Virtual Team Building

Remote Team Building

You’re busy. Your time is precious. It would be best if you didn’t spend it on unimportant posts when you’ve got a team to run. And yet, here you are. Because you recognize how your team’s performance could improve if your team members were able to cooperate more. Maybe you have a new employee and you need some virtual team icebreakers to get them comfortable? You’ve run out of ideas on how to pull this off, though, and many of the articles you found after doing a quick search offer suggestions that feel forced or childish.

At least you realize the value of your team working as a team. Sorry, that sentence sounds a bit redundant: At least you realize the importance of your team working as cooperatively as the A-Team.

We’ll invite The IT Crowd to explain this a bit better.

Yes, Denholm is a fictional character. He’s clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed, but if he knows one thing, it’s the importance of a team working as a team – just like the A-Team. Peas in a pod. Parts of a whole. Pieces of the same puzzle.

Denholm’s comical example of the A-Team (which we’ve appropriated here) is even funnier because it’s true. Everyone is different; some are worlds apart. The contrasts between your team members become starker when they work on fragmented remote teams, where the likelihood of linguistic, cultural, and ideological differences is a given.

Thankfully, just like the members of the A-Team, everyone on your team can learn not only how to get along with each other, but also how to achieve a higher state of collaboration, where each member of the team trusts, values and compliments the rest of the members.

While this might seem unattainable for some teams. In truth, it just requires a lot of bonding, which in turn translates to prolonged interplay between your team members – both on and off the clock.

Obviously you can’t force your team to move together and automatically love each other like siblings; however, you can give them a nudge in the right direction.

Below are some of our best, team-tested, manager-approved virtual team building ideas for how you can pull this off with your own team.

Band of Brothers

Talking about “building a strong team” is easy. Doing it is the hard part.

It’s not the tools that are at fault, but how you use them. You can’t force team members to like one another, you have to actively work at it, spending time and having fun together. The following ideas build on the tools you’re probably already using (with a few additional fun twists) and will help you transform your team into something closer to what Dominic Toretto from The Fast and the Furious franchise would call “a family.”

Hobby Chatrooms In Slack

You’re probably already using some form of company-wide chat solution where people can create ad-hoc chatrooms. If you have a large team, encourage people to create chatrooms for their different hobbies (#knitting, #amateurradio, #videogames), then advertise them in your main channels and in your employee handbook. This way people can share progress and tips with others who share their interests.

If your team is smaller, you probably won’t have a lot of people interested in the same hobby. In this case, create a #hobbies_progress channel instead, where people can post videos and pictures to share what they’re working on with the rest of the team.

This helps all team members see at a glance (or with a click) who shares their interests and can foster stronger relationships between team members.

Guess Who’s Baby Picture This Is

You know how Facebook and other social media sites allow you to “tag” people in photographs? Ever noticed how several companies now use auto-tagging features based on AI to recognize somebody in a photo?

You can turn this into a game – minus the actual tagging technology and artificial intelligence.

  • Use your preferred file-sharing/hosting solution to create a shared group or folder and give all of your team members access.
  • Programs like Dropbox, Google Drive/Photos or anything else that will enable team members to share and have common access to a bunch of files works here.
  • Have each member upload the oldest photo they can find of themselves where they’re with a group of people. For best results, all people in the photo should be of comparable age – school photos and snaps of carefree childhood moments with buddies are optimal for this.
  • Have your team guess who’s who and “tag” other team members in those photos.

Make sure you caution everyone not to include identifiers in their photos, such as using their own name in the filename. Also, make sure whatever filesharing solution you use for this is not set up in such a way that it will automatically give the uploader away. If this happens, take on the role of mediator, collecting team members’ photos and uploading them all at once yourself, so that only your name will be visible.

If some people don’t feel comfortable sharing photos of themselves, for whatever reason, change the topic to something else, like pictures of their workspace or their pet or favorite food. This will likely be a harder game but will have the added benefit of helping team members learn a little bit more about each other.

Virtual team coffee. Or beer.

Considering you can’t just arrange for your whole team to hop to the nearest coffee shop for some time out over a cuppa joe, do the next best thing: exploit the video chat tools you probably already use and get your team together for a sip and chat.

