How Virtual Lunch Breaks Saved My Remote Team
Having a virtual team has many challenges for an entrepreneur and/or team manager. Aside from setting up online environments that maximize growth and performance, remote team managers must also ensure that their teams have cohesion and team spirit so that they can work together efficiently.
After a few weeks of managing a virtual team, one of the things that struck me was that the team members were not engaged. Although we had set up everything so that communication could be very easy through various channels, inspired by this post, team members were not engaging each other and were working very independently of each other.
Although that is not necessarily a problem from a performance point of view, it does affect the way in which the teams engage within a company in the long-term. Team members who were inactive in group chats and channels quickly became outliers and while their performance sometimes peaked, it plateaued as well. So they were not growing, they were just doing the bare minimum to get by.
Employee engagement doesn’t just improve the mind and spirit of the person on an individual level, it also contributes to the motivation and drive of a collective.
Once I started engaging my remote team members in laidback conversations, I realized that most of them displayed shyness, minimal engagement and that they did not find actual enjoyment or fulfillment in their virtual position. Although they had good results when it came to their tasks and responsibilities, the attitude of remote workers towards the company and the team was neutral, at best.
The attitude towards the workplace struck me as unusual, so I started researching on why employees would lose interest and motivation and why they did the bare minimum. Turns out, this is something everyone is dealing with nowadays. While the job is getting done, tasks are being completed and progress can be seen on a company level, absenteeism and churn are becoming bigger and bigger problems.
So we thought about what else we could do with our remote teams to engage them and help them be part of the company, not just work for the company.
Aside from implementing a social media campaign where our virtual team members could engage with the brand through personal artwork, photos, achievements, questions and topics of discussion, we also made sure that remote workers felt connected to the company on a personal level through daily check-ins and collective lunch breaks on Zoom. These meetings were crucial to lifting the mood of the virtual team by showing them that all of those IDs that they talk to and report to on a daily basis represent real people, with real lives and real problems.
During these online lunch breaks, we spoke about everything BUT work and it became clear to me that my online team is amazingly talented and wonderful. So why did these features disappear once the meeting was over? While I could not answer that question precisely, my intuition said that it had something to do with the sense of belonging, the sense of being seen as a person, not a cog in the machine.
After a couple of these lunch breaks, it dawned on me: team building. That’s what we are missing from our remote team! But how can we build team spirit for a remote team working completely in the virtual world?
Let’s get down to it!
Collective virtual lunch breaks
One of my teams transitioned to working remotely when the pandemic brought on lockdown measures. It was almost a traumatic experience for everyone, having to re-learn their work-related habits and self-regulate their performance and accountability.
Once everyone was comfortably set up in their home office, we added Bored to our Slack app list and made it available to everyone in our channels. We encouraged remote employees to take a break and play a game once in a while and launched short challenge games a couple of times a day. This relieved some of the stress of having to self-regulate work performance and prioritization.
Icebreaker games were quite successful in raising awareness among my virtual team members about the importance of checking out for a little bit. The team started taking regular breaks and in time, this helped their mood and engagement with the entirety of the online workforce. The Trivia and ‘Who’s the faker’ games started getting fun down the line and remote collaboration started getting better and more transparent.
Games on a regular basis helped team members feel more comfortable with each other and thus, be more honest about their expectations, their difficulties, their obstacles and their goals when it comes to the actual jobs that they were managing. With efficient communication, collaboration is also consolidated and games are great for developing the level of comfort needed to feel safe enough to voice opinions with intent.
Weekly virtual team-building lunches, brunches with actual agendas and stories were the next level for us. We tried to keep it no-strings-attached, hanging out with your co-workers outside for a smoke or a gossip-type of thing. Just catching up with the humans who eat, sleep and worry about curfews when getting groceries, the humans who worry about their grandparents and parents. Personal stories were key to these weekly video “conferences”. It was time to get more vulnerable!
When I organized my first virtual lunch, I set up my laptop in the kitchen and proceeded to toss my salad and cook my eggs while chatting with the team. My remote employees saw this as a display of vulnerability and realness, and were much more comfortable in approaching me, as their friend AND boss, not just their boss. This has streamlined our relationship and has added a lot of accountability to it.
That’s because once you get to know people with their guards down, you tend to be open with them yourself as well as appreciate them for being there in their realness. A lot of the time, my remote workers would view me as an entity beyond their reach and would build these walls of formality between us. That’s normal, workplace environments should have some level of formality. However, all work and no play makes the team wilt away.
If and when you decide to organize such a lunch break, it would be advisable to have an agenda for it. Remote employees respond better to a structured construct because it is easier to turn it into a habit instead of an obligation.
My structure for these meetings took a while to develop and it is far from perfect, but it’s a good starting point if you want to try this team building activity for your virtual team. It is also very cost-effective, easy to implement with existing tools and can be a great icebreaker for new remote teams.
