While some office spaces are reopening across the U.S., many companies like Twitter are deciding to fully embrace the work-from-home lifestyle, allowing their staff to operate remotely indefinitely.
But giving up the watercooler chit-chat can make your team feel even further apart, which is why team building and bonding exercises are more important than ever right now.
Just like when we were in the same physical workspace, team building activities can be used to foster employee engagement and connection, increase productivity and efficiency, encourage teamwork, boost morale, or simply liven up a Zoom call.
Before diving into activity ideas for remote teams, here, industry experts share their tips and things to keep in mind when planning a virtual team building experience.
“The experiences that have performed the best for us are the ones where the guests will walk away having learned something—whether it’s a new cocktail recipe or cooking technique,” says Susan Ho, founder and C.E.O. of Journy, a travel planning service that also offers online classes for individuals and groups.
Ben Parkinson, commercial director and co-founder of Blue Hat Teambuilding, stresses the need to “be clear about exactly what you want to get out of the activity. What’s the business case for the investment and how will you know that you’ve achieved it after the event?”
If you’re hiring a team building company to run the activity for you, Parkinson suggests asking for an online demo before making your decision, “so you know exactly what you’re getting as some things sound great in the brochure, but in reality maybe not so much.” He also recommends reading reviews and chatting with previous clients.
“We’ve hosted numerous events that have included people in different countries…. It’s a wonderful (and very cheap) way to get remote people to connect without the need for time and cost on flights, accommodation, catering, taxis, etc.,” Parkinson says. “Naturally you should consider both the activity and the time of day for participants. If you have players in one continent playing at 9 a.m. and in another part of the world at 4 p.m., then activities that include alcohol are probably not appropriate.”
To accommodate employees in different locations and time zones, Michael Alexis, C.E.O. of Team Building, which operates in over 16 U.S. cities, suggests planning multiple events. “Finding one time that works for everyone is difficult, especially if you have 50-plus people. Instead, you could do two 25-person calls at times that accommodate a wider range of time slots.”
Sharon Fisher, C.E.O. of Play with a Purpose, suggests making the time zones part of the activity. For example, her company recently organized a “Race Around the World” event that featured teams in every time zone, with everyone completing a leg of the “race” at the same time in their part of the world.
Ho recommends that the activity should last between an hour to an hour and a half. “That’s what we’ve found to be the sweet spot in terms of active engagement,” she adds. Alexis agrees, saying that fun games and activities should last a maximum of 90 minutes, while more formal training can run for two or more hours.
Fisher offers a slightly cheekier response when it comes to time limits, saying that “asking if there is an ideal time limit for virtual activities is kind of like asking if there is an ideal time limit for making love. The answer is ‘it depends.’” She adds that, in general, virtual activities are shorter than live activities, but planners need to consider other factors such as what the participants have been doing before and after the activity and what kind of interruptions or distractions will the participants likely encounter.
Before you begin, Ho suggests setting some general guidelines for the participants such as remaining on mute to reduce background noise and asking questions through the chat function. Organizers should also offer an overview of what to expect and how long the class will be.
“It’s very difficult for the host to speak while also monitoring the chat function and responding to questions that may arise in real time,” Ho says. “We’ve found it helpful to have a member of our team in every Zoom experience to handle this.”
“If you’re not sure what type of virtual experience will resonate with your employees, ask,” Ho says. Before launching Journy’s new class offerings, the company sent out a brief form for readers to fill out, which gave the team helpful insight into the types of experiences folks were interested in.
“Whether it’s the full recipe or just takeaways from the class, it’s nice to follow through with an email, ask for feedback, and promote upcoming classes,” Ho says.
As more and more companies strive to create and maintain a diverse, inclusive work environment, employers also need to consider how to incorporate this mission into their team building programs. To keep all employees engaged, be sure to foster a sense of belonging, especially among remote teams, with activities that allow employees to share more about themselves, such as asking about the three most defining moments in their lives or pairing team members with someone from a background that’s different from their own.
To help keep camaraderie among remote team members high or to introduce new remote employees, kick off remote meetings with a virtual icebreaker activity. These don’t have to be time consuming or cringe inducing, simply take a couple minutes at the start of the meeting to do a quick check-in. For example, if you’re conducting the meeting over chat or Slack, ask each team member to send an emoji that expresses how they’re feeling.
For something a little more involved, your group can try to guess their colleagues’ most used emojis. Provide your team with a screenshot of some frequently used emojis, then ask the team members to submit their guesses for the rest of the group members. Award points (and bragging rights) for accuracy.
Ask members to show off their home office or workspace, if they feel comfortable doing so. It’s like MTV Cribs, but probably without as many suped-up SUVS and bling. This can help create team cohesiveness and foster camaraderie.
For early morning meetings, ask remote team members to show off their coffee mugs and share their go-to A.M. brew.