Arrange a video meeting for all team members at the end of each week. and set three definite rules beforehand:

  • Relax.
  • Bring your favorite beverage (note: if your company has a firm “no alcohol” policy during working hours, make sure you make it clear that the beverage must be non-alcoholic).
  • NO work-related chat!

LeanCoffeeTable to organize discussions is a helper service worth checking out to plan this meeting.

  • Start by creating a board in the program and e-mail the link to your team members.
  • Each colleague will be able to add to the board topics they’d like to discuss.
  • All attendees can vote on the topics up for discussion and the ones with most votes are then moved to the “To Discuss” column.

The site’s timer function will help you control the progression of the meeting. You can use it to set countdowns for each topic discussed. Staying aware of the passage of time helps to keep the conversation moving, but if attendees want to allot more time to a given topic, they can vote to continue that discussion by using the “thumbs up” button.

Auto matched meetings with Donut

If you favor a more hands-off approach, will assist you in automating your team’s interactions. Donut is a Slack extension that will pair members of your team to meet individually.

In theory this is simple, but Donut turns the dial to 11. The extension can work semi-randomly and match members of the same team, or you can set it up to take into account how people are grouped in larger organizations, enabling inter-group meetings.

To give an extra nudge to anyone dodging those meet-ups, you can also use Donut to build lottery programs, offering a small gift or perk to the lucky winner(s).

Google Streetview Tour Of My Neighborhood

You can take advantage of Google’s fleet of cars roaming around the globe taking photos of almost every road and street corner to allow your employees to take you on a virtual tour of their neighborhood.

Assign a team member to use Google Street View to bring the rest of the team digitally to their favorite local spots or act as a tourist guide for local landmarks and points of interest.

For a geekier approach, use a service like the Hyperlapse Engine to transmute the static 360° Google Street View images into actual tours.

  • Visit the site and move the starting and ending pins on the map to set up a virtual ride.
  • Click the “Generate” button in the menu on the right-hand side and wait as a series of step-images are pulled from Street View.
  • When Hyperlapse Engine notifies you that your images are ready, click “Load Images” on the menu.

As a bonus, Hyperlapse Engine keeps the images in their full 360° format, so everyone can rotate the camera and point at anything interesting without breaking the flow of the virtual tour.

Synchronized, International Pizza Party

Everybody loves pizza parties! A pizza party is one of the first incentives we receive for doing awesome work as kids (e.g., school competitions, Book It!, sports banquets), and as adults it never gets old! Unfortunately, it can be hard to plan a party for a team that lives and works hundreds (or thousands) of miles apart in different time zones. But luckily, like all great things today, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

  • Covertly inquire about team members’ favorite pizza toppings during an informal chat.
  • Take a mental note (and an actual note later, to be safe) of the specific toppings they prefer.
  • When you have some time to spare, search for the best pizza establishments in each members' neighborhood and write them down.
  • Arrange a video gathering for the team. Tell them it’s significant enough that they need to attend, but make it clear that it’s not critical and can be rescheduled if needed.
  • Order the pizza before the meeting with a scheduled arrival time.
  • Act innocent and keep the meeting formal until doorbells and phones start ringing.

Note: some restaurants have strict policies and will not allow you to order food to send to someone else. Keep one or two “backup restaurants” in mind just in case you run into this problem – you don’t want to be stuck Googling frantically at the last moment.

Of course there’s a business that does that for you..

Because the logistics and secrecy required for this can be difficult to manage, consider having an external team help you organize it. The creators of SpaceTeam developed the Remote Pizza Party consulting service for just this situation. Honestly, I was kind of jealous that I didn’t think of it first, as this is a really fun business idea!

Make a Video Making Your Favorite Recipe

If your team is scattered across continents, it’s very probable each of them has distinct ideas about what constitutes “food.” Different countries and cultures typically translate into diverse cuisines. Instead of letting this be a differentiating factor between your team members, turn it into a bonding element by asking each team member to not only introduce his favorite recipe to everyone but also show them how to replicate the recipe in their own homes.

Have your members form groups and establish their video chat meeting date/time. Keep in mind that everyone doesn’t need to be in the same group. Let team members choose the groups they’d like to be in based on the meal being prepared; you don’t want to force a vegan to cook a burger or a Muslim to prepare pork.

