Working remotely has boomed in a big way. Many businesses were quick to pivot to a virtual office during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep their employees healthy without sacrificing productivity. According to an MIT report, 34 percent of previous commuters worked from home by the first week of April 2020.
But even before the pandemic, the remote workplace has seen steady growth. Remote work grew by 44 percent over the past five years (and by 159 percent if we go all the way back to 2005). Close to five million non-self-employed people worked from a home office at least half-time before the pandemic began, according to statistics analyzed by Flexjobs and Global Workplace Analytics.
According to a University of Chicago publication, workers could do 37 percent of jobs in America entirely from home. Therefore, it’s not shocking that many businesses plan to shift some their employees to permanently work from home. In fact, 74 percent of CFOs surveyed at the end of March 2020 said they anticipated 5 percent or more of their previously office-bound workforce to permanently work from home.
Working from home can offer a wealth of benefits. It can eliminate lengthy or stressful commutes (which is a win for the environment, too) and give employees the ability to customize their workspaces. But managing a remote team introduces new challenges. Managers must make sure employees feel connected to their colleagues when they don’t have the opportunity to catch up in person at the water cooler or in the break room.
Boosting remote engagement
Keeping employees engaged is already a challenge in the office. A recent Gallup survey found that 52 percent of workers are not engaged at work, and 13 percent are actively disengaged. That matters both for employee satisfaction and the bottom line. After all, happy and engaged workers are more likely to show up for work. Engaged business units see a 41 percent reduction in absenteeism, according to other Gallup research. And when those workers are on the job, they accomplish a lot—the same survey found a 17 percent increase in productivity within engaged business units.
Since a workplace culture that fosters high engagement is shown to lead to higher customer ratings, increased sales, and less turnover—and more workplaces may allow employees to work remotely, at least in the near and possibly the long-term future—it’s vital that businesses find ways to engage workers who may never set foot within an office building or meet their colleagues in real life.
Obviously, staff ropes courses or charity book drives aren’t viable team building activities when you can’t bring employees together in person. But plenty of virtual team building exercises foster an engaged and productive workplace culture without requiring anyone to leave the comforts of home.
Fun team building activities for remote staff
How can a company encourage the kind of remote team interaction that forges strong relationships among coworkers? Try these ways to help workers connect virtually.
Remote happy hours or game nights
The in-person aspect of getting together isn’t necessarily the most important. Schedule an hour for your team to gather via Zoom or another virtual meeting room every other week or so. Informal meetings give workers a chance to get to know more about each other than how they sign off on emails.
While just reserving a table may do the trick for a gathering at a restaurant, you need a little more of a plan for a virtual hangout. Here’s what to keep in mind as you set up your virtual happy hour or coffee break.
Consider the head count.
Some platforms may limit the number of people allowed, and large groups can be tricky because only one person can be clearly heard at a time. As a general rule, bigger gatherings run more smoothly with more structure. With groups of any size, one person should act as host/moderator to ensure the conversation flows smoothly.
Set up for success.
Employees will be more engaged during the gathering if everyone’s faces are displayed. Since they’re already working from home, they likely have monitors, but check to see if they also have webcams. If they don’t, see if they can join from a tablet or phone.
Open with an ice breaker.
Tailor the exact question you choose based on how well the team knows each other. Short and simple questions such as, “Are you a cat person or a dog person?” or “What’s the best recipe you’ve made during this quarantine?” are easy, fun, and help people get to know a bit about colleagues with whom they may not interact very often.
Keep the questions going.
Whether the host has a list of questions that everyone can answer or each participant brings their own queries to ask the group, answering questions is a simple way to get everyone talking—without talking over one another.
Play a game.
There are endless possibilities for your team to play games, ranging from Bingo and trivia to online, workplace-friendly versions of games such as Coworker Feud or Scattergories. You may also want to check out apps and networks designed for game night, such as Houseparty and Jackbox. Just make sure to choose options that are office appropriate. You don’t want colleagues feeling weird about a lewd Cards Against Humanity moment the next morning.
Make it themed.
Ask everyone to wear a hat, gear from their favorite athletic team, or a costume to help the group feel a little more off-duty. What some workers opt to wear might surprise their colleagues. Who knew that Fred in accounting was into Game of Thrones cosplay?
