July 20th, 2021
by Malte Stoever
With the COVID-19 pandemic shaking workplace conventions to their core, remote work has become much more commonplace. While the benefits of remote work include better work/life balance for your employees, improved productivity, and reduction of office upkeep, it certainly comes with its own share of challenges. It can be tough to build camaraderie and maintain a sense of community with a team that only ever sees each other through a computer screen.
Thankfully, there are still quite a lot of ways you can foster your team remotely.
In this article we’ll show you some ways to improve your remote team’s morale, reduce stress, and help your team settle into a more productive workflow that works better for everyone involved.
Team building is one of the main differentiators between a good team and a great one, where the team members work together as one unit rather than simply working alongside each other.
Team morale is a huge non-monetary contributor to an enjoyable work environment, which can go a long way toward reducing turnover. Your team members spend eight hours a day working together, so a good relationship can mean the difference between a mentally draining or a fulfilling work experience.
Remote Team Building Challenges
Remote team building provides an extra set of challenges on top of the regular ones, due to the physical disconnection.
A lot of on-premise teams will automatically settle into a rhythm of taking lunch and coffee breaks together, brainstorming sessions, and pair programming, simply because it’s a natural way to work effectively. When teams are fully remote, a conscious effort has to be made to retain that level of social interaction, especially in a larger group.
Remote conversations are often bidirectional and purposeful rather than omnidirectional and spontaneous. The classic case of the coffee break or the hallway encounter is missing and can only in part be replicated. Most passive team building actually happens in the five minutes before and after a meeting, leaving the office building together, running into someone on the way to lunch. Nobody schedules a five-minute call at the end of a workday with random coworkers.
Group calls are a good way to start, but have one major drawback: only one person can talk at a time. Team building events and company parties usually thrive on subsets of a group getting together, overlapping, and morphing into new subsets as they go on. This isn’t really possible on a group call—the best attempt is to create several chat rooms for group exercises and come back after ten or fifteen minutes.
Seven out of ten employees feel disengaged at work, and that’s only gotten worse during the pandemic. Many workers already see team building as a waste of their time, especially those who need a morale boost the most, just not in a forced and artificial way.
Best Practices for Remote Team Building
While your team can perform most work tasks as well or even better from home as they do in a shared office space, team building events are a different matter. When your team is remote, that feeling of forced interaction can be hard to avoid—there’s nothing worse than sitting in an hour-long zoom call where you feel optional.
There are so many different team building techniques and activities out there, but it’s important to keep in mind what your team needs—otherwise, attempts at boosting morale can actually be more detrimental than beneficial. One team might scoff at the idea of playing trivia games to get to know another, while a different team might really enjoy it. So the “best practice” of all is to understand your team’s comfort level and adapt to it.
However, there are a few things that you should consider when planning a remote team building exercise.
- Give teams guidance combined with room to roam. Avoid creating more work, with a strict set of steps to follow. Some of the best team events feature a mix of guided tasks and group activities that leave room for creativity. You can see a great return on the time invested when you mix a productive goal with a more relaxed setting.
- Inclusiveness is an important part of team building, so make sure the whole team can participate and will enjoy doing so. A day of climbing is fun, but not for those with a fear of heights. In the remote space, it’s easy to exclude team members if just one person takes control of most of the conversation. Subtle moderation is key to making sure that everyone gets their say.
- Don’t ask teams for too much vulnerability. Some people are deeply uncomfortable with exercises that encroach too much on their personal space or personal lives outside of the office. Keep in mind that a “fun activity” like showing others around your home with the webcam may feel threatening to some team members.
- Moderate. One person can consume the entire conversation in a video call and leave no room for others. Simple things like a rule about staying on mute and using the raise-hand feature work wonders in moderating conversations and ensuring that nothing gets lost between overlapping voices.
- Make space for individuals. Have a short round at the start of a call where each member gets to share a personal thought or a short update on how their day or week has been going so far. Ensure that every team member is included in the event from the first minute on.
- Don’t limit yourself to singular, long events. A regular coffee break has been the single most effective measure our team implemented during the lockdown phase. It takes half an hour per week, brings the whole team together and feels almost exactly like it would with everyone present. Everyone looks forward to it, saves up a good story to tell, or a bad one to vent about. Giving the team room to talk about anything from work-related topics to private struggles or successes does wonders for team morale, at very little cost.
- Get input from the team. For remote team building to be effective, everyone has to be on board, and everyone has to make a conscious effort to participate. The best way to make that happen is to suggest and plan ahead, then get buy-in from your team. Again, consider your team: will you see pushback if you put a daily coffee break meeting in everyone’s calendar? Maybe it’s best to just spontaneously have them a couple times a week when everyone has time.
- Be prepared for the event. It’s important that you prepare something for every team building meeting, even if it’s just a little update about important meetings or news your team might have missed. No one wants to sit in a scheduled meeting that has no point. Somebody has to start saying something, so it’s best to be prepared to jump in when nobody else does.
- Showcase motivation and effort. Offer every team member the opportunity to connect and share, perhaps offering occasional deep dive into their work or a new skill that they learned. Create opportunities for members to share their successes.
- Take advantage of the comfort of remote work. Managing remote events can be challenging, but also a lot more relaxed and personal at the same time since everyone is in a comfortable environment. This opens up possibilities that didn’t really exist before, like cooking together or having the daily meeting from the couch.
- Recognize that large company meetings are not team building events. If possible, split larger events by either group activities or different channels to avoid turning them into dry PowerPoint presentations. Most revenue charts don’t make for good TED talks and don’t do much to help teams grow closer. However, large events do have their place, to give updates to your team about the company as a whole and make them feel like they are a part of a combined effort. Just remember they’re not a replacement for team bonding.
Remote team building is a delicate balance between what’s useful and what’s not—but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just asking your team what they want and how they feel about your team-building ideas will make a huge difference.
Teams have a natural disposition to communicate and share, work closely together, and help each other out if the circumstances allow it. So that means the best thing you can do, be it remote or on-premise, is to identify looming obstacles and remove them, creating a comfortable atmosphere that your team can grow in.