5 virtual team building games and activities for remote employees

Remote work means trying twice as hard to get the team to interact. But cheesy icebreakers on Zoom aren't the only option.

Kimberlee Meier, Writer
19 October 202010 Min Read

Remote work means trying twice as hard to get the team to interact. But cheesy icebreakers on Zoom aren't the only option.

We all know it's important to get to know the team we work with — especially in a remote environment. 

The task of virtual team building often falls on the remote team's manager to make sure everyone is comfortable working together. Because the more comfortable people are with each other, the easier it is to collaborate and get stuff done as a team. In fact, studies show a 50% employee satisfaction rate among people who have close friendships with their work buddies, and they're 7x more likely to be fully engaged in their work. 

One of the best ways to create these relationships — even in a remote working environment — is through virtual team building games and activities. We're not talking about cheesy icebreakers, either. Although we all love a game of "Hi my name is Anna and I like Apples..." those things don't really help you work well on a deeper level. You can encourage your remote team to get to know each other in more effective ways by building shared music playlists, grabbing a virtual cuppa, or sharing their bucket lists. 

Let's take a look at what team building is, why it's important, and 5 creative virtual ways you can get to know your teammates better. 

What is team building, and why is it important?

Team building is putting processes in place for teammates to have the chance to get to know each other better and forge a closer personal relationship.

The idea behind team building is simple. The more your team gets to know each other, the more trust will build up. This trust allows them to share ideas and opinions more freely and, more importantly, work together to meet your customer's expectations. 

If we dig a little deeper, we also find that your team's success is based on a foundation of mutual respect. An Atlassian study found that 94% of workers consider mutual respect and connections as critical to their team's overall success. The study also found that 19% of team members point to mutual respect as being the #1 factor of how they manage their well-being at work.

So, the importance of getting to know each other goes beyond just knowing each other's names. It helps us to work better together, forge mutual respect, share ideas, meet customer expectations, and even look after our well-being in the workplace. 

Zapier is just one example of how important building trust in a 100% remote team is. The company's CEO, Wade Foster, says fostering a culture of trust within Zapier is how they thrive. He encourages his team to socialize and get to know each other using dedicated Slack channels like #fun-art, #fun-dogs, and #fun-baseball. 

"The time people spend in these channels isn't seen as slacking off—it's a way to get to know the people you work with, so you can trust them more when it comes time to get stuff done," he says. 

Team members are also encouraged to use the first five minutes of each meeting to ask questions about the other person's life to reflect a real-life discussion. 

"It might feel like a waste of precious meeting time, but it's not — it's a way to ensure that everyone still feels connected, which is crucial in building a remote culture that works," Foster says. 

Slack channel conversation from the team at Zapier

Inside a Slack channel at Zapier

Want this kind of collaboration and mutual respect within your own team? Here are 5 team building games and activities you can use to make it happen. 

​​5 virtual team building activities for remote teams

1. Get to know each other's hometown 🌍 

If you've got a remote team, it's highly unlikely everyone is working from the same city or even the same country. 

Familiarizing your team with where their teammates are isn't just a great virtual team-building exercise, it can also help everyone visualize time zones. It's quick, and it's free.

First, create an editable map in Google Maps or upload one onto your digital whiteboard. Then, tell your team that the first 10 minutes or so of your next meeting will be set aside to learn more about their hometowns. Ask them to come up with a short story to introduce their city and also an interesting fact about the place they call home that only a local would know. During the meeting, send a link to your map. Then, encourage each teammate to pin their hometown on the map and share their stories.

Google Map with pins in various cities

An editable, shareable map in Google Maps

Not only is this virtual team building activity a unique way for your employees to celebrate their hometowns, but it also gives the rest of your team a chance to get a peek at each other's cultural values outside of the workplace. 

2. Grab a virtual coffee ☕

Remote teams can't catch up in the break room for a coffee or swap weekend adventures in the elevator. 

So, why not order a virtual coffee catch up with your team?

There are two types of virtual coffees you can have: team meetings as well as 1:1 catch-ups. 

If you want to use it as a virtual team-building activity, set up a remote coffee meeting every morning or once a week. This can replace the traditional team meeting you would've once had in the office and give everyone a chance to talk about their daily tasks while sharing a cup of joe. If you have a team budget, you can even pay for Starbucks gift cards for the team

Virtual coffees can also boost individual working relationships in your team. Gitlab uses coffee catch-ups to encourage individual employees that don't know each other well to build a deeper connection. The company uses an app called Donut to randomly pair up teammates who don't know each other well and then sets up a coffee catch up through Slack. 

Donut app for getting coffees

A Slack conversation with Donut

Gitlab actively encourages its employees to spend a couple of hours every week (paid, of course!) to schedule coffee calls with other team members. According to their website, the catch-ups give employees time to get to know who they work with and talk about everyday things, creating "a more comfortable, well-rounded environment” to work in.

