Online teams can feel like real teams

Social presence is about beaming yourself into an online space and "be there" for others. It is easier to have a social presence offline, but with intention and effort you can also "feel real" online.

Online teams can feel like real teams
Photo by Thomas Gaertner / Unsplash

Hey, in this newsletter I’m sharing science-based advice on professional growth, team dynamics, and community development.

Today’s article has been weeks in the making. I’m kind of ashamed that it takes me that long from idea to published article. It has taken so long that I’m analyzing my processes to consider if and where I can shorten the production cycle. Let me know if you want to hear more often from me (or not).

On a more personal note, last week was my recharge-refocus-learn week. I read a lot (The Embedded Entrepreneur and Doing Content Right). However, I also did some everyday work tasks, something I actually wanted to avoid. The next time I need to plan it better (e.g., turn on out-of-office, communicate my week’s goal to others).

Laurell Farrer, CEO of Distributed Consulting and well-known speaker on Remote work, recently posted some common complaints people have about remote work: People often complained about the lack of social interaction and being together as a team. Put simply, it seems like teams are falling apart when not in the same room. When you are in the same building as others, you sense their presence, read their non-verbal cues, and feel more connected to your team members. Co-located teams are real because they feel real. But also virtual teams can feel real.

When working from home, you need to develop new ways to show others that you are there and present. Presence is a vital coordination mechanism of teams. Teams that feel real, have a social presence. They get more done, have fewer problems, and are thought to be more fun. That said, creating a social presence requires a team effort and total buy-in. It can't just be one person; everyone has to chip in and contribute.

Don’t confuse social presence with being present on social media. Of course, you can have a social presence on Twitter or any other social media platform. However, this article discusses how teams who work virtually achieve a feeling of “being present” or “being real”. In other words: How can you work on a virtual team without feeling lonely?

What is social presence?

Individuals have a social presence if they are interacting with others in an open and constructive way. With this, I mean that during the interaction the individual shows interest in the other person, and is sharing what is on his/her mind. Social presence can not be achieved without empathy or a genuine interest in the other person.

Interesting fact: Did you know that social presence theory was first discussed in 1976? I delve more into it at the end of the article.

Individuals with a social presence project themselves into a physical or digital space. They are mentally engaged with the people who are in the same environment. For example, when you are going out for a drink with your friends and spend most of the time on your phone you are not socially present. You are physically present because you are sitting at the same table as your friends, but you do not talk with your friends. This lack of human-to-human interaction means that you are not socially present. You don’t feel real. You could also be a statue or a banner.

You create your social presence by interacting with other people. Interaction helps others understand things like

  • what you are thinking
  • what you are working on
  • What your worries are
  • What you are happy about

Social presence is about passing information about yourself to others through several non-verbal means:

  • Facial expression
  • Direction of looking
  • Posture
  • Non-verbal cues
  • Clothes

In face-to-face settings, you can use non-verbal means to tell other people “yes, I’m listening to you and I’m glad I’m here with you” or “I’m bored and want to be somewhere else”. The table has some examples of non-verbal cues and what they signal. Please take into account that non-verbal cues are culturally dependent. Even simple things like a smile are interpreted differently across cultures.

Why virtual teams should feel real

It is important for teams to feel real and have a social presence. When team members silently do their tasks and only interact with each other during official meetings, there isn’t much of a social presence. In such a case, the interaction between team members is not driven by a human desire but imposed by work. Any form of interaction that helps team members know what others are doing or thinking increases the team’s social presence

The purpose of establishing a social presence in your team is to let others know what you are doing or thinking. This makes coordination between team members easier.  In addition, it reduces the feeling of loneliness. People who work in teams with a social presence feel like they are emotionally connected to others. Hence, a sense of community is created thanks to team members’ social presence. This sense of community is an important intangible aspect of a team. Teams with a sense of community are resilient and support each other.

Social presence in a virtual setting

Most of the cues individuals use to establish a social presence in a virtual setting do not exist. Though avatars or profile pictures provide some cues, profile pictures are generally static, meaning that you don't change them every day.

While many communication tools do not have the same richness as face-to-face communication, virtual teams can still build a social presence. Of course, one way to create a social presence in a virtual team is to use tools that mimic face-to-face communication, such as zoom. However, this is not the only way.

Think about it, there are other ways to signal what you are doing or thinking. When you share a draft article you are sharing what you are working on. By reading the draft, a team member is able to deduce what you have been doing the past hours or days. The same thinking applies to any other collaboration tool (e.g., Figma, Mural, Dropbox). Even Github commits are great for creating a social presence.

