Since the pandemic hit, I've worked with 7 different teams at 5 companies. Wherever I go, teams are frustrated about how hard it is to bond outside the flow of their day-to-day work.
Maybe part of the reason it's so difficult for remote teams to connect is that remote team bonding activities often repeat the same tired format—undirected, single-threaded, whole-team video chats. 90% of the "fun team hangouts" I've attended fell into this category.
Why do we always reach for the whole-team chat? I've even found myself making (bad) suggestions like this. "Oh you wish we could all go grab a drink after work? How about a 'happy hour' where 30 people try to participate in the same conversation? This time it certainly won't devolve into 3 people doing all the talking while the other 27 sit drinking in silence."
We must open our minds to the possibility that virtual events do not have to suck.
It's possible to do much better with the tools that exist today. How do I know? I've seen it! My girlfriend Mallory is a virtuoso event planner who spent most of the pandemic at a startup. Over the last two years I've watched her organize tons of actually fun events that people actually engaged with and enjoyed!
Here's a small sample of the virtual bonding activities she's organized.
- Watercoloring with Coffee. Exactly what it sounds like. This one can be done with things people already have in their home—a cup of coffee, some paper, and a brush (a Q-tip or makeup brush also works). Pick something for everyone to draw, then dip your brush in coffee and paint away! You can dilute the coffee with water in additional cups for multiple shades of brown. At the end you all share your paintings.
- Virtual Farm Tour. For 20 minutes, someone will walk around a farm with a webcam and introduce you to the animals. Quick, simple, and a total crowd-pleaser. Mallory booked this through Goat-2-Meeting but there are plenty of other farms that do something similar now.
- Virtual Experiences. There are tons of fun Zoom experiences you can easily book through Airbnb Experiences and Marco. Through these services, Mallory has set up cocktail-making classes with award-winning bartenders, private concerts, magic shows, trivia events, drag queen bingo, the list goes on! These are often relatively affordable, and they require very minimal preparation. Usually all you have to do is book them show up.
- Virtual Boba-making Class. MILK+T will send boba ingredients to everyone and then lead you through making boba tea.
- Virtual Talent Show. Exactly what it sounds like. Everyone has 3 minutes to show off one of their hidden talents or hobbies! This could be as simple as folding a fitted sheet, or as complex as making a potato gun out of PVC pipe and firing it on camera.
- Yappy Hour. A happy hour where everyone is encouraged to bring their dogs. Each dog gets introduced to the group and their owner can show off any tricks they know and talk about their idiosyncrasies.
- Zoom Yoga Class. Wellness activities like this are always a huge hit, and there's a million places to book these through. You could even do this for free by having everyone follow along with a YouTube video.
- Guess Whose Mug. Everyone submits a picture of their favorite mug, and the host puts it in a powerpoint. During the event, you go through the pictures and everyone tries to guess who each mug belongs to in the chat. Whoever gets the most right answers gets a $50 DoorDash credit. (You also do tons of variations on this, such as Guess whose childhood picture or Guess whose phone background.)
Let's break down what makes these activities so much better than the standard Zoom hangout.
1) There is an activity for everyone to focus on.
It's way easier to get to know people through an activity than it is to just sit there and talk. This takes the pressure off of people to be amazing conversationalists, and allows them to just relax and have fun. When we make plans in person, we usually organize around some activity, even if it's just a meal or coffee. Virtually, we should do the same.
2) There is a lot of variety between events.
Some activities are designed to let people show off things about themselves. Others are new experiences. Some are more introverted in nature (yoga) while others are more extraverted (talent show, trivia). The variation means everyone will have different favorites, and everyone will have some event they get extra excited about.
Another benefit of variety is that it speeds up the process of getting to know each other. Every time you see a coworker in a new scenario, you see a different side of them, which over time helps remind you how complex and well-rounded everyone is.
