In the past year, thousands of offices have made a switch to remote work. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, that trend was accelerating. According to one study from 2019, 80% of employees would like to work from home at least part-time, with 40% of employers offering flexible work environments at higher levels than they did in 2014.
That’s before COVID-19 upended the working dynamic of even the most traditional in-person workplaces, rapidly increasing the number of teams who need to work together virtually across industries.
Both employers and employees with any remote experience know: building a virtual team is drastically different from creating a healthy face-to-face office culture. Strategic virtual team building has major potential benefits for any office looking to apply it. To get there, though, takes time, effort, and thoughtful planning.
SoSo let’s begin. This comprehensive guide starts with the specifics of virtual team building and how it differs from its in-person variation. From there, we’ll provide actionable tips and activities to better manage your own remote team, regardless of size.
Virtual Team Building: A Definition
We know virtual teams as groups of co-workers who need to collaborate to accomplish their tasks but are not able to complete that collaboration in-person. Virtual team building, then, is the process of making sure that this group of co-workers works well together to accomplish their common goal. Or, as the research firm Gartner puts it,
Virtual team building is a set of activities that builds trust among team members; develops team members; brings unity to the team; clarifies team norms; fosters an understanding of virtual peers’ work, and conducts effective meetings in a virtual environment. To keep employees engaged, leaders must regularly reassess their team’s needs and evolve team-building activities accordingly.
In other words, it’s an active process that never quite ends. The effort to build trust and unify co-workers is more challenging in a virtual environment, making strategic team building even more important in this environment. It’s well worth the effort, though.
5 Benefits of Team Building, as Proven by Science
Virtual team building takes time, commitment, and resources. When done right, though, the benefits are considerable. Over the last few years, multiple studies and surveys have crystallized five distinct but interconnected benefits of prioritizing the concept.
1. Create More Successful Outcomes
If a team is to accomplish a shared goal, making sure that the team optimizes its internal trust, understanding, and collaboration will lead to a higher chance of reaching that goal.
A study by Cisco, for instance, found that companies who prioritized collaboration amongst their team doubled their ROI from that investment within five years. The results remained true across industries, from manufacturing to high tech and even retail.
Other teambuilding outcomes like trust lead to similarly positive returns. As a 2015 study showed, companies with high levels of employee trust outperformed their peers by a 2.5x multiple. A strategic emphasis on team building, designed to increase collaboration and trust, has positive revenue outcomes for the entire organization.
2. Optimize Individual Productivity
It’s not just about organizational outcomes, though. Team building also has a tendency to optimize individual productivity among employees. According to one survey of 1,000 employees, mutual bonding experiences with co-workers drastically improved feelings of creativity and the motivation to get work done. That’s a natural development, considering that happy employees have been shown to be up to 10% more productive.
On the flip side, a 2020 Gallup poll found that feelings of isolation within an organization reduce productivity by more than 20%. The ability to move a group of colleagues to become a true team can increase the productivity of everyone involved.
3. Increase Employee Retention
In part due to the above findings, it might not be a surprise to learn that employees whose work environment encourages active team building tend to stay at their employer for longer periods of time. We all need friends at work, and that friendship potential increases when actively working together rather than isolated in parallel tracks.
Once again, science backs up that claim. One Gallup poll found that when workers believe their opinions matter and they’re part of a team, turnover decreases by 27%. LinkedIn, meanwhile, found that 94% of employees stay with their company longer if they can learn in a collaborative environment.
4. Improve Communications Patterns
To say that communication matters in modern organizations is almost a cliché at this point. But it remains true, and team building plays a core role in encouraging open communications channels.
As one hallmark MIT study found, active socialization in modern teams improves communication patterns by 50%. Building common reference points and learning about your co-workers’ communication preferences, it turns out, results in major payoffs when collaboration becomes essential to meeting common goals.
5. Create Future-Proof Team Flexibility
Finally, it’s impossible to talk about the benefits of team building without acknowledging the current COVID-19 reality. The pandemic’s outbreak last year has caused a major shift in attitudes and behaviors, largely due to the fact that 83% of employers consider their move to remote work in 2020 to be successful.
With that shift, of course, has come an increased investment in team building. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a 2,500% increase in virtual team building investment from organizations across the globe.
That investment is not just beneficial in the short term. The future workplace is flexible, with partially or fully remote environments becoming increasingly common. Investing in team-building now allows your organization to create flexibility, ensuring successful collaboration and teamwork regardless of what the future might hold.
Key Differences Between Virtual and In-Person Team Building
The key differences between bonding activities designed for virtual and in-person teams largely come down to the nature of the team itself. Understanding them is a key component of making your virtual team-building efforts successful.
Paradoxically, virtual teams are both more and less hierarchical:
- The virtual environment tends to democratize interactions, with less inhibition from team members to defer to higher-ups or wait their turn.
- Virtual environments have to be more strongly driven by meeting and team leaders, thanks to fewer natural opportunities for others to come in and co-present or lead.
