Remote work is not new. In fact, before the Industrial Revolution, it was the norm for tradesmen and others to set up shop in their homes.
And if you want to get technical, you can go all the way back to hunters and gatherers. They didn’t “work from home” because survival was their work. It wasn’t until the beginning of mass production and the rise of the factory building that humans adjusted to working outside the home at all.
It was the 1980s when IBM began exploring what it might look like to have employees operating from home, and our systems and structures have grown in the nearly 40 years since. But while a popular choice, remote work still hadn’t become a ubiquitous option – until now.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed even the staunchest WFH opponents to adjust, for better or worse. And for companies and organizations caught without tried-and-true remote work processes, it’s often been “for worse”...
...With teams suffering the consequences.
Virtual team building is critical
The pandemic has required adjustments and transitions, some more tolerable than others. For many, the necessity of working from home right now has driven home how possible it should be all the time – and the idea is taking hold.
According to a June 2020 survey conducted by PwC, there’s a lot of support for a remote work option: 83% of employees say they want to work from home regularly, even beyond COVID-19.3
Remote work can be an enormous change, especially for those who thrive in a team environment, with coworkers they know well. It’s not uncommon for virtual teams to feel like they don’t know each other. In a 2016 study, 41% of survey respondents who manage virtual teams said they are “never” in person.4
And if trust is important for teamwork and easier to build in person, how do you get it in a remote work environment? The answer is simple, if not necessarily easy to accomplish: virtual team building.
How do you build trust from afar?
It is absolutely possible to build trust amongst your staff, even if you’re not seeing each other regularly. The key is understanding how trust is built in person and then creating the opportunities for that to happen remotely, through virtual team building.
You’ll be searching not only for structured team building activities that you can run online but those informal “water cooler” moments that happen when staff all work together, in one location. The best working relationships are often built off a foundation of casual chitchat; as people relax and get to know one another, they feel more comfortable approaching team members with insights and feedback, increasing productivity and innovation.
If possible, a new team should meet face-to-face at least once.5 If you’ve moved to a virtual structure because of the COVID-19 crisis, then you’ve got the leg up, here. But don’t forget that new hires during this time will change the make-up of the team; you’ll need a virtual meet and greet to simulate the in-person meeting you’d otherwise have.
And it should go without saying in this “Year of Zoom” 2020, but video meetings trump conference calls when it comes to virtual team building and camaraderie.
Don't forget to make time for informal in-person gatherings when it’s safe again. There’s value to letting your team debrief this experience together.
The best activities for virtual team building
So how can we build this trust and camaraderie virtually? Here are some innovative activities and key things to keep in mind to make sure your team can thrive this year.
First, remember to clarify tasks – not only job descriptions.
While you might think your job descriptions are clear, your staff might not. There might be misunderstandings about who’s taking care of what on a regular basis – even in the office. And trying to figure it out via email instead of a quick trip to someone else’s desk will result in a lot of wasted time and increased frustration. Frustration that even the best team building games in the world won’t solve!
Make sure you have a chart of tasks and responsibilities that’s easy for everyone to follow and reference.
Host virtual coffee and lunch breaks
Schedule some time where your staff can gather and chat informally using your virtual conferencing software. This could be daily or weekly; encourage them to bring a cup of coffee or eat lunch together.
The structure is up to you and your team. Encourage staff to bring their coffee in a mug with a backstory, or bring another item for show-and-tell. Consider providing a question prompt – or not. Maybe these sessions become truly informal, management-free spaces for staff only. Define what works best for your team, and don’t be afraid to try different a variety of approaches.
Utilize new technologies
If there’s one thing we can thank COVID-19 for, it’s inspiring tech companies to get creative and provide more platforms for us to be together. Netflix, for example, has launched Netflix Party, which allows you to synchronize your streaming with others and chat in real-time as you watch. And with so many viewing options available on the site, there’s something to satisfy every team, whether it's a fun movie or a mission-related documentary.
Zoom provides virtual group games, and even museums and zoos are getting in on the fun; many are offering virtual tours throughout the week.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or doubt your ability to bring a spirited atmosphere to virtual meetings, that's okay! There’s no shame in bringing in the professionals. Services like Teambuilding.com guide your team through fun games and activities that get them loosened up and laughing. Their “tiny campfire” package, for example, includes ghost stories and real-life S’mores. Another option, “Murder in Ancient Egypt,” is the online version of an escape room challenge.
Make sure you’re excited, too.
There’s nothing worse than having to sit through a forced, boring virtual team-building exercise. If you, as a team leader, don’t understand and enthusiastically communicate the value of engagement, then it’s likely your efforts won’t be successful.
Team building works, and during this difficult and isolating time, it’s more important than ever!