How to make your virtual team feel real?

Of course, the easiest way is via communication with teammates. While it might sound that video calls would be the best way to achieve a social presence, this is mentally too taxing. Too many video calls just drain everyone, especially if they are life. If you want to include a video, record it. I love using Loom for quick updates or walk-through.

But you might not even need video. A voice message will also work. Yac is a great tool for that. When talking, your voice includes emotions. You can hear happiness, tiredness, or excitement. You can record the message on your morning walk or after dropping your kids off at school. Create quality calls that stimulate a positive experience to increase the sense of community.

If you decide to do written updates, have a dedicated channel with specific emojis that indicates “I'm great,” “I'm tired,” etc. Another solution would be to get Kona, a Slack bot that helps managers lead their teams.

Finally, you can also strengthen your team’s social presence by working together in the same virtual environment. But while you could do this using zoom or whereby, I prefer to use workfrom. Workfrom’s virtual cafe allows you to customize the layout and sound. Team members can take turns decorating the room. By giving team members the chance to decide the work environment, they have a non-verbal way of expressing themselves.

If you don't want to add another tool or create new processes to help strengthen social presence, there are a few other ways.

Any work product helps create a social presence. Think about everything that you make for work: documents, designs, code, recordings, pictures, etc. If you share this, you are both sharing your work and strengthening your social presence.

What is important here is to not hold back with your work just because it isn't ready or perfect. Holding back in a remote team is like going to an office and talking with no one. Silence is tough to interpret, especially in a virtual environment. Share your work in progress.

The best way is to have your workspace set up so that everything you create is available to others. The next best thing is to narrate your work. At the end of the day or week, write a short document of what you did. Don't forget to include links to your documents. Finally, try to avoid private channels of communication. By doing that, you cut off people, and the reach of your social presence is lowered.

Learn from others on how to build a social presence:

Research on social presence

Social presence theory was first developed in 1976 by Short, Williams, and Christie. It compared face-to-face (f2f) communication with communication via other technology. At that time, this meant telephone or fax. An early review of the book agreed that social presence is an important concept but raised the question if face-to-face communication should be put on a pedestal. Is face-to-face communication really the holy grail of communication with people in all situations?

Unfortunately, this critique hasn't been picked up. Maybe it was too early for its time. Also, other theories did not support this critique. For example, media richness theory looks at how many features a communication medium has: Does it transmit voice, audio, emotions, etc.? A rich form of communication conveys all forms of f2f communication features and helps to establish a social presence.

Another view on social presence is that social presence isn't about seeing someone but about being aware of someone's current and future actions. This understanding of social presence leads to another concept: the trading zone. A trading zone is a tool that helps one team member understand the actions of another team member. For example, Slack is a trading zone. So is Dropbox, Figma, Mural, Yac, or any other communication or collaboration tool.

Any communication tool helps team members understand the expertise and knowledge of others. When you talk with your team members about your work, you share your expertise. Over time your expertise develops. Communication tools are like a market where you exchange expertise.

Other collaboration tools are a trading zone for work objects. A tool like google docs lets me draft a document (e.g., an article, a technical document, an HR process, a memo, etc.). But I don't work on it alone. A team member will edit it. This article is a work object or boundary object. The object (the article) crosses the boundary when it passes from my screen to another person’s screen. When I stop working on the article, and another person starts working on it, the document crossed the invisible boundary between us. When this happens, social presence in the team increases. My team members saw what I did. This helps her improve her awareness of my past activities. Thanks to this, she feels more connected to me.

Take Action Now

It's never too late to build your social presence. Begin with considering the following questions:

  1. Do I feel connected to my team?
  2. Do I know what everyone is doing?
  3. Do I know my team members' work context (working with kids/pets/partner/ parents around)?
  4. What do I do to be present?


  • David MacMillian & David M Chavis (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory.
  • Haines, R. (2021). Activity awareness, social presence, and motivation in distributed virtual teams. Information & Management, 58(2), 103425.
  • N. Panteli (2004). Discursive articulations of presence in virtual organizing, Inf. Organ. 14 (1) 59–81.

Future plans

In October I will be speaking at the CR Connect conference on data strategies for communities and on reflective journaling for professional development.

For the rest of the year, I have planned a monthly session on how to measure the health of your community or team.

If you have learned something new, you can do two things:

  1. Share it with a friend and help them grow
  2. Help me write more (and maybe even faster) articles by buying me a coffee or becoming a paid subscriber.

This article was finalized while listening to Manu Chao. Great throwback! Thank you to my Foster LaKay Cornell and Tom White for improving this article.

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