A simple hack to ensure you maintain variety: whenever you plan an event, you should ask "how similar is this to other events we've done in the last 6 months?" Obviously if an event is a huge hit, it's okay to make it a recurring thing! But the default should always be to change things up.
3) When the purpose of a meeting is just to talk, there is some kind of prompt to guide the conversation.
The Yappy Hour is basically your standard whole-team, single-threaded conversation, but because everyone has a shared focal point (dogs), it feels novel. The ensures it will go to a unique place, and helps mitigate the risk of falling into awkward "what should we talk about next" moments.
When Mallory did getting-to-know-you lunches for new hires, she always came with a prompt for everyone to answer. For example: "If you were in a zombie apocalypse, which two coworkers would you bring along, and why?"
4) Whenever possible, events engage multiple senses.
Zoom events can feel stale and lifeless if you're just sitting in place talking. Events like Watercoloring with Coffee and the Boba-making Class involve taste, smell, and movement, which makes them much more engaging and memorable.
I'll acknowledge that planning events like this takes more work than your standard Zoom hangout. If you're pressed for time, your best bet is probably to trade money for time and book pre-made virtual experiences through Airbnb or Marco, or through a more specialized vendor like MILK+T. You could also try lower-effort activities like Hot Seat AMAs (see below). To reduce the planning burden, consider making "schedule bonding events" a rotating team responsibility, so all the work doesn't end up falling on a single person.
In the near future, I believe remote-first companies will have dedicated Remote Employee Experience Managers who plan events and keep remote employees engaged, with things like surprise champagne deliveries on birthdays and workiversaries.
(Btw if you are interested in hiring for such a role, Mallory is currently taking a few months off, but is always open to chatting about new opportunities!)
I believe the reason we don't have more roles like this already is that many companies are yet to realize that quality remote team bonding and employee engagement is even possible. 1
Here are a few more remote bonding activities I've seen work well.
- Hot Seat AMAs. Nominate one teammate to be in the "hot seat". For 30 minutes, everyone asks that person questions in the Zoom chat, and they can answer whichever questions they like. Other participants should feel free to come off mute and offer banter or follow up questions. At the end, the person in the hot seat nominates someone else to be in the hot seat next, and you schedule another AMA for the next week.
- VR ping pong. At risk of sounding like a parody of a parody of a Bay Area Tech Bro, VR ping pong actually does scratch the itch. If two or more people on your team have VR headsets, they should try Eleven Table Tennis.
- Powerpoint party. Yet another idea from my girlfriend, who did this for a COVID birthday one year. Everyone comes prepared with a 3-5 minute presentation on any work-appropriate, non-work subject they'd like. When I did this, I gave a presentation on Wikipedia's List of Common Misconceptions. Other presentations included "Why Daylight Savings Time is the Absolute Worst" and "5 Disney Channel Original Films That Stand the Test of Time".
- Video games. If you're going to have the whole team play together, avoid games like Super Smash Bros that have a big learning curve. More casual, beginner-friendly games like Among Us, Jackbox Games, and skribbl.io are the way to go here.
- Virtual chocolate tasting. Dandelion Chocolate does a virtual experience where they will ship chocolate bars to everyone on your team and then lead you through a tasting. What's not to love?
1. There's hot take available here, which is that companies actively avoid investment in remote employee experience because they want employees to feel like remote work sucks, so they can drive enthusiasm for the return to the office. The majority of CEOs I meet in the Bay Area glorify the days where everyone was in the office together. Executives want folks back into the office as soon as possible—I'm not sure why.
If we look at incentives there's a case to be made that CEOs want to justify the cost of the super expensive offices they have that have been sitting empty for the last two years, each bleeding tens of thousands of dollars per month. Another explanation could be that CEOs prefer in-person work because it makes it easier for them personally to keep tabs on everything their employees are up to, in a way that's just not possible when people are remote. All of this is very speculative and it's probably worthy of a separate post.
If you want to learn more about running an effective remote team, follow me on Twitter. I've got a lot of thoughts on this subject that I'd love to share!