Until recently, there was a big disconnect between remote workers and their onsite colleagues. In fact, a 2017 study found that remote workers tend to feel left out, and the study’s authors stressed the importance of taking “extra measures to build trust and connection with colleagues” in a remote work environment.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic, which has abruptly made remote work the norm. With more people taking part in the remote workforce, as HR leaders and managers we have to be even more aware of this disconnect — and make addressing it a priority. Teams still need to connect with each other and bond on an interpersonal level, even if we’re all working from home now. In today’s environment, team building has become more important than ever.
“Team building online is not the same as team building in person,” said Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, a company that creates and leads virtual team-building activities.
When you’re in an office, your employees enjoy, and benefit from, regular communication and casual daily interactions. They can chat with each other all day long, so when you create team-building activities you can focus on larger-scale ones, like big team retreats or company charity events. But when teams are all working remotely, it requires the creation of smaller-scale activities to replace those daily interactions.
“Remote work doesn't have this basic social outlet, so you need to start there,” Alexis said. “Find more opportunities for your people to get on video calls and chat. Include simple team-building exercises like icebreaker questions to get the conversation going.”
If you’re struggling to keep your suddenly fully remote team connected, here are 10 team-building activities that managers, executives, and HR leaders recommend to get you started.
1. Make team building literal with LEGOs.
Building with LEGOs is one of event marketing company Innovate Marketing Group’s favorite team-building activities. "We send a package [of LEGOs] to our team, and we all build it together over one afternoon,” said Amanda Ma, chief experience officer.
But technical prowess is not the point of this activity. “The LEGO we selected was for a 6-year-old,” Ma said. “It’s meant to be fun, and the team had a blast!"
2. Host a Zoom party to kick off the weekend.
Allan Borch, founder of Dotcom Dollar, an online affiliate marketing blog, hosts Friday Zoom Days for his employees, where they connect after their weekly team meeting for a fun, social activity. Borch also incorporates the element of surprise to keep his team on their toes.
"I pick one [activity] randomly but will only announce what it is after the meeting has ended,” he said. “So far, we've had a virtual happy hour, held a dance party, watched old-timey horror movies, and did a group workout."
Creating a regular schedule for your team-building activities will ensure that they won’t be missed. When your team is working remotely, you can’t risk missing a week or forgetting about the importance of connecting this way.
3. Hold virtual training sessions.
Team-building activities offer the perfect opportunity to introduce a personal development element while your staff is bonding socially. Greg Heilers, cofounder of search engine optimization marketing company Jolly SEO, has been creating virtual training sessions for his team during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ask an employee to share best practices and their personal tips for success, or even start mentoring others,” Heilers suggested. “Consider getting a guest speaker to host a webinar on a skill that your team needs to learn or refresh.”
Personal development shouldn’t stop when you work from home. Creating space for your team to learn together ensures that career development won’t get put on the backburner just because there’s no physical office space at the moment.
4. Take a group coffee break — virtually.
No matter how big or small your team is, they probably live on caffeine. Even though your team can’t make a quick coffee run to the cafe around the corner from your office right now, they still most likely need to take a coffee break during the day. You can schedule a time for them to share their daily coffee together virtually, and even incorporate an icebreaker game if you’d like.
Ethan Taub, founder and CEO of personal loan comparison company Loanry, pairs a get-to-know-you game with morning coffee for his team. “It’s been great fun and has taught us a lot about each other," he said.
5. Make the most of work meetings.
You may have taken it for granted before the pandemic forced us into remote work situations, but the camaraderie you build with your team chatting before an in-person meeting is really valuable. And you don't have to lose that just because your meetings are on Zoom now.
"Don't just think of [meetings] as an occasion to talk business and get through the agenda. They’re also valuable team-bonding time,” said Sharon Koifman, president of DistantJob, a company that helps organizations find top international talent. “Set aside some time at the beginning of the meeting to chat, just as you would if you were sitting in a conference room waiting for everyone to turn up."
