Virtual Team Building for Remote Workers

By Kurt Birkenhagen · December 11, 2018

When your team doesn’t work in the same physical space, you’ve got to approach team building unique ways. The rise in remote working requires businesses and HR departments to use creativity to cement relationships between office-based and virtual workers. For remote workers, physical distance can quickly transform into emotional distance. And also develop the feeling that they’re an anonymous cog in a machine. When unmanaged, this can affect productivity, retention, and general morale. Worry not! Introducing, virtual team building.

Smart HR experts and managers are implementing online strategies to bridge this distance and build group cohesion. For example, instituting “virtual water coolers”, and hosting company-wide customized trivia events. Here are five expert-recommended team building activities to turn virtual team members into a collective force that propels your company forward.

UPDATE: For companies interested in having a trained professional lead your virtual event, just launched a new suite of virtual team-building events such as Online Office Games (an online version of Office Olympics) and Remote Lunch & Learns where they provide an expert to teach your staff anything from how to craft engaging stories to cake decorating. Being a 100% remote company themselves, the team understands the unique challenges of remote work and has crafted these events accordingly.

Remote Office Decorating Contest

Maple Holistics is an online purveyor of cruelty-free, natural, and sustainable personal care products. HR manager Nate Masterson says the company takes a similarly personal approach with its remote workers. He uses a home office decorating contest to “let everyone’s individual character shine through.” Steps for the office decorating contest:

  1. Several days ahead of the contest, send out an online meeting invite. Let everyone know they will have the opportunity to take two hours out of their workday to decorate their office.
  2. Give everyone a theme for decorating or let them do their own thing.
  3. Have everyone send pictures of their work in progress to the group. Then, ask others to guess what they are making/designing at that moment.
  4. At the end of the two hours, use a video conference call to share virtual tours of the newly-decorated office spaces!

Nate explains that the contest lets each team member “envision each other in their respective workspaces and make it feel like everyone is part of each other’s office design.”

The office decoration activity combines the personal sharing of an icebreaker question with self-expression, competition, and cooperation.

“It will help develop a rapport among the team,” he explains. “Everyone feels a connection to the group and gets to know the various personalities better.” Nate also suggests offering a prize for the best design such as a gift card or afternoon off.

Virtual Team Building by Video Game

Mark Slack, Marketing Director for the Taiwan-based software company, Taroko, says the answer to team building solutions for his global team was simple: video games. “It might seem like an unusual answer, but it works for our company because we’re all a bunch of nerds that love Nintendo.” Mark adds, “because we’re based in Taiwan, but create software for American audiences, we have quite a few remote workers living in the United States. As it turned out, all ten of our remote workers had a Nintendo Switch.”

By using something employees already had, Taroko found an inexpensive, popular activity with competition and cooperation already baked in. Mark says the team hosts Mario Kart 8 tournaments at the office but also schedules times to play online with remote teams using the voice chat app Discord. “That way, we can talk trash to each other and keep the bond strong.”

Every major gaming console today has online multiplayer features capable of letting you invite remote workers. The downside is every virtual worker will need their own console. PC-based video games may be a better solution since all remote workers will have a desktop or laptop available.

Video Chat “Happy Hour”

If you want to move your activities outside of the boardroom and into a more social context, consider a virtual “happy hour”. Laura Prestwich, Client Coordinator and Lead Copywriter for Fuze Branding, says designated video social hours help their team bonds stay strong. “One of our biggest goals at Fuze is still to create a solid, bonded team culture even though we don’t work in the same office spaces often.” To overcome the physical distance, Laura’s virtual team building activity of choice is to host a video chat “Happy Hour”. It’s a recurring monthly event that encourages socializing outside the “office”. She says, “just seeing each other’s faces is a great way to reconnect.”

Each online call is hosted by a different member of our team. The happy hour host is also responsible for bringing an icebreaker and ensuring each member gets involved in the conversation. “We try to do prompts like, ‘What’s on your work playlist right now?’ Those really help us dig deeper and foster more interaction.”

Laura also suggests a joint calendar that includes not just meetings and milestones, but personal notes like “My Kid’s First Day of School.” She says, “we do this so we know what’s important in each other’s lives, and we reach out with words of encouragement and follow-ups.”

Virtual Team Building Gift Exchange

Sarah Moe from Flauk also recommends simple acts of kindness. For example, sending gifts to show remote workers they’re appreciated. “Share home addresses in a spreadsheet, then encourage people to send each other random gifts or treats,” shares Moe. “The great thing about this is you get mail, which is so rare nowadays, and you feel thought of and appreciated by your team.”

The activity benefits from a nostalgia for the bygone days of snail mail. But it also does something more critical. Sarah explains, “We’ve also enjoyed sending each other local treats. We’re all in different parts of the world. Therefore I’ve gotten candy from different countries and sent candles from a local vendor to a coworker in another country.”

The gifts being exchanged in this virtual team building activity aren’t just objects, they’re part of each remote worker’s life. They extend the local flavor of their communities to coworkers. As such, they work to reinforce an appreciation for the recipient while simultaneously letting them get to know the sender on a more personal level. Two birds with one stamp.

For those cost-conscious workers, Sarah suggests the company reimburse employees or provide a monthly stipend.

Virtual Meeting Ice Breaker Questions

Icebreakers are probably the easiest, cheapest, and most effective team-building exercises you can use for a remote team. As the name suggests, the idea is to break through formal work niceties. At the core, the goal is to get a better glimpse of the real person. This getting to know you experience creates stronger personal bonds that improve overall collaboration and team morale.

Sarah from Flauk says her team begins every meeting with an icebreaker question designed to give everyone a chance to share personal bits of their life. Just small details that are often overshadowed by formal work speak. “It’s a great way to get to know each other and allows for the ‘water cooler talk’ to occur in remote teams, where it often doesn’t exist,” she explains. Here are Sarah’s tips for running effective icebreakers:

  • Start each meeting with an icebreaker question.
  • Make sure the questions are positive to keep the mood light and fun.
  • Take turns coming up with the question and have everyone share his/her response.
  • Example questions: “What’s your favorite food?” or “Where would your next vacation be?”

Part of the fun of the icebreaker questions is coming up with unique queries. But if you’re stuck on finding new ones, there are plenty of popular ice breaker questions online.

The Final Steps

As you adopt these and other remote team building activities in your company, check to see if you have the right communication infrastructure set up. Is your team too big for your current video conferencing service to host a virtual happy hour? Will your office work for icebreaker sessions? No one will want to participate if technical difficulties are a constant part of the activity.

Also, consider using the 5 languages of appreciation as a guide for customizing virtual activities to your team. Everyone wants to feel like their work is valued. For some, a private “way-to-go” email will suffice, while others might desire a small gift. Know how your remote team defines their language of appreciation, and customize your team building activities around them.


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