What is virtual team building?
At its core, “virtual team building” or “online team building” has all the same goals as in-person team building. They all mean getting together with your coworkers in a purposeful way. Maybe it is building a bike, or playing a strategy game, or even the old standby, trust falls. Now I will admit, those are much harder online – I don’t recommend trust falls when working remotely. You could hit your head. So when you work from home, what are the best virtual team building ideas, and how do you host an online team building activity?
Team building is effective because people who like each other will do a better job working together. It’s not rocket science, although rocket scientists do benefit from a good virtual team building activity as well. Everybody does, but only when it goes back to what I said before – getting together in a purposeful way. When the pandemic first started there were more online happy hours than my liver could handle. These days, companies have learned to invest time and resources into, well, YOU. They plan creative online activities to enhance collaboration and build morale. And it works. Some of the benefits of a good virtual team building activity include:
- Building trust. Leaning on someone doesn’t always come easily, but when you have gotten to know them on a personal level, trust is much easier to build.
- Improving communication. Getting your message heard is vital in business and because communication is key to any successful team, everyone benefits when they are fully understood.
- Reducing isolation. I can only talk to my cat so much. Working remotely can be a lonely life and having a social activity with your workmates to look forward to is a great way to feel like part of the team.
- Increasing innovation. Virtual team building can help generate fresh ideas because team members who are engaged are more likely to feel creative.
In essence, team building aims to strengthen the connections and communication within a group, making their interactions more productive. It’s like tuning the instruments in an orchestra to ensure they play harmoniously together so the music sounds better. By engaging in team-building activities, individuals can learn more about each other, build trust, and ultimately become more effective at their jobs. And as a side benefit, they also get to find out who can draw, sing, or answer the most trivia questions!
What makes for a good virtual team building activity?
The best team building activities are centered around games because people get to know each other best when they are relaxed. But what truly makes a game the best choice for team building? I’m so glad you asked! Virtual team bonding with games can be awesome when you:
- Find a game that suits your team. Avoid overly complex activities or ones that require you to track a large amount of data. It’s a game, not another research project.
- Choose a game that fits your group size. Some card games like poker can be played by 10 people or 200, but not every game can be scaled that way. You may need to duplicate the activity in multiple breakout rooms and let people play in smaller numbers.
- Pick an online activity that is inclusive. Celebrate different cultures, languages, and individuals with games that have universal appeal.
- Avoid games that require special equipment or downloads. Downloading apps on a company computer is probably against policy and unless you’re willing to mail VR goggles to everyone, it’s best to stick to simple games.
The best virtual team building ideas are ones that match your teams goals and personalities. Some team building activities are made for really outgoing personalities but if your groups is soft spoken, maybe karaoke isn’t the right online activity for your team.
How do you organize a virtual team building event?
Lucky you, you are in charge of putting together a party for your co-workers that will make everyone happy, foster camaraderie, stay on budget, and finish on time. Oh, and everyone had better love it. No pressure. Don’t worry, it is not as hard as it sounds. There are only a few steps to planning a virtual team building game for your remote workforce:
- Step One. Plan a time that people are available. You may be working with different time zones and project deadlines, so try to find time when there are not a lot of distractions. Not everyone will be available and that’s okay. Having a regular schedule of events will ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate.
- Step Two. Budget appropriately. Most games are free but there is always work to do in order to organize it properly. Don’t be afraid to hire a professional if you’re planning a game for more than just a few folks.
- Step Three. Choose your activity. Consider your team dynamic, goals, and location. Pick a game that is inclusive and easy for everyone to access.
BONUS!. Follow up. When the game is done don’t be afraid to ask your guests what they thought. Use that feedback when planning the next event.
Unless you were hired to be an event planner, planning the virtual team building activity is probably in addition to your normal workload. Using an outside vendor is a great way to take the burden off of you. Ask for help early. Spread the workload out across several people. Being the one person in charge of everyone’s entertainment schedule can be a challenging position to be in. When you attend an event that someone else planned, it is good to keep that in mind as well. Say thank you and tell them what you enjoyed about the event.
What are the best virtual activities for remote teams?
But Chip, what kinds of games are there to choose from? Don’t worry dear reader, I’ve got you. The core components of any good team building activity remain the same. You want to create a place where people can come and play and be themselves. The activity should allow them to participate but also have a normal conversation at the same time. The goal is to get to know each other, not just find out who remembers the most 90’s music trivia. I’ll give you three prime examples of great team building game types:
- Virtual board games. Monopoly, chess, and backgammon are great for small teams. They can be played with just a few people, or you can use multiple breakout rooms to host different games at the same time. For more online board game options check out Building Stronger Teams with Virtual Board Games.
- Online card games. My favorite is and will always be Texas Hold’em poker. It has a simple structure and is easy to learn but since luck is a factor you never know how it will turn out. Cards games can also mean Cards Against Humanity (maybe NSFW), Exploding Kittens, or even Yahtzee. Wanna learn more? Check out Fun and Engaging Card Games for Building Stronger Teams.
- Games focused on strategy. Don’t tell anyone, but games that focus on decision-making skills, long-term planning, and resource management are actually a clever way to reinforce business concepts through play. Poker definitely tops my list here too, but you can learn a lot more by reading Building Stronger Teams with Online Strategy Games.