In each group, one person should act as the “Master Chef,” distributing the recipe and guiding the rest of the team members in preparing the meal via video chat.

While many cuisines differ, they do have some common elements, so don’t be surprised if several teams end up cooking a variation on pasta, soup, or sandwiches.

Virtual Team Building Video Game: Portal 2

While a lot of the suggestions here can help your team get closer, there’s only one way to achieve what we call “full alignment”: Portal 2.

Portal 2 is not your average puzzle game. It’s a hybrid of action and puzzles that demand you use both your mind and reflexes. The reason it’s on this list is because of its excellent co-op mode.

Unlike its single-player campaign, Portal 2’s co-op mode tasks two players with solving puzzles together. Think of it as a series of escape rooms with a science-fiction twist. Both players will be in the same (game) level, but each could be trapped in a different section. Communicating mostly through nods and movements, they must both think their way out of each room. However, that’s only half of it. They should also execute their escape.

This may demand a string of intricate but swift movements from both partners in tandem. For example, one player might have to throw a cube to the other while in mid-air.

By tasking both mind and body in joint problem-solving, the members of your team will find they’re strangely becoming more “aligned” in the way they think and work. Portal 2 forces players to collaborate on a higher level without realizing it. After that, don’t be surprised if some of your team members begin to complete each other’s sentences. After all, what’s a little wordplay between virtual friends?

Who said gaming was a bad influence?

Virtual Team Building Video Game: Spaceteam

Portal is great for helping a team of two become closer, learn how to “read” each other and work more effectively as a unit, but what if (like 99% of the teams out there) your team is more than just two members? If you’re looking for something more than two team members can play at once, one of your best options is Spaceteam.

According to the game designer, Spaceteam is, “A cooperative shouting game for phones and tablets.” Although it’s supposed to be played in person with everyone in the same room, nobody said this room has to be actual and not virtual. In other words, your team members can play Spaceteam over the internet by logging into a group video chat. How does it work? According to the website:

You’ll be assigned a random control panel with buttons, switches, sliders, and dials. You need to follow time-sensitive instructions. However, the instructions are being sent to your teammates, so you have to coordinate before the time runs out. Also, the ship is falling apart. And you’re trying to outrun an exploding star.

To be successful, your team will have to figure out how to effectively organize themselves.

For teams who aren’t well-versed in English, or who have a range of English proficiency, the company offers an English as a second language (ESL) version too!

Watch the crazy here:

A Day In The Life Of Your Coleague

Lots of teams work together for years (some even pretty well) without ever knowing exactly what it is others around the virtual watercooler do in a practical sense. Luckily, this is easy to remedy, and can help bring your team even closer! Simply ask each team member to present in a succinct and streamlined way, what they do, how they do it, how they contribute to the overall organization and how their work affects that of other team members.

Not only will this help your team understand how each of the pieces works together, it will also improve problem-solving (it’s a lot easier to address shipping issues if you know Tom works closely with the shipper) and could potentially foster cross-training opportunities (e.g., if both Beth and Sharon deal with copy but Beth covers customer-facing copy and Sharon focuses on internal copy).

As a rule, any specialized jargon should be kept to a minimum, as the goal is to help your programmer understand what your graphic artist has to deal with every day, how they approach and resolve problems and how they deliver results – not to educate everyone about how Photoshop is different from Paint Shop Pro and PHP is unrelated to Python.

If team members show interest in learning more about the lingo, techniques and technicalities of someone else’s work, let it bloom. There’s a reason there are “multi-class characters” in Dungeons & Dragons: they’re versatile. If your web designer decides they’d also like to learn SEO, this is a win-win situation that will only help them make better decisions and come up with a more thoughtful approach to their own work.

Hopefully though it goes better than this:

Exercise Together on Video

Exercise is healthy. Exercise can be fun. And if you’re in Sweden, exercise at work might even be mandatory. We don’t recommend taking it that far, but we do suggest pitching the idea of exercising together to your team to see what they think.

Remind everyone how exercise affects the brain and can boost functionality while also improving mood. If the team agrees that it’s a good idea, start a shared list to collectively develop a workout routine or, to avoid fuss, agree on a smartphone fitness app and choose a workout from the app together.

Music helps during training by providing a rhythm. Use JukeBox or collaborative Spotify playlists to build shared playlists that everyone can play in sync while working out.

