One of the most common questions managers and senior leaders faced in 2020—especially as the long-term reality of our work-from-home experiment set in—was “how to you do team building when everyone is working remotely?” We used to be able to rely on the fact that we were all co-located and hence some aspect of team building occurred naturally. Sharing the same work space made it easier to develop cadence, to develop relationships, and to build bonds on a team. And then even if that was struggling, we still could go somewhere together to a team building activity or exercise.
(A quick spoiler here: there never was all that much research supporting the trust falls and ropes courses we all think of when we think of off-site team building.)
But still, the ability to do something together made team building seem more possible. And now as we adjust to the new reality that work from home is turning into work from anywhere, even that something is a lot harder to do. There are companies that are now offering “Zoom Escape Rooms” and other virtual activities.
But you’re not in an escape room. You’re in your office and you’re just playing a role-playing game with everybody on your team.
Dungeons and Dragons was great when I was 12 years old but, I’m not sure how well it works when trying to build bonds among mid-career professionals. It doesn’t build the sense of shared identity and shared understanding that we’re looking for when we want to improve how our team works together.
On the upside, most of what teams actually need to build better collaboration and team identity has less do to with a singular event and more to do with ongoing activities, habits, and rituals that the team engages in regularly. So, hold off on mailing everyone a “do-it-yourself” ropes course kit and instead, start finding ways to build one (or more) of the following true team building activities into your remote team’s regular work.
The first remote team building activity to try is asking teammates to give an “office tour.” This works best when your team first goes remote or when new members of the team join. But if most of your team has been hiding their home behind a virtual background, you could try this at any stage in the team’s lifecycle. Office tours mean taking the rest of the team on a simple tour of where you work from most often. Pick up the laptop or webcam and show people around the reality of what you’re working with. This lets people see a little more of the context that you’re working in (and maybe struggling with) which will greatly enhance everyone’s understanding of your work style. It will also give others a chance to get a little peak into your “real” life in the same way that dropping by someone’s cubicle at work and seeing pictures of their family used to in a colocated office.
The second remote team building activity to try is holding a quick “scavenger hunt” for the team. Think of scavenger hunts as a micro-office tour—and one you can give more often. In a scavenger hunt, you ask the team to grab two or three items around them that serve a declared purpose. For example, “one item that makes you smile” or “one item that keeps you productive.” Give the team 30 seconds or so to grab the items, and then take turns doing a show and tell. Scavenger hunts give teammates a chance to see a bit more of each other’s work environment and personality, but they can also be used to exchange best practices for work if you choose items that help with productivity or eliminating distractions. For best results though, mix it up and make sure to call for items that will make the team laugh a little as well. Scavenger hunts are quick and make a great warm-up before an all-hands meeting.
The third remote team building activity to try is “fika.” Fika is a Swedish word that translates as “to have coffee,” but it’s about much more than just coffee. And a lot of remote organizations have played around with the idea of putting people together for quick video chats during break times. These chats stay casual and focus on nonwork conversations. They’re meant to build connections between individual teammates—not answer people’s question about how to run a formula in Excel. And fikas work best when you randomize and rotate fika partners. If the whole team doesn’t want to opt-in right away, that’s okay. Start scheduling them yourself and gradually encourage others to do the same. And if you lead an organization, fika becomes even more important not only to do yourself and make sure you’re meeting new teammates at all levels, but also to encourage others to have fika breaks with people from outside their team and even department.
The fourth remote team building activity to try is “work sprints.” These are sort of like work-related fikas. The idea is that you encourage teammates to schedule times where they can work alone together by signing into a video call, exchanging a few pleasantries, and then getting to work. Teammates can take breaks either organically or at scheduled intervals. Work sprints are a way to recreate those casual conversations we often have in a colocated office—or even to recreate those group study sessions you may have done at the college library. And for many people, just knowing there are people on the other end of the pixels on their screen can keep them more engaged and focused on the task at hand. And when they can’t focus any longer, there’s a quick mind-restoring micro-fika conversation to be had before diving back in. Work sprints are also a powerful way to get people used to the idea that the team is there to help them solve whatever setbacks they’re facing, and they don’t always have to go to their team leader first.
And the final remote team building activity to try is holding shared meals. Just like at the office—and just like humans have been doing for millennia—people bond over breaking bread together. We’ve seen it not only throughout history but in research as well. When individuals share communal meals, they work together better on a variety of tasks. If you can bring everyone together for meetings, make sure you plan shared meals into the agenda. But if you can’t, you can still hold virtual shared meals together. These work best when you coordinate with the team to ask everyone to bring the same style of cuisine, or even send everyone ready to cook meal kits and let the whole team cook together as well. The goal is not just to virtually recreate an in-person experience but also have a purposeful time together where most of the conversation isn’t focused on work and is instead focused on getting to know each other better.
What all five of these methods have in common is indeed that—getting to know each other better. Because at its core, team building has always been less about sending people to a specific activity and more about the activities we do every day or every week to build cadence and connection with each other. If you just start with one of these activities—or even use these as a foundation for an activity unique to your team—then you’ll find that you and the team are more deliberate about getting better connected, and that connection will make the whole team better.
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