Remote team-building with virtual team-building activities
Engagement 12 minute read

Remote team-building with virtual team-building activities

Megan Orr | September 15, 2020

Virtual team-building activities are an essential part of creating a unified remote team. They don’t have to be complicated, but they definitely should be fun!

Being a part of a close-knit team at work is what often makes a job more enjoyable. Employees who are engaged with one another are more likely to take pleasure (and pride) in their shared work.

Team-building is an essential part of many organizations, emphasizing a company culture built on relationships. However, it can be difficult to connect remote teams when they aren’t physically working together. As remote work continues to be the ‘norm’ in many workplaces, virtual team-building activities are becoming increasingly popular—and increasingly essential.

The majority of companies are no longer able to host in-person team meetings, since most don’t have the physical office space for everyone to be 6 feet apart. Employees can no longer connect through name-game ice breakers or office scavenger hunts or large-group activities with a purpose (such as a beach clean-up). 

For the foreseeable future, at least, team building has to be done remotely… or not take place at all. 

Yet team building is crucial to employee engagement and wellness as well as collaboration. According to a TINYpulse study, remote employees reported being happier overall and feeling more valued at work, compared to all other employees. However, they also consistently felt that they had a poorer relationship with their coworkers, with TINYpulse noting, “This isn’t particularly surprising, given that these employees have limited interaction with their colleagues, with most, if not all, of that interaction happening virtually.”

With most offices still working from home in distributed teams, organizations must get creative with virtual team-building activities for remote workers. COVID-19 made it so companies shifted into crisis response mode, transitioning their employees to remote work as quickly as possible. However, for work from home to have longevity, virtual team-building activities need to be incorporated into policies. 

This is the third part in our series on remote team-building, looking at how companies can support teams working together to feel connected in a virtual environment. Previously we discussed virtual happy hour ideas and remote ice breakers. Continue reading for more information on the importance of team-building and innovative ways to manage it remotely. 

Much of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as it should be, has been focused on safety. However, moving forward, the focus may shift towards relationship building.

McKinsey & Company writes about how leaders should be seizing the moment and that it is “critical to employee engagement, well-being, and effectiveness” to emphasize trust and acknowledge employee efforts. 

In this same sense, McKinsey & Company also write: “Organizations that have been building social capital during earlier phases of the crisis will be in better positions than others as the workforce transitions to the return phase.” Social capital is defined by The Encyclopaedia Britannica as a “concept in social science that involves the potential of individuals to secure benefits and invent solutions to problems through membership in social networks.” In other words, it’s important to invest in these social networks for employees' wellbeing, by encouraging teamwork to help keep them connected and accountable.

Additionally, McKinsey & Company emphasizes how leaders in an organization need to take steps to create spaces and opportunities for employees to connect, because “it would be a mistake to assume that the camaraderie that has sustained many employees early in the crisis will endure long term.” This is why implementing virtual team-building strategies is important to keep morale up. 

Although video chat services like Zoom and Google Meet have been sufficient for bringing people together remotely, the consensus is that employees are tiring of virtual meetings.

The term used is “zoom fatigue”. As Jobillico writes: “Video calls make us communicate in different ways with prolonged eye contact, a lack of body gestures and an increased need for facial expressions, all while forcing us to stay in relatively the same spot. The result is that video calls do require more brain power because it is a different form of communication than what we are used to”. Hence, the fatigue. 

Although it isn’t likely that the use of video conferencing will be stopping any time soon, with COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, your organization can work to come up with creative solutions that will not fatigue employees.

Establishing clear standards for communication while working from home will help create (and maintain) strong teams.

Consider setting guidelines for video conferencing, such as a dress code and rules such as no eating on camera or time limits on calls. Do you want team members to always have their cameras on during video chats? Will you have days of the week that are meeting free?

You may also want to use a messaging service, which will allow team members to message each other directly, see if they’re online, and post status updates. Employees will also be able to check-in each day, with a quick ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ so that the rest of the team knows they have arrived for the day, the same way they would when entering the office. Slack is one of the most popular instant messaging services but you can research and find the one that best suits the communication needs of your organization.  

If team members aren’t communicating with one another, this will lead to disconnect—which can then lead to feelings of disengagement. That’s why it’s so important to emphasize team-building for remote teams and help team members build rapport and better understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. 

There are a number of factors to consider before planning any virtual team-building activities, and there are many different ways to effectively host remote team-building activities and enhance team bonding.

Here are some things to consider when deciding what will work best for your employees:

  • Does your team typically use a lot of tech or applications in their day-to-day? If not, solutions for virtual team-building exercises can be low-tech, such as a book club. 
  • Is your team tight-knit in the office? For teams that don’t generally spend a lot of time actually working together, don’t force it. The group should want to find fun ways to collaborate, not feel like they have to.
  • Does anyone have any limitations that would hinder them from participating (e.g. poor WiFi). Participation should be encouraged, but not mandatory.
  • How will you work to include members of your team in different time zones or that work different schedules?
  • Do you have any set budget for activities or will you only be using free virtual team-building activities?