Good for small- or medium-sized teams, “two truths and a lie” is a simple activity where a team member shares three “facts” about themselves—two of which are true, one is a lie. The others in the group have to guess which is which.
For a virtual show-and-tell, ask remote employees to briefly talk about a special object (and yes, cats count) or an achievement that they are proud of.
Similar to the show-and-tell activity, ask employees to provide three photos that represent who they are, such as one of them as a kid, one of their family or children, and maybe one of them on vacation. It’s a less nerve wracking way to get to know remote team members besides simply saying “tell us about yourself.”
During the SFW version of the popular party game “Never Have I Ever,” team members take turns saying something that they haven't done at work like "never have I ever stolen someone’s lunch.” To keep track of who has or hasn’t done what, participants should raise their fingers on one hand; for every item they’ve done at work, they fold down a finger. When all five fingers are down that team member is eliminated. Participants can also keep a running tally on a piece of paper that’s visible to all.
For more of a traditional icebreaker experience, QuizBreaker lets remote team members guess each other's answers to questions in a quiz format. You can use a set of 100 icebreakers or add your own custom icebreaker questions.
Looking for something a little more spontaneous? Slack extension Donut automatically pairs up random colleagues through the messaging program. The two team members can then plan a one-on-one chat.
During Cocktail Happy Hour from Journy, attendees join Matt Hunter, head bartender of New York’s Eleven Madison Park, on a "concoct-ail" journey to bring the bar experience home. Recent classes have included a lesson on spritz cocktails and frozen concoctions.
Discover new flavors and techniques from around the world as Eleven Madison Park’s creative culinary director Josh Harnden draws from his travels and professional experience to guide you through the process of cooking internationally-inspired recipes from start to finish during Journy’s Travel-Based Cooking Class. A recent Spain-themed class featured seared branzino with romesco and patatas bravas.
Another offering from Journy, the Private Pasta-Making Class features Meryl Feinstein, creator of the popular Pasta Social Club event series, who offers a private, virtual pasta-making class where she shares her extensive experience from her time working on the pasta production team at Misi in New York.
For Team Building’s Tiny Campfire virtual experience, participants receive s’more kits that include a candle, matches, and s’more ingredients. On “camp day,” team members play games and tell ghost stories while toasting marshmallows at home.
Of course, sometimes team building can include more eating than cooking. Cocoa Beantown’s virtual chocolate tastings feature chocolate samples that are picked especially for the group or to fit a specific theme. Event add-ons can include trivia with prizes as well as custom chocolate souvenirs and packaging.
TeamBonding offers two different chocolate-centered team building experiences: Chocolate 101 and Chocolate Tasting with Truffles. Both include chocolate tasting kits, along with guidance from industry experts.
Home Cooking New York offers a roster of classes such as hand-rolled gnocchi, pizza, and Indian food. Each of these offerings includes ingredient kits. The company’s Gnocchi Party is the most popular offering and comes with a kit filled with potatoes, tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and flour.
Or learn how to make fettuccine bolognese from scratch with Cozymeal’s online class.
Parkinson says that virtual escape room experiences have been his company’s most popular activities for remote workers. Teams must solve a range of tasks, puzzles, and challenges delivered via an app to escape the rooms in the quickest time possible.
During Team Building’s murder mystery game called Murder in Ancient Egypt (which uses “escape room” game mechanics), participants try to solve puzzles related to one of Ancient Egypt's most infamous murders in a race against time and other teams.
During Play with a Purpose’s The Infinite Loop virtual escape room, players take turns on board a spaceship, collaborating with those on Earth to solve puzzles, navigate through the ship’s chambers, and free a teenager that’s been taken hostage.
Players communicate with their team as well as a host via Zoom and direct a guide who’s wearing a camera and live streaming from the physical “escape room” environment in The Escape Game’s Remote Adventures. Players can also click around 3-D scans of each room. The game is just like an IRL escape room experience: Search the room for clues to solve puzzles and complete your mission in 60 minutes.
TeamBonding’s Escape the Mob features a variety of challenges that participants complete on their own devices. They then share their findings over Zoom.
During Blue Hat Teambuilding’s Secret Agents: Mission Trebula experience, players wander the virtual globe in teams of three or four on a mission to gather evidence to uncover who the mole is in the secret agent organization. The game includes a range of tasks, challenges, cryptic video messages, and clues from virtual agents.
Virtual Spy Trivia from Washington, D.C.-based International Spy Museum lets players answer pop culture and spy-related questions based on gadgets and stories from the museum’s exhibits and current headlines. The game can also be customized with related crossover questions for an additional fee.
TeamBonding’s Rogue Agent virtual escape room-style game features video content and a collection of evidence. Attendees become MI5 operatives who must work together to decipher clues, solve puzzles, and complete a mission.
