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Building Stronger Teams: Best Practices for Virtual Team Building

Jun 9, 2023

13 min read

Virtual Team Building Keeps You in the Zone

When it flows, you feel it. Your team is firing on all cylinders, communication is smooth, and everyone is in the zone.  But how do you keep up this level of Zen when your team is not just across the office, but across the country?  Or even the world?

images of a man with headphones, a woman with glasses and another woman on a headset.

Understanding how to do virtual team building for a remote workforce is one of the most unique challenges facing managers today.  How do you keep people connected when they only see each other on video or occasionally in the office?  This disrupted schedule can reduce your team’s productivity and ultimately your effectiveness as a leader.  You’re not alone trying to figure this out.  According to data from the US Department of Labor and recent information released from Zip Recruiter:

  • 12% of the US workforce is currently WFH.
  • 18% of new jobs advertised are fully remote.
  • 28% of the US workforce is currently hybrid.
  • 39% of new jobs being offered are also hybrid.

Managers around the world are left wondering how to do team building virtually.  Because industries like Technology, Finance, Data Science, and Human Resources are embracing remote and hybrid staffing, managers must adapt or be prepared for a negative impact on their team’s performance.  

Below we will explore the best practices for creating and implementing virtual team building programs and give you the tools and advice necessary to build a strong team. 

Best Practice #1: Plan Engaging Activities

When it comes to virtual team building, planning an engaging and interactive activity is crucial. Choose activities that encourage collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity. Virtual scavenger hunts, online poker games, or virtual escape rooms are examples of fun online activities that promote teamwork and foster a sense of belonging among remote team members. Working remotely can be isolating, so tailor the activities to align with the team’s interests and preferences, which will ensure that everyone can actively participate and enjoy the experience.

a woman on the couch with her toddler. A dog laying in the sun. A woman at her desk with her head down.

It’s Lonely at the Top.  And in the Middle.  And at the Bottom. Relationship Building for Virtual Teams

A study by the Society of Human Resource Management reports that 35% of U.S. remote workers reported feeling lonely at work regardless of their position in the company.  With work taking the lion’s share of everyone’s energy and focus in a day, working remotely can easily feel like a treadmill alone into the void.  Being in an office setting has enough social interactions to fuel countless cartoons, memes, and a few pretty good TV shows, but it is hard to bring that level of social gold to a Zoom call.  As a result, people often feel that the only thing there is to talk about at work is work.  Once that mindset takes hold, it is easy for employees to feel like just a cog in the wheel.  This can contribute to feelings of:

  • Isolation:  Working remotely can make employees feel like a solo act even in a huge company.
  • Loss of Focus:  Without other people around, it is easy to drift off into distraction.
  • The Grass is Greener:  Unmet social needs can skew the real value of a current position.

*Pro Tip: Avoid hosting team building as a one-off.  Employees know when their managers are actually trying.  Add team building to your team’s regular schedule.  Large quarterly events or hosting an annual convention is great but think of team building as more of a drip campaign.  A steady stream of small social opportunities will add strength to the group a little bit at a time. 

Five Free Virtual Team Building Games That Require Zero Set Up:

  1. Monday Funday – Participants take one minute each to recap a positive experience they had over the weekend before kicking off the first meeting of the week.
  2. Food for Thought – Take a moment to describe a favorite meal and go into the background of why it is relevant.  It is cultural, invented by a family member, or a result of some completely out-of-the-lunchbox thinking? 
  3. Pancakes or Waffles?  – Participants decide their preference, argue its merits, and the other is eliminated.  Then a new element is introduced against the winner.  Pancakes or Kittens.  Kittens or cell phones….
  4. Meme or Gif Battles – Participants send images on a particular subject leading up to a meeting and the participants vote on the one that captures the subject best.
  5. Hometown Hero – Players give one-word clues to describe their hometown and see how long it takes the team to figure out where they are from.

*Pro Tip: For a list of over 20 additional fun and unique virtual team building games to choose from, check out our Complete Guide to Virtual Team Building Games from A to Z. 

Best Practice #2: Leverage Technology

Video conferencing tools are essential for virtual team building. They enable face-to-face interactions, which are vital for building relationships and strengthening communication.  Seeing is believing and visual clues promote connection and empathy.  Adding other technologies like whiteboards and Slack channels can enhance the overall experience.  Or take it up a notch and hire a company with professional software tailored to your event.

a man on cameras doing a podcast.  A grid of people on Zoom.  A professional event host with headset.

