Virtual team building – three words that fill online entrepreneurs with dread.
The Challenge: How do you get people who’ve never met, located thousands of miles apart, to feel like they’re part of a team?
Before I dive into the virtual team building activities I’ve been trying over the last few months (what’s worked and what I’ll NEVER attempt again), let me share why this is so important.
Since trying these activities:
- Morale across my team is the best I’ve seen it,
- Quality of work has gone through the roof,
- We’ve had some of our most profitable weeks ever,
- There’s a sense that we’re a fun place to work and that we actually care about one and other,
- There’s a sense of loyalty and pride in the company that wasn’t there before.
Most of the things I’m about to share cost nothing and can be implemented immediately…and they’re actually a lot of fun to do.
So without further ado, let’s get to it!
Ninja Of The Week
This has quickly grown to become my favourite team building exercise for virtual teams. It works amazingly well regardless of age, sex or physical location.
In fact, it’s worked so well for me that I now actually schedule 30 mins each week for the whole team to do it together.
Ok, so here’s the steps:
Go to the App Store on your phone ahead of time and pick 2 potential games (speed, coordination, reaction and puzzle type games work best).
On my Android phone I find new games on the “Top New Game” or a “Trending” sections of the Play Store. Make sure the apps you’ve found are free and double check that they’re available to download on IOS and Android (most top games are).
I like to choose different games each week so I keep things fair i.e. stop people practicing all week!
So…now that you’ve got two potential games, the next step is to have your entire team join a live team Skype video call. We schedule ours for the same time each week.
Choose which game you’re going to be playing by flipping a coin then have everyone download the chosen app (getting up to this point can take between 5-10 mins)
We’re now ready to go. Give your team 10 mins to practice and get to grips with how to play. With 10 minutes to go, up the ante and introduce a sense of competition by getting each person to take a screenshot of their top score and upload it for all to see.
The best score is crowed “Ninja of the week”
Apps that have worked really well for this include:
- Temple Run,
- Subway Surfers
- Fruit Ninja
You can experiment with how frequently you want to do this but I’ve found that once a week is good because it allows for a sense of anticipation to build up – people look forward to it and talk about it all week.
You’ll be surprised just how great this is for morale and for getting people talking.
Important: keep the Skype call going throughout the entire 30 mins. This helps you learn individual characteristics – who likes to share tips and strategies to help others out, who gets flustered when they can’t achieve something, who panics under the pressure etc.
Pro tip: if you put your phone onto airplane mode when you’re playing you avoid having to watch the annoying ads and you get more playing time. I’m giving away my strategic advantage here!
The Water Cooler
This strategy works especially well on Facebook but can just as easily be done on Slack or other project management systems.
Set up a private Facebook group purely for social conversations.
Name it whatever you want – I like “The Water Cooler”, but just make sure you’re the admin and you’ve set the privacy to “secret” so that only members you invite can find the group or see the posts.
Use the group encourage your team to talk about anything non work related.
There’s no rules, they can share whatever they want from personal highs and lows for the week, plans for the weekend, upcoming trips, personal family news, thoughts about latest movies or TV shows or any other general chit chat that usually happens when you work face to face with colleagues.
To encourage conversation, I like to have a weekly theme.
Theme’s that have worked well for me include:
– share a photo from your childhood,
– share photos of your dream holiday/vacation destination
– share photos of your dream house,
– share a YouTube video of your favourite song
– “show us your mug” (as in tea/coffee mug – can say a lot about their personality!)
– show us your office or working environment
This helps the team feel like they’re getting to know the ‘real you’ not just the ‘work you’.
It also helps to develop a community spirit – like they’re chatting with friends outside of working hours, not just colleagues.
When I first started this, I’ve got to admit, it did feel a bit like a ghost town as I was the only person trying to encourage conversation.
But over time (and by emailing each member of my team and reminding them to post about that week’s theme) it’s got a lot better and people are sharing more and more without me having to ask for it.
I think the theme of the week definitely helped to kickstart conversation and having team members take it in turns to ask the questions and set the themes has helped to get them buy into the idea too.
The Creative Pedestal
I’m the least arts and craftsy person around. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body…but not everyone’s like me!
When it comes to team building exercises for virtual teams a great approach is to give creative members of your team a platform to show off their skills.
If they’re great at drawing, encourage them to sketch something online and then have team members guess what it is.
We’ve used Guess A Sketch and had the team join the room and try to guess what’s being drawn.
If you have foodies in your midst (more up my street!) giving them the opportunity to share food photos can also work well.
We’ve had team members bake chocolate cake especially so they can show off their culinary skills
Granted, it’s not quite the same as in-office cake, but you can still have your own cake and eat it too! (Sorry…couldn’t resist the crap pun)
Here’s one you probably weren’t expecting. Get to know each other by playing a traditional game of charades via Skype.
Yes it may be a cheesy game, but it helps to lighten up the mood when they see their boss doesn’t take themselves too seriously.
In the same way that it guarantees laughs when you play with friends and family, it also guarantees laughs when you play with your virtual team…and my theory is the more a team laughs together, the more solid the team is!
Above all else, getting your team to communicate virtually without necessarily speaking has massive benefits for improving team spirit and creating a sense of togetherness.
Here’s a video explaining how to play Charades, for anyone unfamiliar with the game.
I like to use this word generator to pick words at random https://www.thegamegal.com/word-generator/
And I go first because me making a fool of myself before anyone else seems to encourage others to let their hair down too.
