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Everyday Steps to Take to Improve Virtual Team Bonding

Rob Warner

If your back-to-office plans have been pushed, you're not alone. With the Delta variant running amok, a lot of companies are reassessing their plans to return to the office. Unfortunately, it also means that a lot of folks are left scrambling to figure out how to engage their remote workers for the next your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine months. If your approach to team bonding through the pandemic has been "how long could it last?", then you're not alone. Plenty of teams have put remote team engagement on the back burner while they figure out logistics and if their industry can weather the storm. If you're in this boat and just now coming up for air, you may be looking for a remote team-building activity to get your team back on track, and for that, we’ve got you covered. However, one all-out bender of virtual team bonding is not going to make up for months of neglect and certainly won't tide you over until your new back-to-the-office date. 

Virtual Team Building doesn't Happen Automatically

If it did, well, we'd be out of a job for one thing. Remote team bonding is hard, especially for teams that are used to working side-by-side in an office. If your office has gone remote due to the pandemic, then you're facing a steeper challenge of meeting the expectations of a workforce who took a job based on a certain level of engagement. Now that you're remote, you have to invest to combat isolation, improve collaboration, and build the bonds that make your team succeed under pressure. 

Sure, virtual trivia is great, but if you only think about engagement once a month during the virtual happy hour, you’re missing huge opportunities to engage your team and keep remote team members happy. There are tons of ways to engage your team daily so when those virtual happy hours do come around, they're not filled with awkward silences from unengaged employees. 

Everyday Steps to Take to Improve Virtual Team Engagement

Now that you've got the message that virtual team bonding doesn't happen overnight, let's look at some everyday changes you can make to promote engagement. 

Make Your Company Culture, Vision, Values, And Goals Known

Quick poll: do you know your company's mission or vision? Can you recite the corporate values? Most companies show this slide during onboarding, PR pitches, and that's it. Some managers are better about tying everyone's work to quarterly company goals, but many fall short in proactively and regularly communicating other aspects of company culture, vision, and values. 

Start by incorporating these larger concepts into your regular discussions. If you're having a planning meeting with teammates, review the company goals and discuss how your work fits into the bigger picture. When going over performance reviews, pull up a slide of the corporate values and discuss how performance does or does not match those values. Similarly, if someone on your team kills it, give them a shoutout on the company slack for being a badass and tie it directly to one of the company values. In remote work, especially if the work is particularly siloed, build camaraderie by making colleagues feel like they're part of a team. Tying their work to the larger picture is a great way to do that. Teamwork makes the dream work. 

Create An Open And Honest Environment

According to a recent Gallup poll, remote employees are 3x more likely to be engaged if they receive feedback from their manager at least a few times per month. And, if they have conversations with their managers weekly or more, they're 3x more motivated. That's a lot of gains from a weekly check-in. Remote work can benefit hugely from a reduction in distractions that naturally come in an office, like water cooler talk, snack kitchens, and drive-by gossip. However, the flip side of that is that interactions can feel exclusively transactional to the point where giving feedback feels awkward and out of line. 

As David Bradford, one of the professors behind the hugely popular Stanford Graduate School of Business course "Touchy Feely" describes feedback, "if you don't express it, you lose the ability to control how you express it." Bottling up feedback or brushing over small things is tempting in a remote world, where video calls and zoom meetings don't feel intimate enough settings to express feedback. However, building trust and relationships is critical in remote teams, and that has to start with transparency and honesty. Start by asking your coworkers for regular feedback to start a culture of giving and receiving feedback so it doesn't seem out of the blue. Additionally, as a manager, you can tell new team members at what increments they'll be receiving feedback so it doesn't catch them by surprise. 

Make Video A Part Of Your Remote Team Bonding Strategy

It's tempting: leaving the video off on a video chat because you're chewing or you don't like the way your hair looks that day. But encouraging video conferencing with actual videos will help employees truly see each other and promote empathy. Now, policies that mandate videos during meetings probably go a bit too far, especially during large company updates. However, there are fun ways to promote employees having their videos on. First, allow employees to install Snap Camera, so participants in a Zoom call or Microsoft Teams meeting can add a personal flair to their video persona. Additionally, you can start Zoom meetings with an icebreaker, like "show us something on your desk" or "fastest to find," a game where the host names a characteristic (blue, edible, purchased before 2010) and whoever can find something in their home fastest wins a gift card. The winner also then gets to show off their item and feel proud about having their video on. 

Start A Yearly Retreat

Ok, obviously by definition this is not an "everyday" technique, but it is baking into your regular programming as you continue to adapt your remote strategy. At a certain point, humans need in-person interaction. Even the best virtual team-building activities only go so far in promoting engagement, and scheduling an in-person retreat may be necessary to go that extra mile in promoting engagement. Yearly retreats are a proven way to celebrate accomplishments, tackle big-picture planning, and encourage remote employees to build stronger relationships. Set an agenda that has a mix of planning and fun, and make sure there's a variety of activities so everyone can enjoy the break. For example, karaoke may be a fun way to get everyone together, but if some folks don't drink or Kevin from accounting hogs the mic with his off-pitch renditions of the entire catalog of Journey, you may want a backup activity like a virtual escape room or movie night. 

Foster a Sense of Community with Non-Work-Related Activities 

Fun virtual team-building activities don't have to be limited to once-a-month engagements. Simple icebreaker questions and little daily games that sponsor creativity are a great way to promote team bonding without the budget or time commitment of an hour-long happy hour. Inspiring employee engagement over non-work-related topics is a great way to build camaraderie in the workplace. Here are a few ideas: 

  • A question-of-the-day Slack channel. Throw a question in the group chat related to cooking or pets, the best donut in town, or who should be the next Jeopardy host (this author is team LeVar Burton all the way). It may be "distracting" but having it in a Slack channel means folks can engage when they need a break instead of being pulled out of work. 
  • Offer volunteer opportunities outside the office. Give your team a paid day off or schedule a day of service where everyone volunteers if you have the budget. Rolling up your sleeves and helping someone else out is a powerful way to bond over a shared cause. 
  • Virtual book club. Pick a non-work-related book for those who want to participate to read within a month. then set a virtual meeting to discuss the book using prompts from the internet and encourage folks to bring a snack or beverage of their choice. 

Conclusion: Don't Wait for the Quarterly Offsite to think about Remote Team Bonding

It can be tempting to throw a virtual dance party or scavenger hunt once a quarter and check team bonding off your list. However, if you're exclusively using virtual team-building games every now and then to engage your team and promote unity, you're missing a lot of daily fundamentals necessary to strengthen your virtual team. Investing in these things now can improve team bonding, boost job satisfaction, and make your remote company a more enjoyable place to work. 

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