Remote team building may sound like an oxymoron — especially in Silicon Valley where hot tech startups are known for their winery trips, spa days, and wild weekends in Vegas — but there's a lot you can do to cultivate a sense of belonging and community. You don’t have to wait for those annual team retreats to invest in team-building.
Below we'll share some of the things we've tried at Range.
The goal of these activities is to have a bit of fun, learn more about each other, and build stronger working relationships — even while you're not physically together. These activities won't be for everyone, so use them as inspiration and come up with something that feels unique and authentic to your team.
As with any new activity, these can take time to get the hang of — we’ve taken a “launch and learn” approach; try them out a few times, see what works, adjust and keep, or move on and try something else. But above all, our team now sees these types of activities, and the idea of trying a new team building activity, as important aspects of our identity and culture.
"Games at work?! Stop wasting time and get back to coding."
Actually, games have been shown by a growing body of research to have a surprising impact on productivity. Play, it turns out, is an important driver of motivation and productivity. One study, for example, showed that newly formed teams performed 20% better on tasks following a 45 minute collaborative game.
At Range, we have a 30 minute game time scheduled every Tuesday. Everyone is invited and typically between a third and a half of the team show up each time.
It was mildly awkward at first, but we’ve got into the swing of things and find it a great opportunity to connect with teammates, have a little fun, and take a break from the pandemic monotony. We have a mix of intense and casual gamers on the team, but everyone likes the healthy competition, and the experience is less about winning and more about playing.
We really enjoy drawing games (we get to laugh at our artistic skills), but there's a whole host of online games you can play as a group. From quizzes to collaborative puzzles to space-based-murder-mysteries.
As a leader trying to facilitate connectedness on your remote teams, you've got to read the room.
If the team is cranking on a launch or have gone through a recent spree of production emergencies, they may not be as open to socializing on yet another virtual meeting. In fact, efforts to build morale may feel forced and exhausting — more like mandatory fun.
Recently, to show appreciation for the team and generate a bit of async fun, without adding more zoom time, we sent a gift from Snack Magic. The entire team got to choose a basket from a wide variety of treats.
$50 goes a long way and we asked people to share their haul with the team over Slack. We added a little treasure hunt, prompting everyone to find something:
Since our team is spread across the US, the snacks were delivered over a couple of weeks, adding some anticipation (and a bit of friendly jealousy).
Harkening back to high school, our brave and intrepid organizer -- deflecting eyerolls and skepticism -- scheduled a series of asynchronous and synchronous activities throughout the week.
- Monday it was crazy hair day (or hat day for those of us follicly challenged).
- Tuesday set your background to your favorite holiday destination.
- Wednesday was St. Patrick's day.
- Thursday was twins day
- Friday was our team colors day
It was a simple set of activities that made normal meetings and work a little more fun, and gave folks something different to talk and laugh about. (e.g. the sales call taken in costume.)
The creativity was impressive, and “that was surprisingly fun” was the comment of the week.
Vulnerability can be a triggering word to many, due to its multiple meanings. But in the workplace it means one's ability to express and expose what you really think and who you really are. Vulnerability breeds trust, enabling healthy conflict and effective decision making.
When you're all working in the same office, vulnerability comes easy — even if it's not obvious. You chat with people in the elevator, go out for lunch or a beer after work. You share stories about your life and your history which help people understand and relate to you better.
When working remotely, opportunities to build these connections are less present. It's all too easy to get caught up in the flow of work and to treat all interactions as transactional, focused solely on the next task to be completed. This isn't rewarding and also isn't what leads to effective teams. To be creative and have the mind-meld needed for innovative work, you need to feel open and connected to your team.
All this is a long winded way to explain the theory behind our biannual team zines. A “zine” is short for magazine, and is a short, self published work of original materials — usually words and text Creating a zine is a low key, easy way to get to know your colleagues better.
We used a combination of asynchronous and synchronous time, spread over several weeks, where people collaborated and contributed chapters to a zine.
Our first one was on "how I spent COVID", a dark look at the first 6 months of the pandemic. People drew comics, made infographics, or gave detailed accounts of the strange behavior they observed outside their window. It was a cathartic way to improve team morale.
Our second zine focuses on sharing stories from our youth.
Try it out. It also doesn't need to be a zine, it could just be a show-and-tell, or a few slides at an all hands. We’ve heard others share a “how to” lesson based on a talent or interest — how to ski from a helicopter, make your own wine, or sew a quilt.
Advent of randomness
A little similar to Spirit Week, but instead teammates signed up to cover all the days in December. You could do whatever you wanted: we had someone share a funny story, there was a critique of santa clause emojis, a review of Christmas movies, and a very important meeting, which turned out to be a Petting Zoom.
We never knew what to expect, and it made for a great way to keep everyone engaged every day as year wound down.
Write a team cookbook
While not everyone is a foodie — or a cook — food is such a rich subject that this activity was both surprisingly easy and actually useful, and everyone could take part, even if they didn’t contribute a recipe.
We did this asynchronously, and didn’t set a due date as we thought it would be a living document that will grow and evolve with the team. We started a shared doc and soon enough, it filled up with recipes. People tried each other’s recipes out, which led to lots of insights and fun side discussions on the type of food the team likes and why, cooking stories and styles, proved to be a great place to turn when you needed new ideas for meals at home. From Irish stews to German holiday cocktails, our culinary worlds all got a bit bigger.
How to cultivate everyday belonging?
We hope you’ll try some of these team building activities for remote teams. And if there are activities you come upon that you really like, please let us know and we’ll add to this list.
As important as team building activities are, they only get you so far. The positive effects of such exercises degrade over time and need to be constantly renewed. Something Daniel Coyle talks about in his book The Culture Code.
It’s important therefore to think about how you sustain company culture and connectedness throughout the normal flow of work.
Tools like Range make it easy to check-in with each other asynchronously. As well as sharing context about the things you are working on, you share how you’re doing using a red/yellow/green traffic light system, and answer an icebreaker question. It’s a surprisingly simple moment of connection that builds trust every day.