2020 changed the world of work forever. Remote working became the norm, almost overnight, for many employees. Businesses are now considering the benefits of implementing fully remote or hybrid working models. A new working world requires new ways of working. That’s why virtual team building activities are essential.
As our time in lockdown has shown, remote and hybrid working can pose new challenges when it comes to keeping employees connected—both professionally, and socially. The key to maintaining these vital connections lies in your virtual team building efforts.
Online employee engagement may seem like a difficult prospect, especially when there’s already a growing body of research that shows Zoom fatigue needs to be addressed. What’s important is finding the right ways to engage your staff virtually, and not assuming every staff member will respond to the same stimuli.
Team building activities may bring to mind awkward away days with motivational speakers, but the definition is actually far broader. Team building can include set-piece events like off sites and team challenges, but it also covers regular activities such as yoga or after work drinks, and always-on support structures like mentoring or in-office support networks.
In short, team building constitutes any dedication of resources to helping employees feel supported by their colleagues, and to creating firmer social bonds.
Up until 2020, anybody designing team building activities could usually assume that the employees would be sharing the same space. That’s why so little thought was given to virtual team building, and so many team building events involve physical activities.
But, as the events of 2020 showed, this may no longer be possible.
Many businesses are now considering hybrid or all-remote working models, where a large proportion of people are likely to be working outside of the office environment. Much of the focus has been placed on individuals finding the best way to be productive when working alone. However, it’s vital that this doesn’t come at the expense of a shared working experience.
Employee loyalty and productivity depend on people being treated equitably. This is why it’s essential to design structures and activities for engaging employees that work in an all-remote or hybrid world, and which don’t discriminate between those based in an office and those continuing to work from home.
The key to this will be in how organizations foster team relationships remotely. The key is virtual team building.
Virtual team building is the art of building camaraderie, understanding and a sense of shared purpose and values between people who are physically apart—and may never meet.
Chronic skills shortages have pushed flexible working up the agenda for both employers and employees. Providing the option to work from home doesn’t just make for a compelling employment package, but widens the talent pool too—meaning that organizations can assemble teams with the right skills regardless of which city or country they’re in. Greater control over work-life balance also helps to bring more diverse groups back into the workforce, such as those who’ve taken a career break to start a family.
The benefits of flexible working have always depended on a workplace culture that knits distributed workers together around a shared sense of identity. And that involves designing virtual team building activities that can be experienced from anywhere. Workplaces are more productive when employees see friendship with colleagues as part of their motivation for doing their jobs, and when working together is a pleasure rather than just a side effect of being employed.
COVID-19 has put a new emphasis on virtual team building. What was once a choice to work from home has become a necessity imposed on many people. Yet many of these people value the experience of working in the office, and the interactions that come with it. Virtual team building is crucial to protecting employee health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. For people leaders, virtual team building has become a central task of managing remotely—and one that piles additional pressure on managers. When businesses are able to establish effective employee engagement routines and structures, it can help to relieve some of that pressure.
Workplace situations and cultures have always varied. As hybrid working or all-remote setups become more common, there’s even greater variability in how organizations operate. The content and style of virtual team building need to reflect an organization’s particular culture and values. However, the most important feature of these activities is that the shared culture and sense of belonging is equally accessible to all employees.
What are some strategies to increase employee engagement virtually? The following six activities can provide valuable building blocks for fostering this type of equitable employee engagement.
There is a huge range of collaboration and video-conferencing technology available for virtual team building. Managers and employees can choose between Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and Bluejeans when it comes to video calls. They can weigh the pros and cons of Dropbox, Box, WeTransfer, Sharepoint and Google Drive when choosing how to collaborate.
Despite all the choice, the most effective approach is to settle on a shared combination of tools that best represents your existing office environment, and that best works for your people. The most important factors when using virtual tools to foster team connectivity include:
Building a virtual office mean means creating a shared office environment, whether that office is a real one, or a virtual one.
Often the most important forms of office engagement are informal: casual chats about subjects outside of work that help to form crucial bonds. It’s important to allow space in your virtual office environment for these types of interactions to continue—remote team building shouldn’t be confined to structured activities.
Nominate a shared channel, such as WhatsApp or Slack, where colleagues can chat about non-work-related matters during (and even after) the working day. Specifying this informal office environment not only helps to build a sense of community, but also ensures employees feel a sense of belonging to their organization.
Skill-building is an important part of career growth, and with the rise of top online learning platforms like Udemy, Coursera, and Pluralsight, employees now have more choice than ever on how they learn. However, the fact that it’s easy to learn skills remotely by yourself, obscures the employee engagement benefits that come from learning them together.
Turn skills training into a virtual team building activity by asking employees to take turns hosting learning sessions. This could involve a book club-style approach, where one employee recommends a course from an online learning platform and colleagues later meet virtually to share their impressions of it and how they would apply its key learnings. Alternatively, subject matter experts in the team could prepare their own hour-long sessions sharing their expertise.
Team building activities shouldn’t be thought of as one-off events—instead, virtual team building is something to consider when approaching a multitude of different team activities. Learning together doesn’t just embed skills more effectively, it also helps to increase empathy and understanding within a team.
As more meetings take place in virtual spaces, it’s important for remote team building to create areas where employees can connect on a more informal level. Implementing virtual tea and coffee sessions, to mimic the time spent sharing a hot drink, or lingering by a water cooler, can help build in this time more consciously and slow the pace.
Try to schedule them in a way that reflects this role—potentially as an extended group chat once a week with time for trivia, quick games and quizzes. One idea is to bookend the week with a virtual coffee session on Monday morning and a virtual happy hour to end the week on Friday afternoon. If colleagues only collaborate when necessary, they’ll never feel like a real team.
Psychologists have long studied the powerful link between physical and mental wellbeing—and many traditional employee engagement activities build on this by encouraging colleagues to take on physical challenges together. This produces positive shared experiences, and immerses people in a sense of physical play that can encourage creative thinking.
In a more socially distanced, remote-first or hybrid world, these physical challenges may no longer work to engage all employees equally. However, group fitness classes can provide an accessible alternative. Yoga, pilates, and boxing instructors have all pivoted to hosting classes virtually. Signing teams up for a regular weekly session—for employees that would like to join—can add a new dimension to your virtual team building experience.
In a remote-first or hybrid working context, traditional team building activities like a sales kick-off, an offsite, or an internal conference will become more challenging. Yet finding inclusive, whole-company ways to connect will become even more important.
Back in May 2020, we held a 26-hour Zoom-a-thon to help raise funds for the Global Foodbanking Network. Our employees took turns hosting a 30-minute slot on an ongoing Zoom call, with topics including the history of hip-hop, a photography lesson, and even a course on boat-building.
What we found was that our Workmates really valued the opportunity to do something together—and that this sense of shared culture had become more important as a result of no longer sharing an office. It gave our people the opportunity to embrace their creative sides, express themselves, and understand a little more about one another.
But just because that worked for us, doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Creating strong remote teams requires understanding your existing company culture, and then translating that into a digital environment. Virtual team building isn’t something that can be solved and then forgotten. It has to be a concerted, ongoing effort, and it has to involve listening to your employees.