The most difficult piece here is the time difference, as if your team resides on separate continents, they are likely not able to exercise at the same time. Instead, consider dividing the team into smaller groups based around time zones so that they don’t feel left out and can still reap some of the benefits.

A Documentary Of Your Work

Do you know what Park Chan-wook’s Night Fishing, Michael A. Cherry’s 9 Rides and Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane have in common? They’re all highly regarded movies recorded with smartphones. As in, instead of “actual” cameras. So, why not take this idea and run with it?

Today, everybody has a smartphone, and most of them have cameras that can record full-HD video with passable quality. With that in mind, here’s an idea for a simple project that could produce impressive results (and maybe land you an award for Best Indie Documentary): have the members of your team keep a “video diary” of their workday.

This should resemble “video tweets” about work – no need for Academy Award level acting here. The videos should be brief, documenting what the employee is doing and maybe share some thoughts or insights.

Have the team members record two or three short videos per day, for a month – or even more. In the end, collect and compile all of the videos into one long, seamless product. Don’t worry too much about the production values, just stitch them together or find someone at a site like Fiverr or Upwork to do it for you for a minimal fee.

The last thing to do is arrange a shared viewing of your production. You can use Watch2Gether to sync the playback on everyone’s screen, but it only works with the most popular streaming services, so you’d have to upload your video to YouTube or Vimeo beforehand.

For a more automated approach, you can turn to 1 Second Everyday. Available for both Android and iOS devices, 1 Second Everyday allows you to record a second of your life each day and then automatically stitches those moments into a “movie of your life.” The positive is that the app is fully automatic, but you wouldn’t be able to edit or splice together your team members’ videos into one shared video. Instead, each team member would have their own stream of 1-second snapshots.

Team Retreat

The ideas presented here are meant to connect teams working in various parts of the world, but truth be told, there’s nothing that can compare to actual face-to-face communication. Physical presence makes all the difference – no matter what tools, services, or solutions you employ, there’s still no way to replicate the feeling of giving your team member a handshake or a high-five. So if you’ve got the budget and the inclination, go for it!

The optimal choice is a company retreat. This would bring all your team members together under one roof – or, even better, under one clear sky. However, this option requires a lot of thought, planning, research and coordination.

  • First, you have to find a location that all your team members can reach with relative ease – likely somewhere close to an airport. Remember, they’ll be traveling from different parts of the globe to get there, so making it as convenient as possible is paramount.
  • You’ll have to settle on dates that don’t overly inconvenience your team members, especially those with families who might have other vacations or events planned.
  • Even if you don’t plan to have tons of downtime, take the emphasis off of productivity for the retreat. People on trips (especially away from their “home base”) are generally less productive because they’re in vacation mode.
  • You’ll have to make sure there are enough activity options in relatively close proximity to your chosen location, as chatting and meetings can only get your team so far.

The costs of a retreat are high, since you basically have to cover a weeks’ vacation for all your team members at the same time, plus foot the bill for travel and accommodation and activity costs, with some (unproductive) downtime as the cherry on top. But every company who tries this approach swears by it, because nothing brings a team together better than shared experiences in physical proximity.

An alternative approach which is more restricted and somewhat controlled would be to offer the possibility of one-on-one meet-ups. The allure of this approach is that there’s no need for company-wide downtime.

Talk to each team member separately to make sure they agree with the idea before announcing it to the whole team. Then, declare your seemingly suicidal plan to offer a fully paid trip for any team member who would like to visit a colleague and spend some time together. Wait, did we suggest that you foot the bill for two team members to hang around doing nothing? Far from it.

The trip has to come with some ground rules:

  • The trip will be the equivalent of time off for the traveling employee only, not the host.
  • The traveling team member will be encouraged to join the host when he is working if they both agree.
  • If they want to do some work together, even better!

Of course, something like this is not entirely up to you to decide. Only put this idea out there if you’re willing to financially back it up. Then leave the rest to the team members. They can decide if they want to take advantage, who they might want to visit, and when they’d like to go.

If you want to dive deeper, Zapier and Buffer have incredible resources on how they do their company/team retreats.

Warning: Crazier ideas below

Robot B9 said the famous phrase above whenever the kiddo of the Robinson family was in peril, in the classic science fiction series Lost In Space.

