Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 28 seconds
By Katie D. Scheuer, Curriculum Specialist at Workplaceless
For some, these words inspire an array of emotions: dread, joy, terror. For me, it’s pure and radiant “this is what life is all about” happiness. Team builders for me are what sports are for others.
It started with theatre games at summer camp (“This is a tick. A what? A tick. Oh, a tick! This is a tock!), and in college I insisted on being “Ice Breaker Chair”, a made-up role for my volunteer organization. I host “Teach Me Something New” parties with my friends. My dreams come true when Charades are played on ski trips and when baby showers have improv games led by zany aunts.
When I started working remotely, I wasn’t sure how I would handle working by myself after years of leading workshops, teaching, and coaching live on college campuses. Isolation is real, and elevator conversations and run-ins in the hallway just don’t exist.
I was thrilled to find my team at Workplaceless regularly integrates virtual team building into the fabric of our remote culture. Team building activities are particularly essential for remote teams, who lack regular and random interpersonal interactions that are the norm of co-located offices. Finding moments to learn about your colleagues beyond the work tasks, serves as a stepping stone to building trust. And trust is key to the success of distributed teams.
Chris Coladonato, Professional Development Leader at Farmers Insurance, explains that while you may need to be more intentional to create relationships, it’s not difficult to lead remote team builders. “You might think that team building with a remote or hybrid team is harder than with a co-located team, but that isn’t true. You just have to be intentional and thoughtful about HOW you connect with each other as a team since you aren’t seeing each other every day. Once you get into a habit of regularly connecting about things other than work, it becomes second nature.”
There are so many great ideas for remote team building activities. Yet, I recognize not everyone has the same joy-filled appreciation of team building as I do, so here is a range of (free and low-cost) ideas specifically geared to virtual work environments to get you started.
Troop Talks were an idea shared as part of our Goplaceless curriculum by Becca Van Nederynen, Head of People Ops at Help Scout. Their teams meet monthly on Zoom to discuss a specific topic such as favorite apps or music. Becca says there is a facilitator who makes sure the conversation stays on track, and it’s a great way to get to know your teammates, and learn how they feel about a specific topic.
This can also be introduced organically at the start of every meeting. Instead of kicking off directly into the agenda, plan ahead for five minutes of quick sharing about:
For those who like less structured conversations, virtual coffee chats may be the way to go. At Workplaceless, we love a good one-on-one coffee chat via Zoom—it’s part of our culture strategy to hold regular conversations with teammates. We also hold virtual lunches (sometimes called Happy Hours for team members in Europe). I’m also in a virtual book club and love the idea of virtual article clubs for teams—share, read, discuss. (If you go the book club route, bonus points for book reports or dressing up as your favorite character.)
During our Networkplaceless event on Hybrid Teams, Chris shared a few activities and stressed that the focus should be on the connection. “Hold regular virtual coffee chats. Bring your beverage of choice, turn on your webcam and spend 30 minutes connecting about what’s going on in your lives like you would when going out to lunch.”
“The important thing isn’t what you do but that you regularly connect with your team about things other than work. Get to know them as people and not just co-workers.”
To organize these gatherings, we suggest you use Donut.ai, a Slack plug in. This app will send you automatic invitations to connect with randomly selected colleagues and encourages connection with people whom you don’t regularly interact with.
I teach a professional development class for undergraduates at Temple University and use the chat feature in Zoom to ask “What do you remember from last class?” to get them thinking about the topics we discussed the previous week. Since one of the challenges of virtual teams is creating opportunities for casual conversations, you might take a lighthearted approach to question-asking.
Chris suggests the following approach:
“Post a thought provoking weekly question to an online chat or discussion board. I use questions from the Chat Pack series to start fun conversations and learn more about my team members. You’d be surprised what you can learn about each other by asking a question like: “If you could have 50 pounds of anything other than money, what would it be and why?””
Consider games you enjoy in real-life and convert them to the virtual meeting space.
“Play games as a team. Use the whiteboard feature in your web conferencing platform to play Pictionary or do charades using webcams . . . it’s even funnier when done virtually.”
For our most recent Workplaceless holiday party, a casual suggestion of a Hot Seat game led to a frantic half-hour of our team guzzling Starbucks coffees while typing as many questions as we could think of to the person in the hot seat:
For in-person gatherings, which we also recommend at least annually for distributed teams, this can easily be adapted to take place on a stage, or competition style.
Each person gets 5 to 7 minutes to demonstrate a skill, or if it’s a large group, you can place individuals in breakouts. You can make this for fun (to get to know team members, with a little creative video placement let them demonstrate their hobbies, a watercolor technique, how to change a bike tire, a dance move).
For work-related topics, consider a Skills Share, where team members discuss what they recently learned, such as:
Some team building games for remote workers require advance preparation; this one is simple: the leader sets up a playlist, and everyone turns up the volume and gets dancing!
We hosted one at our last holiday party—it was exhilarating and involved dancing dogs and caffeinated Workplaceless team members bopping along to some ’80s Christmas beats. Not to mention it had us up and moving at our desks.
Managing virtual teams requires leaders to possess a certain amount of self-awareness and vulnerability to build trust within a team. Bobbi Block is an improv pro, and works as a communication skills consultant with Ivy League universities and Fortune 500 companies. She shares that improvisers and actors know to be honest, open, and vulnerable, which is the best way to engage an audience:
“Actors practice vulnerability. We practice revealing ourselves until it is comfortable and natural to do so, and takes little effort. That is the way we connect with an audience. People are more likely to follow those who are authentic, than those who are ‘clever’ or even ‘right!’ Vulnerability is authenticity, and authenticity leads to trust. Trust is the only path for leaders to assure followership. Therefore, I advocate practicing vulnerability.”
Bobbi shared a remote team builder designed to facilitate this vulnerability and trust:
Round 1: What’s true about me
“Anyone in the group raises their hand and says anything at all true about themselves. It could be, “I’m the youngest of my siblings,” “I’ve been to Paris,” or “I play soccer.” If it’s true about anyone else in the group, they raise their hands as well and say, “Me, too!” If your team prefers, you can use the hand raise option on your video platform, or you can silently raise your hand. Continue for a minute or two.”
Round 2: What’s unique about me
"In this round, you are to say something true about yourself that you feel is unique to you—you don’t think anyone else will join you. It’s fun to see that what some people think is unique sometimes results in finding a kindred spirit.” Play for a minute or two.
Round 3: What’s true about us
“In this round, you say something true about yourself that you feel everyone would say is true about themselves as well. Avoid saying obvious things like, ‘I’m wearing shoes’ or ‘I drink water.’” If the group gets stuck, Bobbi suggests sharing an example—hers is always, “At some point in my life, I was teased.”
After this round, debrief. Bobbi suggests that leadership or facilitators ask questions like “What was the experience like for you? How was it to join in? How was it to be the first person to say something?”
“Being the first to be honest, transparent, and vulnerable leads the way for others to join you. If no one goes first, connections are not made. It’s not enough that we are curious about each other’s lives and ask questions about others: we must be the first to reveal our own lives. That is the behavior of a true leader who paves the way for others to follow.”
Her takeaway is that anyone on the team can be a leader, and demonstrating vulnerability during each round is an important opportunity for both leaders and team members to connect.
We’d love to hear if your team uses or tries any of these activities. Or feel free to share new ideas with us that we can feature in an update!
For additional tips, module one of our Leadplaceless curriculum dives into trust building, and how shared values and behaviors strengthen your remote culture and the bonds among distributed team members.