If you’re hosting a Zoom meeting, encourage everyone to show up a few minutes early, or if you’re a manager, allow your team to join before you log on so they have the same opportunity to talk and connect with each other that they would’ve had in person. Let people flow in and have those pre-meeting conversations that build camaraderie and closeness organically.
6. Share positive news with each other.
It’s no secret that we could all use some positivity these days. The team at video production agency MotionCue took inspiration from John Krasinski’s popular YouTube show Some Good News.
"We’ve created a separate platform for everyone to share the positive outlook they have on things to keep each other motivated during these times," said Adil Ashraf, MotionCue’s head of HR.
For example, you could start your own positive news channel on Slack, or make sharing good news a part of your team meeting, where employees have the opportunity to share a positive news story they’ve seen online or personal good news from their own life. This is an easy way to connect with each other as well as get a boost of positivity that we could all use these days.
7. Expand your Slack channels.
If you’re looking for a simple but effective team-building activity, look no further than your favorite, tried-and-true work messaging app.
Jenna Carson, HR and marketing director at music education company Music Grotto, uses giving her team feedback on Slack as a team-building activity.
"We set up a couple of Slack channels that aren't focused just on work, but rather on recognition and teamwork,” Carson said. “We have one where team members can send a thank you to someone who has helped them out that week, or where a team that has done a particularly great [job] on a project [can be praised], so that hard work is noticed and recognized."
A little positive feedback can go a long way to improving your employees’ morale and making them feel more valued, and when it’s given publicly like this it can contribute to team building and camaraderie as well.
8. Talk about your favorite photos.
If a picture says a thousand words, then sharing photos among staff is an extremely efficient way for them to get to know each other.
“We have team members share a personal photo that is unrelated to work, talk about what the photo represents, and explain why they chose it,” said Tope Longe, content marketing manager at Time Doctor, a time management software company. “This photo can be about their pets, hobbies, gadgets, family members, or a recent outing.”
Recreate this experience by picking a theme for a meeting, like pets or favorite movies, and asking your staff to bring photos that correspond with the theme. They can then share their photos either via a Slack channel or by holding them up to their screen. You can even make a fun game out of it by collecting everyone’s pictures in advance and asking your employees to guess which photo belongs to which team member.
“We've seen that encouraging team members to share part of their personal lives facilitates laughter and interesting banter that leave the team feeling connected,” Longe said.
9. Organize an “end-of-the-world” gift exchange.
Adam Sanders, director of felony job search company Successful Release, brought some much-needed levity to the dismal state of the world today by organizing an “end-of-the-world” gift exchange. First, he and his employees compiled a list of essential items that their team members needed. Each person then got $20 of company money to purchase items off the list that were available in their local shops.
Once the team had a list of the items that had been purchased, each person got to select one from it that they needed. Sanders said that the gift exchange was “a fun way to help each other out and try out some new products from around the globe."
As an added bonus, an activity like this also helps support local businesses.
10. Get creative with a painting happy hour.
Painting is an enjoyable team-building activity, especially when you have a patient teacher. Suzanne Pope, COO of Whiterock Locators, an apartment-locator company, shared that her company "bought simple watercolor painting kits for employees, scheduled a virtual happy hour, and used Zoom to stream a Bob Ross video on YouTube.”
“We all followed along painting, chatting, and sipping on our favorite adult beverage," Pope said.
Especially with all the demands of the current climate and the needs of employees to balance remote work and often homeschooling, too, people probably don’t have a lot of time right now for creative hobbies. So incorporating an artistic activity like this into the workday will give your staff an opportunity to try their hand at an artistic pursuit they otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to.
As you can see, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to team-building activities, even when your team is remote. These virtual team-building activities will help your staff stay connected, even if you haven't actually seen each other in person in months.
And don’t worry about finding the perfect team-building activity — the most important thing is that you pick one and try it. If it doesn’t work out as planned, you can always try another option next time. Above all, in today’s environment it’s crucial to take team-building seriously and make it a top priority. That way you and your staff can remain engaged and connected, whether you decide to stay remote indefinitely or plan to return to the office sometime in the future.