Your virtual team building ideas should be fun and creative and get people excited to participate. In a special quarantine episode of Apple Tv+’s comedy series, Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, the team created an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that took place on each person’s screen on a Zoom call. The episode represents team-building at its finest, where, as creator and star Rob McElhenney puts it, “We liked the idea of thematically presenting the story of people having to work together for a common goal, and if there’s just one missing link in that chain, it screws it up for everybody.”

However, behind-the-scenes, the Mythic Quest team had an entire crew of people helping put together the Rube Goldberg machine (safely and from a distance, of course). “The production team had to build each individual piece of the Rube Goldberg machine, shoot test videos so the actors could see how their piece worked, then sterilize the pieces and send them to the actors, who would then sterilize them again, set up them, and film them in progress remotely ‘10, 20, or 30 times.’”

While your team-building activities for remote employees might not be that ambitious, the result should be the same: bringing people together to do something fun. If you’re feeling up for a challenge, you could give the Rube Goldberg a try, but if not, here are some suggestions that might be more manageable for your remote teams.  

The key to successful remote team-building activities is that they’re fun and interactive and don’t feel forced. It’s a bonus if a team-building activity also allows your team to get to know one another better and helps build trust.

With remote work as a new challenge for many organizations, the activities must also be easy to organize. Here’s a compilation of some of our favourite suggestions. 

QuizBreaker app

Gamification is a primary strategy for any team-building activity. QuizBreaker is one of the more popular applications right now, used by companies like Microsoft and Starbucks. The program works by sending employees an email with fun icebreaker questions, and then other participants have to guess who answered what.

The advantage of QuizBreaker is that you only have to set it up once, and then it will run automatically on your set schedule. It’s an app that’s not time consuming for managers or your HR or IT department to set up, nor does it take employees a long time to understand the rules before participating. QuizBreaker is an easy and fun way for teams to get to know each other better. 

A movie or book club

Team-building solutions don’t always have to be high tech. Why not go with a classic by starting a book or movie club? Employees can join, reading a book or watching a movie once a month, taking turns with who gets to pick, the genre and the availability (i.e. on Netflix, available to be borrowed at the library and so on). Then, once a month, employees can meet virtually and discuss. 

For a book or movie club to be successful, someone should be assigned to facilitate conversation. It can be the same person each month, or whoever picked the book or movie can be the chairperson that time. For a place to start, Goodreads has a compilation of different book club recommendations and Rooftop Film Club has a “rundown of must-see films that you… uh… must see…”

Scavenger hunt

Have team members complete a scavenger hunt from a list of common (and some uncommon household items). These can be items like: your toothbrush, a frying pan, or more challenging: a framed photo of a loved one or something organized in a way you are proud of. Team members can use Slack or other communication tools to post photos as they find stuff. This can also be done with more personal items, like something that makes you happy or something with a fond memory attached to it. A virtual scavenger hunt can be a good way for employees to get to know one another better and connect on a more personal level by finding things in common. The first person to complete the scavenger hunt may win a small prize (or just bragging rights).

Puzzle race

A fun and unique idea is to send your employees a small puzzle to complete. This can be either a classic jigsaw, or something a bit more challenging, like a Lego set. The first person to complete it has to send in a picture of the completed piece to be declared the winner. A puzzle race may take a bit more time to set up, but is a fun alternative for creative teams. 

Desert island 

This is a virtual twist on the classic desert island scenario: you’re trapped on a deserted island, what three items do you wish you had? You can either have this be a free-for-all—people explaining what they would bring and why—or you can provide a list of items (some practical, like matches or an axe and some less, like a favourite book). The list should be provided just before the virtual meeting (maybe 5-10 minutes) so employees can decide (and argue) their choices. 

You can also ask at the end of the activity if anyone wants to change their responses based on what other people have said. It’s a great and easy way for people to engage with and get to know one another better and invites friendly banter. 

Virtual happy hour

Earlier in our team-building series, we discussed how to successfully host a virtual happy hour. This is a fun way to engage team members in a relaxed atmosphere. This can be done with a drink in hand, a coffee or tea, or even over lunch. The purpose is to bring the team together in a casual setting, the same way they would if they were getting together for drinks after work. 

Remote ice breakers

In another part of this series, we explored the importance of incorporating ice breakers into virtual meetings, as a way for teams to bond and develop better communication skills. This can include asking ice breaker questions (e.g. If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?), or incorporating ice breaker games into your video conference calls. 

Outside of these particular suggestions we’ve just shared with you, there are a variety of free virtual team-building activities that can be played over email or through surveys. Try something like the baby photo game (where everyone anonymously shares a baby photo and you have to try to guess whose is whose), or 2 truths and 1 lie (where everyone submits 2 truths and 1 lie and the rest of the team has to try to guess which is the lie). There are also plenty of online platforms for virtual games.

Allow team members to contribute or even lead different virtual team building games. Your employees should be excited to participate and look forward to team-building activities. The purpose of these activities, especially during these challenging times, is to emphasize that your team is more valuable than the bottom line, and that you care about their sense of enjoyment at work, too.

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