acting in healthy ways, enjoying psychological safety, I might think, “I see how that works, and it looks really appealing, but my team would never go for that…I wonder if that team’s hiring?”
  • Experiential team learning
    In structured group learning activities, I witness someone on my team take a small interpersonal risk and come through safely; I think there might be something to the claim of safety. I then take a small risk and come through safely and the safety starts to feel like a real possibility to me. As all of us take larger risks with each other and repeatedly come through safely, we individually and collectively come to believe our safety is real and act as if it is real, which makes it real. We collectively create it through our repeated actions. And having experienced it, we know and trust each other in a far deeper way than mental processing alone could achieve.

Yes, you can train psychological safety and healthy group norms if you use structured activities with healthy norms baked in to provide experiential team learning. If that sounds like team building to you, you are absolutely correct.

Every team can benefit from team building, but remote teams have extra challenges that make virtual team building even more critical for their success. For the kind of across-the-board performance gains that healthy group norms and psychological safety bring, it’s well worth adapting team building to the remote work environment.

6 Key Elements Of Virtual Team Building For Thriving, High-Performing Remote Teams

It doesn’t take a ropes course to make team building work for remote teams. Remote teams have most of the same challenges as face-to-face teams (except “Who stole my lunch from the team fridge?”). But remote teams have additional challenges of limited time together, the technical limitations of video conferencing, reduced visibility of nonverbal cues, and for many, the absence of spontaneous, unplanned interactions—no running into each other at the coffee maker. Being virtual makes basic communication, much less building psychological safety, more challenging.

How to meet the challenges of remote teams to build psychological safety with healthy norms?

Whether you build your own or use Obsidian Learning’s virtual team building program, these are 6 mutually-reinforcing key elements we recommend:

  1. Experiential learning for teams, not just individuals
  2. Explicit definition and adoption of five core healthy norms (which I will address in a later article)
  3. Structured activities to practice core skills and norms (awareness, attunement, listening, asking questions, etc.)
  4. Techniques for key interactions (giving verbal and nonverbal feedback, sharing impact, etc.)
  5. A facilitator tasked with reinforcing the interlocking norms, skills, techniques, and behaviors
  6. Delivered in short sessions over time for maximum behavior change and retention

You can get a better picture of how virtual team building can be rolled out and integrated on your teams here.

Even if your team can manage a two-day intensive virtual event, we recommend you also offer an ongoing program of shorter sessions so training is easier to take in, process, and remember. Shorter sessions over time give people the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned together in their daily work between sessions, and to bring emerging real-world challenges to their next session. As a bonus, a program delivered over time boosts credibility that it’s not a flash in the pan, and that leadership and staff will remain mutually accountable to each other going forward.

Virtual conferencing and working remotely bring many limitations to team interactions, but also bring their own advantages and opportunities. Help your teams make the most of their remote environments to not only survive but thrive.


[1] What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team: New research reveals surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter

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