3. Build a teamwork playlist 🎧

Ska fan? Or a smooth jazz? There are fewer hobbies that bond people like music can, and everybody has a playlist that gets them into the (work) groove. 

While playlists can help your team work more productively, musical tastes also reveal a lot about your a person's personality. Researchers from Cambridge studied more than 21,000 people to see how five main personality types known (open-minded, extroverted, agreeable, neurotic, and conscientious) matched up against music genres. The study found people who liked easy-going acoustic music were more likely to be talkative and energetic. In contrast, others with open personalities tended to like tunes that were inspiring, complex, and dynamic. 

“These results corroborate that music – a form of self-expression that is ubiquitous across human cultures – communicates meaningful information about basic psychological characteristics,” the study's authors said. 

So, what better way for you and your remote teammates to get to know each other than to talk about your favorite Phish album and debate Beyonce’s best single? Using a tool like (our beloved) Spotify, you can invite other team members to collaborate and create the ultimate playlist to listen to throughout the day. Everyone on your team can then add, delete, and reorder the tracks whenever they want to. You can watch a video to learn how to make a collaborative Spotify playlist in under 40 seconds.

Knack went one step further and held a playlist challenge. Full-stack engineer Jeremy Sher says employees were challenged to create curated playlists based on the theme of "Remote Focus". 

"This was chosen to be intentionally vague and open to interpretation with the only rule being that each playlist had to be more or less 10 songs and all songs used had to come from our collaborative playlist (although new songs could be added for use in the event)," he says. 

The team met the challenge and curated six playlists!

Playlists generated by Knack team while remote

Playlists by the team at Knack

The cool part about the challenge was the playlists revealed lots of employees shared the same tastes in music, chilling out to downtempo music like Gorillaz, Air, Beach House, and Tame Impala. 

"Each playlist definitely features the personality of its curator and gives the team a glimpse of what remote focus sounds like for them," Sher says. 

4. Say it with a picture 📷

You know the old proverb—a picture says 1000 words. 

Ask your remote team to take advantage of this and post a picture of something in their life that has sentimental value on a shared board. It doesn't have to be a loved one or an object; the photo can be of scenery, a place they've travelled, or even their pet. 

Harvard Business Review's Tammy Plouffe believes sharing pictures within a team can create connections between people faster—and more profoundly—than any virtual team-building activity she's ever used. 

"Because the response to photos is physiological, it happens regardless of generation, language, or culture, and in workplaces as diverse as most are today, this is pretty important," she says.

Plouffe has used this exercise at her company, Innovative Pathways, to transform a team's communication, collaboration, and connection. In one example, she asked a group to choose a picture that illustrated what "leadership" looked like. 

"A man whose first language was not English shared an image of horses walking along a beach with a single person walking behind them," she says. 

"He spoke of the image evoking that leadership is to serve and lead from behind, and the spirit of the horses symbolizing the combination of strength and gentleness that is needed to gain employees’ respect and trust for direction. 

"It was a pivotal moment for the team, helping them relate to each other in a way they hadn’t been able to just moments before."

This virtual team-building activity is super easy to replicate. Just ask each team member to pick an image based on a theme and get them to share their story. Even better, use a shared communication channel, so the stories are saved and your remote team can read through them at their own pace. 

5. Share your bucket list 🙏

Ever wanted to climb Mount Everest? How about bungee jumping from Macau Tower? 

Your ambitions and goals for what you want to achieve in your life, inside and outside, says a lot about your character. Sharing these ambitions, AKA your "bucket list", with your fellow teammates is a powerful way to give them an insight into your dreams and what drives you to succeed. 

When O2E's CEO Brian Scudamore was searching for ways to bring his team together, he decided to ditch the corporate icebreakers and instead asked his team to write out a "Life Goals List."

"Choosing something unique and slightly outside of people’s comfort zones can encourage them to come together in new ways," he says. 

"Goals range from learning to read Tolstoy in Russian to walking the Great Wall of China. 

"It’s a powerful way to learn about people and their dreams, as well as to generate ideas for future team-building activities."

Sharing these lists virtually is easy. Just create a new document, store it using a tool like Dropbox or Google Drive, and share it with the rest of your remote team. As soon as everybody has added their list of bucket list wishes, schedule a Zoom call for a Friday afternoon so you can all finish the working week talking about what you hope to see and do in the future! 

Team building can transform your team for the better

Work is more fulfilling if we like our jobs and care about the people we're working with. 

The hard part (especially if you are working in a remote team) is getting to know your teammates better and building a real relationship. However, tech is actually on our side when it comes to ditching the cheesy icebreakers and using meaningful, fun virtual team building activities to get to know each other. 

This list of activities is the perfect way for you to get started bringing your remote team together. By grabbing virtual coffees, learning about your colleague's hometowns and even hearing their life goals and dreams, team building activities can turn teammates into close friends. 

And of course, there's the data to back this up — teams who have close bonds work better together and outperform their competitors.  Let's go, fam! 🔥

Written by Kimberlee Meier
Originally Published: 17 June 2020

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