As we’ll discuss below, that’s an absolutely vital distinction that plays out in even the simplest tips to improve the interactions and productivity of your virtual teams. However, it’s not the only difference between the two environments. Some others include:
- Less natural engagement. Attention spans are lower for virtual teams, especially in meeting environments where they can multitask in a split screen or on a mobile device.
- Fewer nonverbal queues. Given that an estimated 90% of human interaction is nonverbal, the inability to easily read inflection, body, or facial queues online can lead to more misunderstandings.
- Lack of non-work opportunities. It’s easy to talk to your colleagues about your weekend as you enter the building or grab some lunch together. It’s much more difficult over email or Zoom.
- Fewer brainstorming prompts. The creativity flowing out of a group of professionals in front of a whiteboard is difficult to recreate in front of individual screens. It certainly doesn’t come naturally.
- Technical issues. A bad internet connection, difficulties connecting to the company network, and other common problems can disrupt the flow of an otherwise productive meeting or interaction.
Of course, it’s not all bad. The convenience of virtual team meetings and interactions speaks for itself. That is, of course, as long as you can guide your employees into a productive, high-performing virtual team.
9 Quick Tips to Build Trust in Virtual Teams
Before planning extensive team-building activities, it helps to create a base level of trust among your distributed teams. With these 10 quick tips, you can begin to establish that trust, creating a solid foundation for more in-depth team-building efforts.
- Create face time opportunities. Regular face time is such a natural component of in-person teams, we sometimes forget to prioritize it in virtual environments. Regular, daily video check-ins with your team (camera on) can go a long way towards building internal trust among team members. In fact, 87% of respondents to one survey said they felt more connected to their team through videoconferencing.
- Flatten the org chart. A ten-person meeting representing five different managerial levels at the organization tends to hurt active, open collaboration. Flatter organizational structures tend to benefit virtual teams, which have to worry less about reports or supervisory relationships and can focus more on productivity.
- Remove exceptions to accountability. Every team member counts and every team member should be accountable. The best virtual teams empower their members by distributing tasks across all participants, making every member equally responsible for reaching the team’s goals.
- Find a way to highlight successes. Acknowledging wins raises the morality of the entire team, but it’s less intuitive in the more naturally isolated remote work environment. Actively counteract that challenge by calling out team members for goals and milestones reached, or even small wins like successful brainstorms.
- Create a virtual water cooler space. It might be a Slack “book club” or an email chain on the newest TV shows to stream. A productive team environment requires getting your mind off work sometimes, and establishing a culture in which that process is encouraged boosts both morale and collaboration.
- Prioritize transparency. Your team deserves to know what’s going on. With a physical bulletin board impossible, establish channels to share company news, while encouraging reciprocity. The more transparent the environment in which the team operates, the better.
- Optimize your feedback loops. What happens when something goes wrong? Who needs to approve the team’s work, and how does feedback get fed back to them? Clear, established feedback loops that everyone knows about builds trust in the fact that this feedback is both objective and reasonable.
- Account for technical issues. They’ll inevitably happen. The best you can do is account for them, by creating a backup in case the leader loses connection and sharing notes with takeaways and next steps after each meeting.
- Stay consistent over time. No matter the type of scope of work required for the remote team, consistency is key to building trust. Establish routines that everyone knows and can follow, creating a ‘typical work day’ atmosphere that might otherwise be difficult to achieve.
12 Virtual Team Building Activities, Based on Team Size
More in-depth activities, of course, take more time and effort to plan. For some, you might need a dedicated virtual team-building platform like Bondadil, designed to streamline the process and guide your participants.
When picking activities, be sure to keep your team’s size and culture in mind. That’s why in our below ranking, our 12 favorite team-building activities are split up by the size of the team for which they make the most sense. With slight modifications, of course, they all can be applied to teams of all sizes.
4 Activities for Small Virtual Teams
When your team consists of less than 10 members, in-person activities tend to be simple. They’re more complex, and require active participation from everyone involved. The best way to accomplish that is with high-touch activities that both encourage and incentivize everyone to play a part.
1. Virtual Happy Hour
Already a favorite in-person activity, the happy hour can easily be transported to a virtual environment with a few ground rules:
- Everyone keeps their video on.
- It happens regularly, at a time when no more work is required.
- It’s optional. Virtual happy hours fail when everyone feels forced to be there.
- Topics are strictly limited to going beyond work: weekend plans, pop culture, or other related items.
Typically, 30-60 minutes on a Friday afternoon work well. It allows everyone to get together and just chat, calming the mood before the weekend.
2. Online Pictionary
You know the popular board game, so why not take it to a remote environment? You’ll find some platforms formalizing the process, but it might be as simple as a Zoom whiteboard. One person draws, the others guess, and the person guessing the most correct answers at the end of the allotted time wins a small prize.
Want to up the difficulty? Use a Google random image search to select the drawing others have to guess.
3. Show Your Space
Remember “MTV Cribs”? This is that, except for workspaces. Set up a regular time, at which one of your team members shows off their home office. Add some personality by expanding beyond the office and maybe even bringing in a show and tell component.