Although your name probably isn’t Will Robinson, we have to offer a similar warning before adopting any of the suggestions that follow, for they can quickly become almost as dangerous as anything the Robinson family had to deal with on that strange planet light years from home.

The three suggestions which follow are double-edged swords that can be amazing or awful depending on whether you are able to actively monitor them and pay attention to your team members. They have the potential to bring your team closer than other alternatives due to their somewhat intimate nature, but tread lightly, because they can also tear your team apart.

Share a Meme of yourself

There’s nothing better than humor to help your team members relax and bond. You don’t even have to try to be funny since there’s an excess of entertaining content online that you can “borrow.” In this case, memes.

There’s a meme for everyone – even for people who don’t like memes. And there’s a place where you can find most of them, the site regarded as the Wikipedia of Memes:

  • Have each member visit Know Your Meme and pick one meme they believe describes them better than anything else.
  • Then have them e-mail that meme to everyone else or post it on a dedicated chat channel with something like “this is me” as the subject line.
  • Everyone else should then revisit Know Your Meme and choose more memes.
  • This time, while keeping in mind the meme each team member picked, members should choose another meme as a reaction to everyone’s selection.
  • Then they should send that meme on with the subject line, “Nope, THIS is you."

This can end up being very entertaining and enlightening but can also effortlessly turn offensive. Not all memes are about rainbows and puppies. Remind team members to be civil and to not select anything rude, inappropriate or that could be construed as anything but harmless fun.

Watch Upcoming Movie Trailers Together

Everybody loves movies; and everyone’s a critic. Exploit these universal truths by organizing shared trailer screenings, where one team member is tasked with introducing a list of his 10 favorite movies to the rest of the team.

Have each member create a YouTube playlist with trailers of their 15 favorite movies.

Each week, one member will host their own trailer screening, presenting their 10 favorite movies.

Note: team members should have 15 movies on their list instead of 10 just in case there’s some overlap between favorites – no one wants to watch the same preview back to back!

You can use Watch2Gether, the service suggested earlier, to sync the playback between all team members.

To try and keep the experience relatively suitable for work, consider asking team members to only choose movies with a rating of PG13 or below, or having them send their trailer list to you to check prior to screening.

All you’ll need to do is press play and bring some popcorn.

Jointly Write A (Crazy) Story

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away school in Colorado, a creative writing professor told his class they were going to experiment with a new form of storytelling: a tandem story. The students were asked to pair off together and write a story – not by collaborating and working together, but by taking turns, each one adding a new paragraph to the story to take it in whatever direction they saw fit.

That’s the backstory behind this unbelievably funny result that forcibly tries to mix chamomile tea and romance with proton beams and hostile alien empires. And fails…miserably. (Note: the link contains some inappropriate language).

Why not imitate this idea to bring your employees closer together? Yes, by having them write stories in pairs.

If it sounds like a waste of time, it’s because you’re only looking at the ridiculous results, not the process itself. By pairing your team members and having them take turns telling a story, you’ll see two conflicting paths slowly coming together, aligning. Each pair will become more familiar with their partner’s way of thinking and, by the end, maybe even be able to anticipate their next move.

Like the pilots in Pacific Rim who combined their brainpower toward a common goal (guiding giant metal monstrosities to murder alien kaiju, huge Godzilla-like monsters that came from under the Pacific), tandem storytelling can help your team achieve something new and possibly save the Earth (not really).

Better, Happier Teams

As you saw with the suggestions outlined above, bringing your whole team closer and helping them enjoy each other’s company doesn’t have to be a burden. Virtual team building activities should be fun for all involved – including you!

Admittedly, there are dozens of articles online with hundreds of different suggestions on how to help your team build stable connections. The problem is that most of these articles ignore the human factor, offering suggestions that are sterile and forced, and treating team bonding like a human resources issue. If your team thinks you are getting them together because there’s a “management problem,” your suggestions and activities are not going to go very far.

Instead, treat your employees and colleagues like human beings; invest in them and work to get to know them, building relationships that will help establish rapport, improve productivity and efficiency and ultimately increase retention. After all, the team that plays together stays together – that’s how the saying goes, right?

Build a stronger team, just like the A-Team.