Few things at work strike fear in the heart as the words “team building”. Team building can be tedious and awkward at the best of times but, as thousands have discovered over the past year, the team building experience is infinitely weirder when working remotely. When everyone’s working from home, it’s harder to achieve the collaborative culture and camaraderie you’d have in the office – and in our current climate, even occasional meetups like after work drinks are out of the question.
But team building isn’t something you can shelve. Loneliness is one of the most common remote work complaints, and right now we all need as much connection as we can get. So why is the virtual team building experience so problematic and how can we improve it?
The problems with virtual team building
In order to improve virtual team building, we first need to acknowledge what's holding it back. The first issue is that it’s just less fun that traditional team building. In-person team building often necessitated a day off work, or a weekend away – something that felt different and exciting, and broke that routine of normal working life. But at a time when so many of us are suffering from “Zoom fatigue” and spending more time working than before, the idea of several extra hours in front of our screens isn’t something to look forward to.
The second issue is that virtual team building is unnatural. Virtual team happy hours are so awkward because one person speaks with a giant audience. In reality, when a large group gets together, several micro discussions would be going on at once, and people would be able to dip in and out of conversations on a whim. Having a giant group conversation occurring where only one person can speak at a time is a fundamentally unnatural set-up, and can make the whole thing seem forced. It also puts people off interacting, as they will take centre stage on every participant’s screen.
Research also suggests that physical experiences are more bonding. Many of us might roll our eyes at team-building experiences like trust-falls, treasure hunts or obstacle courses, but these types of activities can help forge a sense of solidarity. Studies show that teams who share difficult or painful experiences (e.g. eating hot chillies or doing wall squats together) improved collective creativity and had more supportive interactions. When you’re persevering through something together, you’re experiencing mutual hardship (and relief!) – and not only strengthening connections, but giving yourself things to look back at fondly later. With virtual team building, none of this exists.
How to improve virtual team building
So what’s the solution? Because in spite of the pitfalls of virtual team building, it’s too important an experience to sweep under the carpet, or to shelve until “normal life” resumes. No matter how smart your team members are, if you don’t have trust and rapport, you can’t work well together.
Having worked remotely for about six years now, at Memory we’ve experimented a lot with our virtual communication approach. Here are just a few of our best ideas to help you forge more enjoyable, collaborative virtual team building experiences that people actually look forward to:
Introduce small breakout rooms
Rather than having one single video call for your entire team, create opportunities for more natural micro conversations by creating breakout rooms for up to four people. Rotating these breakout groups is also a good way connecting colleagues who rarely work together – helping to build empathy and cultivate new friendships.
Be smart about timing
It’s important to be mindful of the fact that people are working longer hours at home right now – and also that no matter how much fun you try to make it, virtual team building isn’t something that people want to do in their free time. Make sure you don’t schedule any team building events at the end of a work day, where it can bleed into people’s downtime – especially if you have colleagues in a time zone ahead of your own. Remember that if you’re committed to team building, your organization will make time for it.
Plan and share ahead
Virtual team building should feel as natural as possible – but while you don’t need an agenda or a strict outline for team catch-ups, it can be helpful to plan and share talking points in advance so the conversation flows. You might want to introduce interactive elements to encourage participation –like games, quizzes, presentations and polls – so make sure you have set these all up and tested them in advance. From our experience, simple virtual games can work really well as an icebreaker.
Break the virtual wall
Just because the team building itself has to be virtual, that doesn’t mean you can’t work in real, physical world experiences. If it’s a big event, like an annual meetup or a milestone celebration, you can make the whole experience more tangible by sending a treat to employees’ addresses. Whether that’s company swag, food, books or novelty gifts is up to you, but sending everyone something special provides them with a positive shared experience, and encourages them to view team building in a more favorable light.
Create playful competition
Pitting people against each other seems to stand in opposition to team building, it can help team members gel when done in a fun and friendly way,. There are tons of fun ways you can inject competition into Zoom calls, and you can make it as silly or as serious as you like. Versions of “who’s the best at?” or “who’s the quickest at?” work well, though ideally you should try to mix it up and appeal to everyone’s different skills. At Memory, we hold photography competitions, fitness challenges and even a Eurovision song contest – so think about fun competitions that might work for you. It’s not about work, or even competing – it’s just a means to engage people around a shared objective.