This activity accomplishes two subtle goals:
- It allows your team members to get closer to each other, unveiling a side of themselves beyond work or the wall right behind them.
- It increases each team member’s comfort to talk to each other, asking questions, and speaking up.
4. Virtual Potluck
Especially if your remote team was once in-person, you probably miss those potlucks. Taking them virtual is not the same thing, but it can still make for some fun team and trust-building.
Set a time, and ask your colleagues to bring meals according to a specific theme. You might not be able to share meals, but every participant can talk about their dish, where it came from, and even share recipes with each other.
4 Activities for Medium-Sized Virtual Team
In groups between 10 and 20 members, it becomes more difficult to get everyone on video and on the same screen. Team building activities are therefore a little broader, while still allowing plenty of personal touches to get to know, trust, and collaborate with each other.
1. Virtual Trivia
It’s an old classic, but it works particularly well with this group size. The process is as simple as setting up a PowerPoint presentation with various trivia questions, and answers on the next slide.
From there, you can customize it as needed. Focus on anything from your industry to hobby topics. You can even set up regular trivia dates with different themes. Collect participants’ answers via private chat, then tally up the winner at the end.
2. The Either/Or Game
Pancakes or waffles? Coke or Pepsi? Chocolate or Vanilla? You know the drill. The idea is simple: as a team, you have to decide which of two concepts the world gets to keep, and which will be struck from the earth entirely.
It starts simple. But each time the majority picks an item, it goes up against the next challenger. Over time, you might get to absurd choices like Pepsi vs. Babies, but you’ll also playfully learn how to work together to come to a choice, how your team members tend to make important decisions, etc. Because the initial choices are so impersonal, it’s easy even for introverted team members.
3. The Great Type Race
The premise is simple: who can type the fastest? Free online typing tests can help you get the answer. Now, all you need to do is gamify it:
- Create a bracket in which two members of the team compete against each other.
- Start the rounds with simple, one-minute tests.
- Each round is a new typing test.
- For the later rounds and the great finale, contestants can screen-share to let others see their speed.
With games like these, your colleagues will find themselves subconsciously (and, later, openly) rooting for or against certain team members. That creates bonds that naturally bleed into their professional collaboration, as well.
4. The Virtual Getaway
The last year has seen an explosion of virtual experiences for anything from museums to zoos and other attractions. Among other things, that makes for a fun team-building activity.
Each week, a team member chooses a virtual getaway to share with the team. They share their screen on the virtual tour, providing narration in any way they choose. The result is a fun experience in which you learn as much about the narrator as you do about the destination.
4 Activities for Large Virtual Teams
In teams above 20 people, a true group activity becomes difficult to pull off. Instead, the best team-building activities tend to either happen asynchronously or with a clear leader who guides the others through. These are our favorites.
1. Language Lessons
Cultural differences become more common in large teams. Rather than allowing them to create potential obstacles, this activity leverages them into a positive interaction.
It’s a simple whiteboard activity. A team member picks a word in their native language and puts it on the board. Others guess the translation. Clues can be added if needed over time, making the guess easier for more difficult words or less common languages.
Even native English speakers can participate simply by choosing a word in a language they’ve always wanted to learn. Everyone comes away with something while creating a more inclusive environment in the process.
2. The Great GIF Story
Communal storytelling has been a way to build trust since ancient times. So why not use modern technology to do it?
In a Slack channel or email thread, work with your team to tell a story using only GIFs. Every graphic builds on the previous one, with every team member sharing an addition choosing in which direction to take it. Over time, the story tends to become more and more absurd, but also fun to figure out.
For larger teams, where not everyone naturally participates, a pre-selected order of GIF-posters tends to be helpful.
3. The Messy Desk Challenge
As many of us deeply feel on a daily basis, the phrase “organized chaos” is not a cliché. For others, it might look like chaos. Making an activity out of it leads to plenty of fun guesswork and even a little bit of increased personal connection.
Again, the premise is simple. Everyone posts a picture of their desk. The larger team can then vote on their favorite in a few categories:
- Messiest desk
- Cleanest desk
- The most unusual item on the desk
- The most relatable to my own desk
- The most fabricated photo
That last one typically prevents anyone from staging their desk just to win one of the categories.
4. The Team Playlist
Finally, music tends to have a way to bring people together, and you can learn a lot about a co-worker through their taste in music. You can leverage that for your team by creating a Spotify list with suggestions from every member of the team.
You can create playlists based on themes, such as favorite workout music or most nostalgic song. But it can also be fun to watch the chaos unfold without any rules whatsoever.
From there, it becomes a guessing game. Who added what song? Some may prefer to remain secret, while others will happily share their preferences. Either way, you get a fun playlist that reflects the personalities on your team.
Increasing trust and collaboration in your virtual teams is not always easy. At the same time, knowing where to begin is a great start to getting it right. An understanding of the concept, together with some activities you can implement right now, can bring your team closer together, creating a productive and engaging work environment for everyone involved.