When in Doubt, Bring in a Pro.  Virtual Team Building for Large Groups

Whether you are looking for an online board game, strategy game, or card game, consider bringing in a professional to conduct the session.  They know how to do virtual team building at scale.  Organizing a virtual team building activity for a group of 10 people might be simple enough, but what if you run a department of 50 people or have offices in several countries with over 200 employees?  There are several professional companies that host games from trivia to Texas Hold’em.  Poker is obviously our first choice. Click here to learn more about virtual team building poker with live dealers.

Like a Hug Around the World.  What is Virtual Team Building?

Team building is the process of intentionally creating a sense of community among team members through specific actions.  Some call it team building.  Some call it team bonding.  Whatever your preference the goal is the same.   People who know each other better communicate better, and thus work together better.   So, using virtual team building activities to get to know your team can only help the team.  Will it save the world…?  Probably not, but maybe a happy remote worker will discover the key to breaking down plastic in the ocean or carbon in the air.  Until then, having a stronger positive bond with your coworkers will certainly make your work-world a better place to live.  

Many studies have been conducted on the impact of team building, both in-person and virtually, and they have concluded that the ultimate goal is to create an environment of psychological safety.  This allows people to relax and do their best work which can:

  • Increase Productivity: Having a rapport with someone makes it easier to collaborate on projects and tasks.
  • Improve Morale:  People who know that their contributions are valued are more likely to have a positive attitude and stay motivated longer.
  • Spark Creativity: When coworkers feel comfortable sharing ideas and feedback, they are more likely to come up with new and innovative solutions to problems.

Case Study: Project Aristotle

Project Aristotle is Google’s in-house team building program established in 2014.  The New York Times reported that after studying hundreds of groups within the company, they found that the most important factor in forming an effective team was psychological safety.  Despite the differences in hierarchy or management style of the individual groups, if every member felt safe expressing themselves, the group accomplished its goals.  They determined, ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well, but if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’  

Best Practice #3: Foster Communication and Collaboration

Effective communication and collaboration are the cornerstones of any successful team bonding activity.  Select a virtual team building game that is not only unique and engaging but also allows for organic conversation.  The flow of ideas and conversation during a game is the basis for a positive experience.  Avoid games that set managers up as the game leader and force others to simply follow their direction.  Let different people take different roles that give everyone a chance to speak and lead.  Fostering a culture of active listening and respectful communication ensures that everyone’s perspectives are valued and heard thus creating an environment for psychological safety.

the cast from Monte Python's The Holy Grail.

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.  Why Virtual Team Building is Important

Team building has been around for centuries.  Humans realized quite organically that they did better when they worked with people they trusted.  The first US based studies were conducted in the 1920’s, but the idea really took hold in the 1970’s with the popularization of formal programs that included icebreakers, office-based events, and the first company retreats.  A lot of people joke about trust falls, but they do actually work.

The core concept of team bonding revolves around allowing people who work together the opportunity to build genuine relationships that are not specific to their work tasks.  Chatting about vacations, sharing recipes, showing pet pictures, and playing games together help us see each other as fellow human beings and not just as the next stop on the email chain.  Formalized programs take that much further using specifically designed situations to create opportunities within the group and then allow the natural interaction that occurs to build trust.  The five keys to a good team building experience include:

  • Start on Equal Footing: Make sure the activity is accessible to all and doesn’t favor a specific skillset or position in the company.
  • Set Clear Goals: The activity has an obvious pathway that is easy to follow.
  • Make it Enjoyable: The activity must be fun!
  • Keep things Unscripted:  A clear starting point is a must but after that, let the team create the flow.   
  • Don’t Forget to Follow Up: Activities don’t take place in a void.  Get feedback to inform the next event.

*Pro tip: Don’t overthink this.  The best team building games open the door to organic conversation and contributions.  You may start with a game where people are evaluating clues in an escape room and end up in a spirited discussion on everyone’s favorite 90’s movies.  That’s fantastic.

Five awesome team building card games:

  1. Poker – Texas Hold’em is easy to learn and play. 
  2. Codenames – Solve the word clues without uncovering the spy.
  3. Uno – Skip, Reverse, and Draw Four your way to fun.
  4. Crazy 8’s – Resurrect a childhood favorite with this easy game.
  5. Scattergories – Choose a category and see how many items you can name.

