Remote Work
How virtual lunch breaks saved my remote team

How virtual lunch breaks saved my remote team

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1. Tic-Tac-Toe
2. Bored
3. Game Monk
4. Ping Pong
5. Chinwang

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How a lunch break can make or break a 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, 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.

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 workers joined the video conference with a bowl of spaghetti instead and had a big smile on their face. When asked how come they chose spaghetti instead of sandwiches, their reply was that 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 workers 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, and I saw that most of the remote workers joined, 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 the Zoom Background ice breakers that the Bored app can generate for the team 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 took an hour 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, picked 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.

Propositions to discuss life and death, traveling, working from home and its challenges, innovative ideas for improving performance, tips and tricks on mindfulness, secrets to a happy marriage and so on and so forth, started coming in from the remote team. 

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!

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