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, managers of remote teams must also ensure that their virtual 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 of people 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 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 motivation and drive of a collective. Humans are social and competitive beings, at the core, and collective activities are very important for peace of mind.
Once I started engaging my remote team members in laidback conversations, I realized that most of them displayed shyness, minimal engagement, were there just for the task at hand and did not find actual enjoyment or fulfillment in their virtual position. Although they had good results when it comes to their tasks and responsibilities, the attitude of remote workers towards the company and the team was neutral, at most.
Moreover, as time went on, it became increasingly hard to efficiently communicate and engage the virtual workers. Of course, we tried the usual scheduled Zoom calls, icebreakers in chat rooms, online competitions, social media campaigns, internal incentives for good ideas or initiatives and so on. However, it felt forced and remote workers participated only if they had to or if there was some sort of “win” in it for them.
That 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. People will feel at their best when they are appreciated, engaged and felt like they matter and have true value. Providing this type of emotional support to virtual workers sounds like something out of a fairytale and snowflake culture may frown at this. However, in my experience as well as quite a few reputable companies, company culture is a must for a long-standing, stable online business.
Aside from implementing a social media campaign where our virtual team members could engage with the brand through personal artwork, photos, achievements, congrats, badges, 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? That was quite the challenge and we had to do a lot of research into finding ways to engage our virtual workers in activities that would help them individually and collectively, feel like they belong to something important and they have an important part to play.
If you are looking for team building activities for remote teams that will help you run an engaged and high-performing team, you’re in the right place. We’ve done the work and the testing and have come up with a few examples of activities that you can do regularly with your online workers. Please note that team building activities have two aspects of functioning: instant and long-term. You will see that drive, motivation and engagement for your remote workers will be at peak after a team building session. However, if you want these results to keep coming, team building has to become part of your company’s routine.
Let’s get down to it! Be on the look-out for more ideas like this in the future!
Collective (lunch) breaks
Whether it’s an early morning coffee break, a midday lunch break or an end-shift brunch, collective breaks with the purpose of having those break room interactions can be magical. The idea is to get people together on their lunch breaks, at least once a week. This break should not be confused with operations updates or work-related meetings. The virtual team lunch break has to be off-limits to higher-ups and each team should be able to participate with their own team leader.
The idea behind the collective virtual lunch break is to give everyone some time to get to know each other. Eating in front of a camera may sound weird and can make some people uncomfortable, but it is optional.
Starting out with something that can give the comfort of no expectations on behalf of getting too personal right off the bat is usually the best way to go. Moreover, making a habit out of activities such as playing games together and engaging in icebreaker activities can be a healthy habit for the remote team in the long run.
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. It was, surely, a stressful change for everyone so the first few virtual lunch breaks were no-strings-attached, play-focused endeavors.
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.
Since the tendency in the remote work environment is to feel pressured to be busy on the job 100% of the time for fears of being surveilled excessively, which can be a difficult circle of cause and effect, surprise game invitations and regular breaks are important to show that we acknowledge the pressure and the novelty of the task at hand.
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 Trick or 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.
The team started using Bored regularly on their breaks after if was introduced and we started having loads of fun on our much-needed breaks. Some team members would go out to their balcony and play while taking in the fresh air, others had double the fun knowing they were sitting on the toilet while laughing with an office-full of people. It was a convenient way to lay the groundwork for a successful team that values collaboration and communication as the tools they are in achieving common goals and high quality performance levels.
Once we were past the initial weirdness of transitioning communication to the online environment exclusively, and noticed that while we were doing well as a team faced with an unprecedented task (working from home in a quarantine), performance levels were peaking and stagnating. As new areas of operations and development came by, adjusting to the projects and tasks became increasingly hard as the team’s level of collaboration and accountability was struggling.
Calibration and weekly check-in meetings with the team started getting tense and you could cut the pressure and air of suspicion that was hovering around the room of each conference member. That’s when we could see it was time for some in-depth team building to see what was keeping people down.
Weekly virtual team building lunches, brunches with actual agendas and stories were the next level of online team building. Still no-strings-attached, laidback hanging out with your co-workers outside for a smoke or a gossip-type of thing. Just catching up with the humans that eat, sleep and go to the bathroom every day, the humans that have to worry about curfews when getting groceries, that worry about their grandparents and parents, the humans that have to spend 14 days staring out the window at the rain. 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 times, 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. Although the video conference should have no strings attached, it is a good idea to create a structure that can be implemented regularly because 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.