You Can’t Do Trust Falls on Zoom

When the pandemic hit in 2020 and sent everyone home, the entire team building concept was turned on its head.  Companies scrambled to find ways to not only copy the technology of being in the office but to recreate the social fabric as well.  With millions of people working from home, happy hours, coffee groups, and a huge variety of games sprung up almost overnight.  From trivia to Texas Hold’em, everyone was playing something from home with their co-workers.  For a full list of virtual team building games, we recommend you check out, “Team Building from A to Z.”

Choosing the right activity for virtual team bonding can be a challenge.  Many of the mainstays in team building like bike building workshops, camping trips, and actual trust falls simply don’t translate to a virtual environment.  A good event still needs to meet key requirements of having equal footing and clear goals, be fun, unscripted, and have follow up, but you also need to find a way to make all of that work on a virtual platform.  Some of the key adjustments include:

  • Be Tech Friendly: Adding elements like a second site to play games on is a great way to make a game visually appealing.
  • Allow Space to Breathe: The best games are interactive and allow for organic conversation during play.
  • Give Permission to Play:  Slotting in team building between an all-hands meeting and a huge project just turns it into another meeting.  Schedule games in the second half of a light workday so people can fully engage. 

Case Study: Harvard

Harvard researchers equipped a wide variety of teams in multiple fields from medicine to banking to call centers with electronic badges so they could track their communication behavior. They tracked how long people spoke, their tone of voice, volume, and what they spoke about.  They discovered that the best predictor for a team’s success was the quality of their interactions outside of formal settings.  Simply put, when their best conversations were not about work, they performed better at work.  Regardless of industry, the level of energy they brought to each other when they were not working was a key factor in the team’s productivity – more so than individual intelligence, personality, and skill combined.

A woman at her desk showing the peace sign.  Three happy office workers dancing. A smiling woman in a yellow sweater.

Happiness is Good for the Bottom Line. Benefits of Virtual Team Building

The US ranks second in the world in formalized team building behind only Singapore.  Australia and Canada follow closely with South Africa rounding out the top five.  These countries are also home to the highest number of remote workers and found that transitioning their in-person team building to virtual team building helped maintain employee satisfaction and productivity both during the pandemic and now as we move beyond it. 

Every job requires some interaction with your coworkers.  If you are managing a small development group, heading a mid-sized accounting department, or even running a whole company, you need the people around you to be able to communicate effectively.  Camaraderie, personal relationships, and knowing how to problem solve together are as vital as the individual skill sets needed to accomplish the work itself.  Companies with a more satisfied and engaged workforce will see that reflected in their bottom line.   Well balanced teams:

  • Show Increased Productivity:  Teams that work effectively accomplish more.
  • Have Lower Turnover:  Job satisfaction ranks almost as high as compensation in many employee satisfaction surveys.
  • Foster Innovation:  An employee with psychological safety will propose more ideas that can lead to improvements in existing products and the development of new ones.
  • Report Happier Customers:  Customer satisfaction is often a reflection of their interaction with company representatives. 
  • Have Higher Morale: Working in an environment where people are happy simply makes it a better place to work.

Best Practice #4: Emphasize Inclusivity and Diversity

Virtual team building should prioritize inclusivity and embrace the diversity of team members. Create activities and initiatives that celebrate different cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives. Ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to participate and contribute.  Encourage team members to share their unique experiences and insights, fostering a culture of inclusion and appreciation for diversity within the team.

Company Culture: Team Building Stirs the Petri Dish of Inclusion

Virtual team bonding activities can be particularly valuable in breaking down barriers and fostering diversity within the workplace.  As discussed earlier, a feeling of psychological safety is key to creating an environment of collaboration, communication, and creativity.  By creating a level playing field where everyone is encouraged to participate and contribute, these activities promote equal opportunities for all employees to showcase their strengths.

Through collaboration and shared experiences, team building helps bridge gaps between individuals from different backgrounds, departments, or hierarchical levels.  Managers in different parts of the world must be aware of not only language and time zones, but how culture, race, gender, and community roles impact their individual team members.  The simple act of playing a game together provides an inclusive environment where diversity is celebrated, and employees feel respected, valued, and appreciated for their unique perspectives.  Game play provides opportunities for:

  • Building Common Ground: Game play can create a culture within a culture. 
  • Strengthening Collaboration:  People with common experiences feel like they can trust each other more and work better together.  
  • Learning Conflict Resolution:  Learning to win and lose with grace in a low-stakes atmosphere can build resilience when tasks are more difficult later.
  • Building Leadership Skills:  Different games require different skills and virtual team building games give people the opportunity to showcase themselves in ways they may not get to display in their current position.