Virtual live events
Seek out ways to be together, but apart. Here are several ideas to get you started.
Attend a virtual concert or other live event.
Many musicians offer livestreamed shows, so it’s not hard to find an event that will appeal to your team. Encourage everyone to attend, and open a chat channel so the team can discuss it in real time. If live events aren’t a good fit, choose a movie that’s readily available. Start it at the same time and it’ll be almost like a group outing to the cinema.
Do an activity.
Plenty of group activities can bring your team together to do something fun over the internet. A cooking or art class may require a little more planning than other options here, since everyone will need to have the ingredients available. But enlisting an expert to lead the class can be a real draw. Whether people fail or succeed with their creations, it’ll foster conversation.
Fit in some fitness.
Many yoga, tai chi, and fitness instructors have taken their classes online, and inviting one of these professionals to lead a class for your team may be a fun team building activity that also promotes a healthy lifestyle. Even if a personalized class isn’t in the cards, employees may enjoy the option of doing a streaming workout at a set time each day so they can hold each other accountable and compare notes once they’re done.
Host a book or movie club meeting.
There’s nothing like a candid discussion about a book or movie to get people to open up, and there’s no reason the discussion can’t be just as lively when held over video. As with the game nights, it’s important to make work-appropriate choices (keep it PG, if not somewhat work- or industry-related).
Start a step challenge.
Encourage your WFH crew to move more with a challenge to see who can hit 10,000 steps every day, or take it a step further and see who can take the most steps over the course of a week, a month, or more. Make sure participants have a pedometer or fitness tracker to count their steps before they sign up, and remember, compelling prizes can lift colleagues’ competitive spirits. Let this be an optional activity; not everyone will want or be able to participate.
Just because employees aren’t able to stop by one another’s desks doesn’t mean they can’t have a quick chat. To keep the remote workplace atmosphere engaging, it’s helpful to have a few dedicated chat channels. This helps the discussion within work-focused channels remain on track and encourages coworkers to connect with one another in deeper ways.
Kids and pets
Parents and pet owners often love to see pictures of children, dogs, and cats just as much as they love to share them. It makes sense to provide a dedicated space for proud parents (and pet parents) to convene. (Just make sure the team is in agreement about keeping children’s photos private.)
Praise and props
A thread dedicated to compliments can help boost positivity. These compliments could be work-related, such as kudos on getting a deal signed or sharing a client’s gratitude. A close-knit team might also cover accomplishments outside of work, such as congratulating a coworker on completing a marathon or applauding their involvement in a volunteer program.
Memes, GIFs, and interesting bits
When you work online, you come across funny things that you want to share—it’s a fact of modern life. A channel dedicated to these finds will allow colleagues to pop in for a laugh when convenient. This could also be expanded to great Internet finds, so employees can share articles, videos, social accounts, and other content they think their coworkers might enjoy.
Contest or competition
You could have a long-running competition, such as the aforementioned step challenge. Or choose competitions that just last week or so and have a specific focus, such as best at-home work setup or coolest office plant. Let everyone cast a vote at the end, and let the winner choose the next contest theme.
From what people listen to during the workday to amazing new beats and all-time favorites, people who love music love to discuss it. When people learn more about their colleagues’ musical tastes, they might see each other in a new light.
New homes, exciting vacations, graduations—in a non-virtual office, we’d all be aware of one another’s big wins. Why not make it easy to share what we’re excited about virtually, too?
Daily or weekly topics
Choose a new question or topic to post each day or week, depending on the size of your team and everyone’s level of interest. These can take several forms; here are several ideas to get you started.
- What’s the best Halloween costume you ever wore?
- What show did you binge watch over the weekend?
- Calls for helpful tips
- What strategies do you use when you need to focus?
- How do you move your body and get in some steps during the workday?
- Personal shares
- Share your senior picture, baby picture, or most awkward childhood photo.
- What’s your favorite vacation photo?
Remote work is here to stay, and it’s vital to create an engaged, connected workplace environment for telecommuting employees. Try some of these fun activities to help your team bond. When your team gets to know each other, they’ll be more engaged and excited about work, which will benefit your business, your employees, and your bottom line.