How to organize virtual lunch breaks
Step 1: Theme
First, I wanted to pick a theme each week. That’s because themed video conferences are fun and can be a topic of discussion by themselves. I started out with very generic themes because my remote team was newly established and I wanted to make sure everyone can feel comfortable with the theme and approach it in a personal way.
So, my first themed video conference was “Sandwiches”. Of course, everyone was supposed to do their best to make or buy sandwiches for that particular lunch and do a 2-minute presentation about their meal.
One of my virtual co-workers joined the video conference with a bowl of spaghetti instead and had a big smile on their face. When asked why they chose spaghetti instead of sandwiches, their reply was, "sandwiches are for the weak, spaghetti for the warrior." Since then, their nickname in the company and among their remote team is Spaghetti Warrior.
Aside from being a funny, collective experience for the remote team, that particular lunch was an amazing success. The pressure of being in a formal, strict setting was instantly lifted by the Spaghetti Warrior and my messy kitchen and the impact could be seen instantaneously.
My remote colleagues were noticing things in my kitchen and finding resemblances to their own lives in it. These things were then brought up in conversations and gave even the most professional work-related conversations a glimpse of personality and friendship.
Step 2: Invite
I sent out an invite every Sunday to all my virtual team mates with the title of the meeting, the theme and a funny picture or GIF related to the theme. Sometimes, I would also add audio clips or snippets to make the invite even more compelling. Make sure to invite everyone that reports and works with you, but nobody that you report to. We want to keep the lunch break friendly, not guarded.
I did not make attending the team building conference mandatory when I first launched the initiative and was not planning to make it into a mandatory meeting. That would defeat the purpose of relieving the pressure. However, as the time passed, it became mandatory through peer pressure.
Since the meetings were fun and a chance for everyone to goof around and get some insight into the personal lives of each other, I saw how the most engaged remote workers were taunting and inviting their less extroverted team members to the meeting, bribing them with stickers, custom memes, video game microtransactions and chess duels.
Step 3: Getting started
Once the team building meeting started for my online team I broke the ice by introducing my sandwich for the day and showing the team around my kitchen and house, like a fun house-tour. Icebreakers can be introductions (which can be boring) or you can use fun Zoom Backgrounds to relieve some of the pressure. The idea is to make it fun and comfortable, each time.
I explained how my favorite sandwich to have for lunch was a bacon and egg salad sandwich, demonstrated how I make it in under 5 minutes and proceeded to randomly pick the next participant in the conference to introduce themselves and their sandwich while I was chomping down on mine.
That was it for the first meeting! We had an hour-long lunch and we had 15 people talk about their favorite sandwiches, cuisines, inspiration and habits. Spaghetti Warrior even shared their screen showing us that they had a huge bowl of spaghetti as their wallpaper. Of course, that was funny and Spaghetti Warrior quickly became the voice of the team and the driving force behind their engagement.
Step 4: Keeping it consistent
The virtual team building lunch events were a success, so I decided to make sure that my remote team will be consistent in doing the meetings moving forward. So what I did was plan out the next 20 meetings, picking themes and topics for each of them in advance so we’d have ideas to go by. Then, and this is important, I shared the planner with the entire team, enabling them to give suggestions, make comments and vote on their favorite topics and themes or propose new ones.
I set up a fixed date and time for each of these meetings and as time went on, I started diversifying the topics more and more. While the team building meetings started out around food and cuisine, they slowly turned into full-blown TED talks where team members would propose heavy topics such as sustainable lunch ideas, zero-waste cooking, practical home office tips and tricks, home office tours and even went as far as to start special edition video team buildings.
The fact that my team became increasingly engaged in these virtual team building events transposed into their day to day work. Their performance and engagement in work-related tasks and discussions increased steadily and I could see that more and more team members were speaking up and adding to the value of the team as a whole. It was a wonderful idea that we implemented and it helped a new remote team turn into a tightly knit virtual family that ended up working together online and offline as well. Spaghetti Warrior even organized a face-to-face meeting with all the team members and took over organizing the weekly team building lunch breaks.
Step 5: Delegate
One interesting idea that we implemented after the weekly meetings took a hold was to delegate the task each week. We would vote at the end of each meeting, anonymously, to choose which remote team member would lead next week’s meeting. The Chosen One was then tasked with picking one of the themes for the following week and getting the meeting started.
This showed that even the less active team members could contribute efficiently. Even the outliers were appreciated in their effort to coordinate the meeting and the fact that everyone had the chance to speak up helped build a community that can rely on its members and drive accountability and teamwork.
I definitely recommend this team building activity for any and all remote teams because it is easy to do online, with almost any kind of software that has video conferencing built in. The only downside for this team building event was that I had to invest more capital in payroll to cover the extra time spent on it. But it was well worth the investment!