By David Humphreys | Published on November 06, 2020 (Updated on 11/10/2020) | 7 min read
Teams across the globe have embraced remote work, and with it a whole new way to collaborate. A modern work environment doesn’t just get created overnight, there are hurdles along the way to make it feel “normal”.
Team building is not a one-off activity you do when you happen to think “hey, it’s been a while since we did a team bonding exercise!”. Team building efforts are most effective when done regularly, and result in a caring and connected team.
When it comes to remote teams, virtual team building is especially important. Since the intention to communicate and collaborate needs to be at the forefront of all remote initiatives, making sure that your team feels emotionally connected is a good place to start.
Instead of looking at those as “cheesy” or just a standard in-person exercise, start looking at it as a way of breaking your virtual team’s routine to cultivate connections, spark conversations, and getting to know your co-workers, beyond just work.
Team Building, But Make It Remote
By many measures, communicating in person is just flat out easier. When your team members are sitting directly across from you, it’s more straightforward to give them your full attention, pick up on nonverbal cues, and build rapport via shared experiences.
However, choosing to get together in person as a distributed team does come with some major downsides. Assuming it’s safe to travel, airfare and hotel accommodations can be pricey, and each flight will add about 0.5 metric tons of CO2 to your carbon footprint.
On the other hand, relying on the internet to communicate can also be challenging. Up to 92% of human communication is nonverbal, and current technology can only partially translate the spectrum of human expression.
Even video conferencing, which allows you to pick up on facial expressions and some body language (which constitutes 55% of communication), has its limitations. When the person you’re talking to is a two-inch-tall disembodied head that magically transforms into a buffering wheel every 15 seconds, deciphering facial expressions and body language can be frustrating.
But remote meetings don’t have to be that awkward. Building rapport and understanding helps fill in the communication gaps during those technologically-challenging moments. Let’s look at some icebreakers and quick virtual activities to help your team kick-off your next conference call on the same page.
Easy (Not Cheesy) Remote Team Building Exercises
Getting to know your co-workers does not have to be time-consuming or awkward. The key here is to make it consistent, rather than a random bonding exercise. In the long run, your team will become more familiar with the idea of opening up to other team members through some fun virtual activities.
Here are some quick and ongoing team building activities to implement in your distributed team conference calls to keep work moving forward in a collaborative and connected light.
- Point Your Camera Out The Window
One of the great aspects of video conferencing is that it allows you to catch a glimpse of an unfamiliar environment in real-time, without ever leaving the comfort of your remote office.
If you live in Minnesota and someone is joining your meeting from New Zealand, chances are you’ll want to take a peek out their window. Will it overlook a spectacular Lord of the Rings-style vista or an ordinary Wellington street? The opportunity to play tourist for five minutes will be fun for everyone involved and will help the team get a common perspective of their surroundings.
team building activity showing your surrounder
Here’s an example. Where do you think the picture above is from? It kind of looks somewhere in Scandinavian, doesn’t it?
Here’s a hint: It’s Canada’s Silicon Valley and—more importantly—the historic birthplace of Joseph Schneider, founder of the Schneider hot dog company. Is it easier to guess now?
If you said Waterloo, Ontario, you guessed right!
See how fun that was? You can add fun facts to your location to give more hints for your co-workers to guess. This is also a great icebreaker for a virtual happy hour.
- Desk Show And Tell
Another major advantage of virtual meetings is that everything in your office is always within reach. Chances are, you’ve decorated your workspace in a way that reflects your personal taste.
Explaining the story behind a piece of artwork or an accessory on your desk can be a great way for other people to get to know you better. The next time you’re on a video call with your team, take them on a tour of your desk!
Alternatively, you can use the objects on your desk as the basis for a virtual team building game: Which item within reach would you take with you if you were stranded on a tropical island?
Here’s some advice: Take a laptop charger. In lieu of a proper rope, it would be the ideal instrument for rappelling up trees to pick coconuts.
You can also expand this team building activity to your chat tool, such as Slack, by randomly asking your team members to share their remote office desk at a certain time of the day.
You can learn a lot about your remote workers’ personalities and state of mind depending on the day they are having.
Example: Is the chaos that is Max’s desk reflective of Max’s organizational skills or a stressful day? This will help your virtual team create empathy and connection with other team members across the globe.
- Two Truths And A Lie
This virtual team building activity is based on the popular Jimmy Fallon’s segment, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be popular during your conference call. The rules of this virtual icebreaker are simple: Write down three statements, two of which are true and one of which is false. Read all three statements out loud and give everyone else a minute to guess which of the statements is false.
You’d be surprised how many times you can play this before you run out of fake things to share, or eventually knowing your co-workers so well, that you can easily tell when they are lying.
- Team Coffee Or Team Lunch
It’s a scientific fact that eating together promotes team bonding. Most companies that pride themselves on having a strong company culture have picked up on this, and just because your team can’t physically meet at the same restaurant doesn’t mean that this tried and true team building activity is off-limits.
It’s fairly straightforward to hold team lunches remotely via video conferencing: Have food, eat in front of your camera, let the conversations (and probably coffee) flow. It may feel weird, but it works!
If you have a group of foodies, you could create a remote cooking experience with your co-workers. This can even be opened as a company-wide virtual team building activity where participants share their recipes using the same ingredients. This is a great way to learn different flavors when your remote team has a diverse cultural background.
Breaking down virtual barriers by breaking bread is simple to organize and something everyone will have in common.
- Summarize A Story In 60 Seconds
Everything becomes more exciting when a time limit is involved. For instance, listening to an academic summarize their PhD dissertation is hardly the stuff of high drama, and yet one of the most popular public events at universities is the 3MT, a competition in which PhD students attempt to whittle down their thesis into an easily digestible three-minute-long sound bite.
Substitute PhD dissertations with resumes, change the time limit from 3 minutes to 1 minute, and you have the basis for a pretty good (and quick) team building exercise that can be added to any virtual meeting.
Your colleagues are going to want to know a bit about your background, but they’re not going to want to know about it in Proustian detail. By forcing everyone to summarize their careers in 60 seconds, you’re not only sharing information that will help cement bonds between team members, but you’re doing it in a way that would nab solid ratings if your virtual meeting were broadcasted on TV.
You can also spin up this idea as a fun way to start your virtual meetings. Instead of sharing a career background story, you can have each team member sharing a fun, not yet-known story about themselves in 60 seconds.
Start With Team Building Basics, End With A Bond
These five virtual team building activities are just a small fraction of the hundreds of possible meeting games out there, but they’re ones that are easily adapted to fit into your regular meetings.
Remember, good virtual team building activities should create natural conversations—similar to the ones that take place in the traditional workspace, and all while sitting in the comfort of your favorite chair and outfit.
Start small. Pick one idea above and give it a try! You will be impressed by the results that this can bring to your team.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2017 and we’ve added a whole heap of new ideas and nuggets of information to this post in October 2020.