While some office spaces are reopening across the U.S., many companies like Twitter are deciding to fully embrace the work-from-home lifestyle, allowing their staff to operate remotely indefinitely.
But giving up the water cooler chit-chat can make your team feel even further apart, which is why team building and bonding exercises are more important than ever right now.
Just like when we were in the same physical workspace, virtual team building activities can be used to foster employee engagement and connection, increase productivity and efficiency, encourage teamwork, boost morale, or simply liven up a Zoom call.
Virtual Team Building – Things to Keep in Mind
Before diving into activity ideas for remote teams, here, industry experts share their tips and things to keep in mind when planning a virtual team building experience.
Make it educational
“The experiences that have performed the best for us are the ones where the guests will walk away having learned something—whether it’s a new cocktail recipe or cooking technique,” says Susan Ho, founder and C.E.O. of Journy, a travel planning service that also offers online classes for individuals and groups.
Set clear objectives
Ben Parkinson, commercial director and co-founder of Blue Hat Teambuilding, stresses the need to “be clear about exactly what you want to get out of the activity. What’s the business case for the investment and how will you know that you’ve achieved it after the event?”
Test out the activity first
If you’re hiring a team building company to run the activity for you, Parkinson suggests asking for an online demo before making your decision, “so you know exactly what you’re getting as some things sound great in the brochure, but in reality maybe not so much.” He also recommends reading reviews and chatting with previous clients
Consider time zones
“We’ve hosted numerous events that have included people in different countries…. It’s a wonderful (and very cheap) way to get remote people to connect without the need for time and cost on flights, accommodation, catering, taxis, etc.,” Parkinson says. “Naturally you should consider both the activity and the time of day for participants. If you have players in one continent playing at 9 a.m. and in another part of the world at 4 p.m., then activities that include alcohol are probably not appropriate.”
To accommodate employees in different locations and time zones, Michael Alexis, C.E.O. of Team Building, which operates in over 16 U.S. cities, suggests planning multiple events. “Finding one time that works for everyone is difficult, especially if you have 50-plus people. Instead, you could do two 25-person calls at times that accommodate a wider range of time slots.”
Sharon Fisher, C.E.O. of Play with a Purpose, suggests making the time zones part of the activity. For example, her company recently organized a “Race Around the World” event that featured teams in every time zone, with everyone completing a leg of the “race” at the same time in their part of the world.
Schedule a time limit
Ho recommends that the activity should last between an hour to an hour and a half. “That’s what we’ve found to be the sweet spot in terms of active engagement,” she adds. Alexis agrees, saying that fun games and activities should last a maximum of 90 minutes, while more formal training can run for two or more hours.
Fisher offers a slightly cheekier response when it comes to time limits, saying that “asking if there is an ideal time limit for virtual activities is kind of like asking if there is an ideal time limit for making love. The answer is ‘it depends.’” She adds that, in general, virtual activities are shorter than live activities, but planners need to consider other factors such as what the participants have been doing before and after the activity and what kind of interruptions or distractions will the participants likely encounter.
Establish some basic ground rules
Before you begin, Ho suggests setting some general guidelines for the participants such as remaining on mute to reduce background noise and asking questions through the chat function. Organizers should also offer an overview of what to expect and how long the class will be.
Appoint a moderator
“It’s very difficult for the host to speak while also monitoring the chat function and responding to questions that may arise in real time,” Ho says. “We’ve found it helpful to have a member of our team in every Zoom experience to handle this.”
Ask your employees for suggestions
“If you’re not sure what type of virtual experience will resonate with your employees, ask,” Ho says. Before launching Journy’s new class offerings, the company sent out a brief form for readers to fill out, which gave the team helpful insight into the types of experiences folks were interested in.
Send a follow-up after the class
“Whether it’s the full recipe or just takeaways from the class, it’s nice to follow through with an email, ask for feedback, and promote upcoming classes,” Ho says.
Virtual Team Building Activities
Cocktail Happy Hour from Journy: Join Matt Hunter, head bartender of New York’s Eleven Madison Park, on a “concoct-ail” journey to bring the bar experience home. Recent classes have included a lesson on spritz cocktails and frozen concoctions.
Travel-Based Cooking Class from Journy: Discover new flavors and techniques from around the world as Eleven Madison Park’s creative culinary director Josh Harnden draws from his travels and professional experience to guide you through the process of cooking internationally-inspired recipes from start to finish. A recent Spain-themed class featured seared branzino with romesco and patatas bravas.
Private Pasta-Making Class from Journy: Meryl Feinstein, creator of the popular Pasta Social Club event series, offers a private, virtual pasta-making class where she shares her extensive experience from her time working on the pasta production team at Misi in New York.
Tiny Campfire from Team Building: For this virtual campfire experience, participants receive s’more kits that include a candle, matches, and s’more ingredients. On “camp day,” team members play games and tell ghost stories while toasting marshmallows at home.
Parkinson says that virtual escape room experiences have been his company’s most popular activities for remote workers. Teams must solve a range of tasks, puzzles, and challenges delivered via an app to escape the rooms in the quickest time possible.
Murder in Ancient Egypt from Team Building: During this murder mystery game, which uses “escape room” game mechanics, participants try to solve puzzles related to one of Ancient Egypt’s most infamous murders in a race against time and other teams.
The Infinite Loop from Play with a Purpose: During this virtual escape room, players take turns on board a spaceship, collaborating with those on Earth to solve puzzles, navigate through the ship’s chambers, and free a teenager that’s been taken hostage.
The Escape Game’s Remote Adventures: Players communicate with their team as well as a host via Zoom while they explore the escape room by directing a guide who’s wearing a camera and live streaming from the physical environment. Players can also click around 3-D scans of each room. The game is just like an IRL escape room experience: Search the room for clues to solve puzzles and complete your mission in 60 minutes.
Secret Agents: Mission Trebula from Blue Hat Teambuilding: During this new secret agent experience, players wander the virtual globe in teams of three or four on a mission to gather evidence to uncover who the mole is in the secret agent organization. The game includes a range of tasks, challenges, cryptic video messages, and clues from virtual agents.
Virtual Spy Trivia from the International Spy Museum: The museum located in Washington, D.C. offers a virtual team building trivia adventure where players try to answer pop culture and spy-related questions based on gadgets and stories from the museum’s exhibits and current headlines. The game can also be customized with related crossover questions for an additional fee.
Piece of my (He)ART from Play with a Purpose: For this community give-back event, guests receive a kit with supplies to make colorful hearts to give to healthcare workers and caregivers in their local community as a way to say thank you. “We love this event because not only does it create a truly heartfelt connection, it gives the participants an activity to do while networking or listening to sessions,” Fisher says.
Farrago! From Play with a Purpose: Meaning “a hodge-podge, a confused mixture,” Farrago features dozens of customizable challenges as well as a host. Contestants are able to access all of the challenges and games using a computer or mobile device. “We’ve been using it throughout meetings as a brain break to refresh content, help people get to know each other, and keep energy levels high. The short and sweet nature of each game makes it perfect for engaging people in long, speaker-heavy meetings,” Fisher explains.