One thing to keep in mind is that hosting a virtual team building activity once is not enough. Social isolation is a constant battle with a remote staff. Over 16% of the world’s companies are fully remote so you are not alone in being alone. There are millions of work-from-home employees and they all will benefit from effective online team building activities. You can always throw in a few questions at the beginning of the Monday meeting, but the best results come from a regular schedule of virtual team building activities.
A company like Microsoft obviously employs a lot of people all around the world – 221,000 at last count. They lean into the power of play not only for their fully remote workers but for their hybrid teams as well. In their own post called “Changing behavior is hard. Gamification can help.” they discuss using gameplay with employees in over 40 countries to help with training and team building.
Why is virtual team building important?
Picture it like this: you’ve got a puzzle, and each team member is a unique piece. When those pieces fit together seamlessly, the picture becomes clearer, and the team can achieve its goals more effectively. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather work with people who I mesh with. When you’re working alongside people you know and trust, your job becomes more enjoyable. These benefits go both ways. The company and the employee both get something out of the deal.
|EMPLOYEE BENEFIT||COMPANY BENEFIT|
|Stronger bond with coworkers||Better productivity|
|Better communication skills||Fewer misunderstandings|
|Higher job satisfaction||Lower job turnover|
|Positive company image||Easier to recruit talent|
|Social ties to coworkers||Loyalty to the team and company|
Bonds formed during virtual team building activities are the building blocks of a successful team. Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, was quoted as saying, “Nothing lights up the brain like play. Three-dimensional play fires up the cerebellum, puts a lot of impulses into the frontal lobe—the executive portion, and helps contextual memory be developed.” Now that is how I want to start my Monday meeting!
How virtual team building can go horribly wrong!
A recent Basecamp post says to stop the practice of “icebreaker” questions, citing “Forced vulnerability is not vulnerability. New people don’t want to hop into their first meeting and be put on the spot to tell everyone something about themselves. This usually results in their first impression being one of discomfort, not inclusion.”
We couldn’t agree more.
There is certainly a time and place for get-to-know-you type questions, but leaning on them exclusively as your entire team bonding development program is asking a lot of the participants. As I said earlier, real team building is when people gather in a purposeful way because organic conversation grows from those interactions. Bad team building makes people defensive and reluctant to let their guard down, even when away from the toxic event. Avoid putting your team through any events that have:
- Forced participation. There is an old Monte Python line that says, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” Don’t turn play into work.
- One-sided cultural expectations. The organizer might be the king of Billboards Top 100 for 90s music trivia, but if half the team is based outside the US that game is going to flop. Diversity is an advantage; leverage it by choosing an activity that is inclusive.
- Start a gang war. Okay, this description is a bit bold, but the message is important. Be mindful of assigning roles in a game. Team leaders don’t have to be game leaders too. Give someone else a chance to shine. If you think a manager will be offended, just choose a game like poker with all random seating. Problem solved.
If the idea of organizing an event is more than anyone on the team can handle, or has the time for, consider bringing in a pro. There are several companies that offer curated virtual games on their own platforms. The Poker People offers poker tournaments with real dealers. Trivia games, cooking demonstrations, and craft making classes all have hosted versions that can take the pressure off the organizer.
Are their certain features that make one game better than another?
Yes, there are. As I mentioned, the best team building programs have a regular schedule of games. This demonstrates the company’s commitment to their remote employees and adds a sense of anticipation for the next adventure. That way, even if an employee can’t attend a particular game, they know there is another one coming. That regular rotation also allows the organizer to choose a variety of games. If you need any game suggestions, feel free to browse through Virtual Team building Games – The Complete Guide from A to Z.
A couple of unique ideas for online team building activities
Most of the time when people think of virtual team building activities, they think of a company’s main workforce. But online team building can be a tool for rewarding very specific groups of talent as well. Using the power of gamification is a fantastic way to build skills like negotiation, sales, marketing, and resource management. Consider these unique applications for online team building:
- Play poker against a professional. Invite C-Suite members from around the world to play against a World Series of Poker winner. Test their ability to manage risk, leverage equity, and bluff each other with millions of (fake) dollars on the line.
- Incentivize your sales team. Getting the competitive juices flowing in the sales department is not too hard but how about using performance numbers to earn their way into an exclusive game with nice prizes?
- Provide a unique onboarding option for new employees and interns. Jumping into a new job can be a frightening experience, but playing trivia with your new boss or escaping murder zombies with your manager can help make it a soft landing.
Anywhere you can build in time for people to get to know each other better is time well spent. I recently read a quote in LinkedIn’s blog (yes, I read their blog, don’t judge me) where Andrew Carnegie’s motto was “there is little success where there is little laughter”. He was clearly more fun than his stern image implies – and he was also right.
So whether you play poker or Codenames, with 6 people or 160, just remember that time together is always time well spent. There is no I in team building, oh wait, there is.
Poker has a great combination of friendly competition and structured game play. It is an easy game to play and provides a level playing field for all participants.
Only doing it once. Sure, you want to choose a game people like or a time they are available but the biggest mistake we see is people who do one thing, one time, and call it good.
A regular schedule of team building activities demonstrates a company’s commitment to their employee’s mental wellbeing. We recommend a formal game once per quarter. Smaller events, icebreakers, and one-off games can happen anytime, but a regular schedule lets people plan and prepare.