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Working Remotely Long Term? You Need a Virtual Team-Building Plan

Michael Alexis
Michael Alexis

As virtual team building becomes a more prominent fixture for companies, savvy leaders must refine their tactics. Learn what one CEO, whose workforce is 100%, does to keep his team connected.

While some organizations view remote work as a temporary response to COVID-19, others have switched permanently to a telecommuting model. A recent survey conducted by PwC reveals that 83% of office workers would like to continue working remotely at least one day a week after the coronavirus crisis ends. Riding the tide of sentiment change, many companies are adopting hybrid models of virtual work, where employees split their time between home and the office.

As virtual team building becomes an ever-more prominent fixture in modern industry, savvy leaders must refine their tactics to deliver high-quality, effective online team building on a regular basis. As the CEO of a 100% remote company with experience managing virtual teams since before the COVID-19 pandemic, here is my advice for running ongoing online team-building efforts:

Leverage online communication tools

In virtual offices, the majority of communication occurs on platforms, such as instant messaging and email. What these methods lack in face-to-face contact, they make up for in ease of use and time-saving capability.

By leveraging online communication tools as venues for team bonding, you enable employees to socialize and forge relationships on their own terms and schedules, despite being physically apart. While one-time team building events are subject to scheduling conflicts, ongoing group chats or online community challenges allow employees to observe or add to the conversation with minimal workflow disruption.

Suggestions:

  • Dedicate Slack channels to water-cooler conversation and peer-to-peer recognition.
  • End weekly team emails with a reply-all prompt or icebreaker question.
  • Create a cloud-based photo album, and invite teammates to add pictures of family, their hometown, or notable events.
  • Launch a compliment board on Trello or Miro, and ask teammates to contribute messages of praise or positivity.
  • Write a collaborative story one sentence at a time in Google Docs.
  • Design a team mural in Google Drawings.

Because most of these programs are already used in remote offices or are easily accessible, they make effective and inexpensive team-building resources.

To harness these communication tools effectively, plan to spend time stoking and monitoring conversations with teammates as you grow these relationships.

Incorporate team activities into conference calls

Virtual teams tend to meet most frequently via video call. This circumstance is especially true for distributed teams that work across different time zones.

By facilitating team activities during conference calls, you take advantage of your team's attendance and maximize the opportunity for peer-to-peer interaction.

Suggestions:

  • Leave a buffer of five to 10 minutes before or after the call for teammates to mingle.
  • Start calls with an icebreaker question or activity.
  • Use breakout rooms for more intimate discussions.
  • Play video conference games such as virtual Bingo or online scavenger hunts.
  • Encourage the chat and reaction features for peer encouragement.
  • Assign a theme for a team show, and invite members to relay the significance of an object or photo.

Though an overabundance of online meetings can lead to Zoom fatigue, video calls are often the only face-to-face time available for remote teammates. Incorporating group activities into virtual meetings fosters peer interaction and raises engagement, and breaks up the monotony of conference calls.

Host virtual holiday parties

Holidays establish common ground and provide opportunities to celebrate together. Organizations hold annual Christmas parties to thank employees for the year's hard work, and employees attend to unwind and socialize. Many cultures observe winter holidays, so even if Christmas is not a teammate's standard celebration, seize the season as a way to spread gratitude and camaraderie throughout your team.

To host the gathering, research virtual holiday party ideas, and select engaging activities to entertain your staff. Examples of festive online party activities include virtual Secret Santa, holiday team trivia and Christmas carol karaoke. Sending physical goodies such as stuffed stockings, cookie decorating kits and seasonal cocktail ingredients is a fitting finishing touch that adds a tangible aspect to your online affair. With proper planning and guidance, virtual year-end parties can be as engaging and morale-boosting as their in-person counterparts.

Christmas is not the only season to celebrate with your team. Remote teams observe myriad occasions such as Halloween or St. Patrick's Day, to name a couple of examples. Celebrating unconventional holidays like National Compliment Day, Waffle Day, and Talk Like a Pirate Day can add elements of fun and humor to otherwise mundane weeks. In addition, dispersed teams can commemorate personal occasions such as birthdays, work anniversaries, engagements, graduations and retirements together, too. With so many reasons to celebrate, you will easily find occasions to host virtual parties at regular intervals.

Book virtual team-building events

Just because your remote team cannot physically meet, it does not mean you should forgo structured and time-intensive team-building events. Virtual outings help teammates get to know each other and fight off the isolation and loneliness that comes with remote work. These virtual team-building events consist of teammates gathering on video conferencing software to participate in a group activity like solving a murder mystery, competing in a trivia tournament or learning how to mix cocktails.

At TeamBuilding, we host monthly "hangages," optional outings where remote employees meet up on Zoom for online experiences. Recently, these outings have orbited around themed virtual tours, where expert city guides teach staff about topics via multimedia presentations. Though we are a team-building company, we sometimes opt for third-party guided events so our staff can fully relax and engage.

Establish a routine

Aim to host an online team event no less than once per quarter or stipulate that staff plan a minimum number of gatherings within a certain time frame. Designate a recurring date, such as the first Friday of every month, for socials such as virtual happy hours or game nights. When choosing a new time slot, offer a few options, and select the majority vote instead of searching for a time that suits everyone. The upside of hosting regular events is that if an employee cannot attend one outing, then there will be another opportunity to digitally congregate soon after.

In addition to our monthly online hangouts, TeamBuilding staff can participate in weekly Mr. Rogers calls, an activity where the Slack extension Donut matches two random co-workers and helps them schedule a virtual coffee break.

The routine should apply not only to periodic virtual events but also to regular socialization. Though you need not include a team-building exercise every meeting, strive to incorporate group activities on a semi-frequent basis. Similarly, if you notice a lack of team chatter on Slack channels, then stoke conversations by issuing challenges, sharing news or posing icebreaker questions. Employees are more likely to contribute to virtual water-cooler conversation if other colleagues post regularly.

Importance of community and connection in virtual offices

While physical proximity prompts camaraderie in traditional offices, a lack of face-to-face interaction in virtual offices means that team building needs to be more intentional. Remote workers often report feeling disconnected from peers. When leaders take steps to connect dispersed colleagues, co-workers feel less alone. Feelings of belonging increase worker satisfaction, which can also improve employee engagement and productivity.

Working from home often means working solo; however, forming relationships with co-workers reminds telecommuters that they are a part of a larger effort, and it connects them more closely to the organization's mission.

A remote community provides emotional and professional support, providing staff with team members ready and willing to help. Building community among remote staff improves communication and collaboration, not to mention, positive working relationships make the job more enjoyable and reduce employee turnover rates.

Image Credit: Chaay_Tee / Getty Images
Michael Alexis
Michael Alexis,
business.com Writer
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I am the CEO of teambuilding.com and owner of Museum Hack. I am obsessed with page speed, ultra-light living and Asimov non-fiction. I am technically a lawyer.