Disclaimer: Although I’ve tried this and it works this isn’t something I do often. Why? Because more than other team building exercises for virtual teams if you overdo this it’s going to get really annoying really quickly.
The Tour Guide
To understand someone and truly build a bond, I think it’s important to know more about their environment and where they’re from.
And what better way to understand where someone’s from than ask for a tour of their city?
What’s worked well for me is to encourage my team to get out and about in their local city and take photos or short videos of their favourite sights to share with the group.
My favourite app for this is Periscope to live stream (free to download). It’s also very easy to keep the broadcast private, if required.
In case live streaming isn’t possible (mobile data allowances, for example) Snapchat and Instagram can also be used.
What’s great about this virtual team building activity is that not only does it show that I care about their lives beyond office hours, it’s also visibly noticeable that people have a sense of local pride in showing off their local attractions.
When you get members of the team commenting about how cool somewhere is, there’s definitely an affinity that’s formed…Oh, and some of the things you’ll see will be priceless, like cows walking down the middle of the road in India or breath-taking scenic views in Romania!
The Dinner Date
Team drinks down at the pub might be out of the question but it’s still possible to share a meal…well, kinda.
I’ve done this a couple of times and it works especially well after a great week, or when you’ve just hit a big milestone or achievement.
The way this works is you give each team member a bonus in their pay packet, but ask them to spend it on a meal and drinks with their family.
Both times when I’ve done it, I’ve tried to co-ordinate it so we’re all at having the same cuisine (ended up being pizza both times for us).
While we were all out enjoying the meal, I asked the team to take photos and short videos to share the fun their experience with us all.
It’s not the same as being sat across the table, but it did help us to feel part of something together – worth spending a bit of extra money on from my perspective.
A couple of extra virtual team building activities I intend to try:
Run Skype in the background all day
I can’t remember what podcast I heard this on (it may have been the Double Your Freelancing podcast by Brennan Dunn?) but one of the interviewees mentioned that he and his team leave Skype running all day in the background whilst they go about doing their work.
I can imagine that it could potentially help to create a more traditional office environment with background noise and a sense of team spirit – I’m going to try it and let you know how it goes.
Organize a virtual treasure hunt
This could be a cool one, provided your website’s big enough.
It basically involves splitting your virtual team into groups then leaving clues on where to go next across the pages of your site.
When they eventually get to the final page you'd ask them to leave a comment so you can determine from the time stamp who found the page first.
The winning team gets a prize.
I think this could be a great way to get team members talking and collaborating with each other to achieve a common goal. It’s got the added benefit of having them re-read posts on the site that they may not have seen in ages.
Again, I’ll let you know how this goes when I end up trying it.
The 20% Time Rule Like Google
So, this is something that Google are famous for adopting.
Basically, one day a week, every Google engineer is free to work on a new project of their own – any they want - provided it benefits Google.
I like the theory behind this. Not only can it lead to a sense of empowerment and a sense of ownership/pride in the company, it could also lead to business opportunities that you might not have thought of independently.
That said….there are associated risks not least the fact that team projects might not actually align with your vision for your business.
So…I’m sat on the fence about this one because ultimately, I’m not Google and I can’t afford for 20% of all working time to be written off! But...at the same time this has the biggest potential to pay off.
For Google it resulted in Gmail, Google News and as many as half of Google's products...who knows what it might do for me.
I'll keep you updated if I try it out.
Oh, and it’s only right I share a few EPIC fails you definitely SHOULDN’T try, right?
The potato icebreaker challenge
I don’t know what the heck I was thinking with this one.
I don’t know why I felt this could work with a virtual team (it can’t!)
For some reason, I thought that getting my team to go out and buy potato and a straw, then proceed to stab the potato with said straw would be a good idea.
It wasn’t! I know...I know...shock.
My team looked at me like I was an idiot. Not one person understood what the purpose was, even after I showed them the video below.
Overall: 0 out of 10. Don’t waste your time!
The TV Inspired Sing Along
This one I got from Nev’s Call Centre, a fly on the wall TV show that follows the goings on at a successful call centre in Wales.
Nev, the owner of the call centre, has an interesting management style that seems to work amazingly well for him.
All I can say is, if you get the chance, watch some of his clips on Youtube – the man’s a legend!
Anyway, one of the team building strategies Nev uses on the show is he gets his team to sing a song together each day.
Here’s a video of it in action:
So having seen this work for Nev, I thought I’d try it too with my virtual team.
Except…it doesn’t work for a number of reasons.
- Getting everyone to start the background music at the same time is impossible.
- There’s a lag on the call which makes everyone seem out of time.
- It’s hard to get people to commit to it when they’re in a room alone (as opposed to being in a room with lots of others also singing)
So yeah…that one failed too.
Overall: 2 out of 10.
That’s just about wraps up this blog post.
With a bit of creative thinking, there’s no shortage to the team building activities you can try to build an epic virtual team.
A quick note: be mindful of cultural and personal sensitivities. Always check that everyone is comfortable with what you have planned. Some team members may be working remotely because they are introverts by nature and prefer to work alone .
Be kind and respect that some team members will not feel comfortable participating in every activity. Some gentle encouragement may help, just don’t push it!
I hope you found this post useful and hopefully it’s helped to spark some of your own ideas.
So...leave a comment below –what’s your favourite virtual team building activity?