Outback Team Building & Training’s Virtual Clue Murder Mystery is an online team building activity that uses video conferencing software and the Outback app. Groups are split into teams and are then asked to examine clues, review case files, and channel their inner detectives as they race against the clock to solve the mystery of who murdered millionaire Neil Davidson.
Similar to solving a murder mystery, Werewolf is a popular team building activity idea that pits team members against each other as they try to figure out who amongst them has been secretly chosen as the werewolves. The activity is conducted through a series of rounds with different characters being introduced into the game each time.
In Team Building’s Murder in the Speakeasy, players go back to the Roaring ‘20s (the 1920s) to crack the case of Daisy Oei's murder by solving puzzles to earn clues that will help participants figure out what really happened.
Play with a Purpose’s Piece of my (He)ART is a community give-back event where guests receive a kit with supplies to make colorful hearts to give to healthcare workers and caregivers in their local community as a way to say thank you. “We love this event because not only does it create a truly heartfelt connection, it gives the participants an activity to do while networking or listening to sessions,” Fisher says.
The idea of a good time might not come to mind when you think of Google Sheets, but the online tool can be used to create a fun remote team building activity called Spreadsheet Pixel Art. You can program a sheet to automatically replace numbers with a color to fill specific cells, creating a “paint by number”-style artwork. Here’s a template to get you started.
Dapper House Menagerie’s Virtual Macrame Plant Hanger Workshop teaches team members the basics of macrame and how to make their own plant hanger in 90 minutes.
Meaning “a hodge-podge, a confused mixture,” Play with a Purpose’s Farrago! features dozens of customizable challenges as well as a host. Contestants are able to access all of the challenges and games using a computer or mobile device. “We’ve been using it throughout meetings as a brain break to refresh content, help people get to know each other, and keep energy levels high. The short and sweet nature of each game makes it perfect for engaging people in long, speaker-heavy meetings,” Fisher explains.
Outback Team Building & Training’s Virtual Game Show Extravaganza allows remote teams to go head to head, tackling trivia challenges that cover a range of topics—from pop culture to politics.
Team Building’s Bingo boards let remote team members easily learn about their colleagues. Each player earns a point when they learn information about a coworker that’s listed on the board, such as “X person can speak a second language” or “has a YouTube channel.” Award prizes to those who complete an entire row or an entire board.
Game On!’s 60-minute Game Show Experience features a live host asking trivia questions to test players’ knowledge.
WOW Entertainment Inc.’s Virtual Immersive Poker Experience can be set up for a single table of eight players or as a multiple table tournament. Each player is able to use their own audio and video, and has the ability to mute other players. The multiple table tournament experience includes a project manager to organize the event and communicate with the tables during the event. Other features of the tourney option include a lobby, a pause feature, real-time leaderboard, and the history of each hand at the player's table. Plus, you don’t need to know how to play to participate. The casual virtual setting allows team members of all skill levels to learn the basics of Texas Hold Em.
The Go Game offers a range of hosted team building games designed specifically for remote teams. It's like a Zoom meeting in the style of Hollywood Squares combined with pub trivia.
During Outback Team Building & Training’s Virtual Trivia Pursuit, teams tackle a series of mental, physical, skill, and mystery challenges, earning points for each successfully completed challenge. With this activity, groups can learn new things about each other, discover hidden talents (like who can juggle), and strengthen collaboration.
Install Springworks’ Trivia suite of games to Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Chat and start a trivia game, word puzzle, or quiz with your remote team anytime. You can also conduct simple polls in order to quickly see how your employees feel about a certain topic like holiday gifts or those morning meetings.
Form a virtual book club within your remote team. You can choose a book that is relevant to your job or pick one just for fun—so it doesn’t seem like even more work. Either read the book chapter by chapter, discussing as you go, or host a digital gathering after everyone has finished reading the entire book. You can also apply this idea to TV shows. Why not binge watch a Netflix series and then chat about it? Think of it as a virtual version of the IRL watercooler convos that would normally happen on a Monday.
TeamBonding’s Virtual Laughter Yoga focuses more on breathing than poses, acting as a stress relief session with clapping and laughter exercises.
Encourage your team’s fitness goals and design your own fitness challenge using apps like Strava or Fitbit. You can easily track the physical activity of a network of members and offer awards to those who complete the challenge.
Mixology Mixer’s Beach Body Workout is paired with a custom smoothie shopping list and a post-workout smoothie-making class that includes an explanatory Q&A about the ingredients’ benefits.
Hosted by Dan Candell, who’s known as "The Anxiety Relief Guy," Mixology Mixer’s Stress and Anxiety Relief Hypnotherapy session comes with a daily gratitude journal, an eye mask, and a mini bottle of bubbles for your inner child, along with a one-hour virtual hypnotherapy class.
Woyago’s “A Party In Paris” team building activity lets your remote team take a field trip without leaving home. Attendees will learn some French vocab, compete in a Parisian-themed trivia game, and answer icebreaker questions.