*Pro tip: You don’t need to go it alone when it comes to running the team building activity.  There are several companies that offer a variety of hosted games from cooking classes to Texas Hold’em tournaments with real dealers.

Five great virtual team building games hosted by professionals:

  1. Texas Hold’em Poker – Real dealers make it easy to learn and fun to play.
  2. Escape Rooms – Solve clues before time is up or you will be trapped forever.
  3. Cooking Classes – Pro chefs teach everyone how to make a fantastic meal.
  4. Mixology Tours – The next step beyond happy hour.  Craft cocktail history and creation.
A man with glasses looking at his computer.  A man in headphones using his laptop.  A smiling woman on a conference call.

Build strong WFH Teams Through Virtual Games

There is an old adage that states, “People don’t quit companies, they quit managers.”  As a leader, you have a lot on your to do list already.  Adding the mental health of your entire team to that can be daunting.  Leadership skills can be displayed and developed through play, just as kids find their footing in the social hierarchy of the playground.  Some of the benefits of team building include giving people opportunities to:

  • Break Down Barriers:  While every company has a hierarchy, the lines are far more blurred in today’s collaborative environment.  The act of playing a game together shows off everyone’s individual humanity and accessibility.
  • Bolster Communication: It can be easy to slip into technical jargon or routine emails.  Time spent socially lets people speak freely and creates familiarity.  
  • Develop Support Systems:  Creating an environment for your team to blow off steam demonstrates a manager’s commitment not only to the company but to the well-being of the team.
  • Encourage Friendships:  Embracing the level playing field of a virtual game can help team members see a manager or new coworker as more approachable.

Best Practice #5: Reflect on and Adapt Virtual Team Building Efforts

Regularly reflect on the effectiveness of virtual team building efforts and make necessary adaptations.  Collect feedback from team members regarding their experiences and preferences.  Assess the impact of virtual team building activities on team dynamics, collaboration, and morale.  Use this feedback to refine and improve future initiatives, tailoring them to the specific needs and goals of the team.  

The Future of Virtual Team Building

In conclusion, virtual team building has become an essential aspect of modern workplaces, allowing organizations to harness the benefits of remote work while fostering strong and cohesive teams. By implementing the best practices discussed in this article virtual teams can thrive and overcome the challenges of physical distance.  The changes to remote and hybrid work brought about by the pandemic are not going away.  Employees have come to appreciate the benefits of remote work and while some companies push for a return to the status quo remote work is here to stay.

Organizations that prioritize virtual team building will be better equipped to adapt, innovate, and succeed in the growing global marketplace. With the right strategies and a focus on building genuine virtual connections, managers can help their teams overcome barriers and build meaningful relationships, ultimately achieving their goals together.

Virtual Team Building Poker

FAQ Section

Wait, you don’t want to read the entire 3,500-word article above?  No problem.  Pick out the highlights or see if your questions are answered in the FAQ’s below.

What should a manager know when doing virtual team building for the first time?

You can’t yell at a garden.  It takes time to make things grow. All you can do is plan ahead, provide proper nutrients, and be patient.  Evaluate your team and see where the gaps in communication are.  Choose a game to start the conversation and check in with your team regularly to see how they feel about the process. 

What is virtual team building?

Virtual team building the deliberate practice of leveraging technology in a way that allows for coworkers to build rapport with each other over non-work topics. 

What are the biggest benefits of virtual team building?

Managers need to step back and understand that they are not only responsible for the productivity of their team but for creating a safe psychological environment for the individual members.  Employees who are able to communicate, share ideas, and understand each other will work better together and ultimately produce a better product.  

What is the best game for virtual team building?

Poker. Yes, we are a little biased but for good reason.  Families and friends have gathered around the kitchen table for poker games for hundreds of years because they provide a framework for interaction that lets people talk about whatever they want to talk about while still playing.  There is space to be competitive, opportunities to get lucky, and there is always time to talk about whatever is on your mind. For those reasons we believe that poker is the most fun, the most fair, and the best choice for virtual team building. Click here to connect with our team and learn more.