The Virtual Trust Fall: Team Building for Remote Teams

Dale Cudmore
Last Updated on October 20, 2020
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Working remotely from home seems amazing until you realize that you’re talking to your cats a little too much.

Team building is important in typical offices where everyone works in-person.

Not all employees get along, or feel like an important member of a team.

For remote workers, it’s even easier to feel isolated and not part of a team. You don’t see your coworkers everyday, and there’s no water cooler for daily chitchat.

It’s a complex task you’ve undertaken, but hopefully, this guide will help.

I’ve broken down:

  • The research that supports team building activities.
  • The different challenges that remote teams face.
  • Best practices for managing remote teams effectively.
  • The best activities and tools to encourage team building.

Reasons (and Research On) Why Team Building Is Important

meta-study from 2009 looked at all publications related to team building from 1950 to 2007.

Overall, research shows that team building has a significant effect on 4 major types outcomes:

  • Cognitive – How much employees learn.
  • Affective – How well members understand the feelings of other team members.
  • Process – Team building improves how the parts of a work process fit together.
  • Performance – Individual and overall performance go up.

So maybe those “silly” little meetings and icebreakers aren’t so silly.

Remote Team Building Is Not Like In-Person Team Building

Remote working brings many benefits to both workers and companies.

Here’s a Harvard Business Review report that summarizes a 10-month study of a Shanghai-based billion-dollar travel company.

They had a mix of remote and in-office workers and found:

  • Remote workers completed more calls, meaning the company got almost an extra workday a week out of them.
  • Remote workers quit at half the rate of the office-bound workers.
  • The average remote worker saved the business around $2,000.

Workers happier, more productive, and businesses making more money.

Perfect, right?

Except the study found some drawbacks as well. Workers who were remote 100% of the time were more likely to be passed over for promotion.

Not a lot of research has been specifically done on 100% remote workers, but they face their own set of challenges.

Another study of 1,100 employees found that remote workers feel like they aren’t treated the same as office employees and that they’re often left out.


Video: Lay a strong foundation for team-building by ensuring members know how to collaborate effectively. 

Still . . . Remote Working Is Only Increasing

There’s enough of a benefit to remote working that it’s only getting more popular as time goes on.

In terms of global employeesover two-thirds of workers spend at least one day a week working remotely in a telecommuting role.

It’s going to become even more important to know how to build and manage remote teams.

Virtual vs. Remote: What’s the Difference?

“Virtual” and “remote” are 2 terms you may see used interchangeably when researching team building.

Virtual and remote workers both work away from the office and face the same team building challenges.

The only real difference is that “remote teams” typically revolve around a central manager, whereas “virtual teams” are smaller teams that report to multiple managers.

Best Practices for Building Remote Teams

When trying to build a strong remote team, there are 3 main problems that you need to help employees or freelancers overcome:

  1. Social isolation: not feeling “connected”
  2. Insecurity about job performance
  3. Feeling less valued than in-office staff (if applicable).

We’ll start by looking at the best practices for managing remote teams, and then we’ll look at specific activities and exercises that you can use to foster a stronger team.

Important note: Try not to force activities on your team if they don’t want to participate.

Simply provide options for those workers who are struggling with one of those 3 main challenges.

Some people like remote work specifically because there’s less interaction because they’re the type of person who enjoys the isolation. Introverts may fall into this category.

Best Practices for Overcoming Social Isolation

If a worker feels socially isolated because they’re not speaking with people on a regular basis, they’ll be less happy in general, but also feel less connected to the team.

You can end up with situations where workers don’t feel comfortable with each other and avoid communication even when it may be beneficial for the team.

To help provide social stimulation for remote workers, here are 4 best practices:

  1. Hold frequent meetings online and have everyone use the same chat tool.
  2. Create specific chat channels that are less work-focused. These off-topic conversations replace typical water cooler chat.
  3. Use video conferencing whenever possible. The pyramid of communication defines how intimate a communication method is, and video conferencing is near the top.
  4. Share published content about your industry on a regular basis (could be through chat or email) and discuss it openly.

Each of these steps will encourage your team members to communicate.


Video: Humor can help remote workers feel more connected. With a chat app like Slack, you can share funny videos like this one which mocks the pitfalls of remote meetings.

Key to success: You, as the manager, need to get the ball rolling in most cases. If you just create an empty “off-topic” chat channel, it will likely remain empty unless you have some very outgoing team members.

Be an active participant, especially the beginning to get your team used to these activities.

Best Practices for Helping Remote Employees Feel More Secure

When you’re a remote worker, you often hand off some work you’ve done and rarely get much feedback about it.

In an office, you’d give that work to your supervisor in-person, and get instant feedback. Or, you’d run into them later and that would prompt them to bring up your work and give feedback.

Soon come thoughts like:

“Maybe they’re just happy with all my work? Or maybe they’re not happy and getting ready to replace me?”

Needless to say, that mentality hurts productivity and happiness for workers.

To overcome this problem, follow these best practices for giving impactful feedback to remote workers:

  1. Schedule regular 1-on-1 time – This might be once a week or once a month depending on the volume of work each employee does. It’s preferable to use video conferencing so employees can get non-verbal feedback as well.
  2. Make it extra clear when you’re happy with someone’s work – Don’t just say “Thanks, good job” in an email. Where appropriate say, “This is great, I couldn’t be any happier with it.”
  3. Highlight work done by each member to the whole team – During any meeting or monthly recaps, highlight some of the best work that really stood out.
  4. Talk about the future – Remote workers often struggle to get a feel for what upcoming projects they might work on. Specifically, talk about future projects and the role(s) each member will play.
  5. Make the work feel more tangible – People want to feel like their work is making a difference. Make a brief monthly report that connects their work to positive business results. Some companies choose to donate to important causes from profits and can choose to highlight this as well.

How to Make Remote Workers Feel As Valued As Office Workers

This is the trickiest challenge to overcome.

It’s less of an issue if most of the team is remote.

This problem is mainly caused by remote workers feeling like their input and voices are not being heard, and their work is not recognized as often as office workers.

Here are some best practices to make remote workers feel valued:

  1. Before any promotion or task assignment, always remind yourself to consider your remote team.
  2. Get input from your remote team and make sure they feel heard. This goes back to holding meetings and video conferences.
  3. If you have a company newsletter, include pictures from both the office and remote offices (if possible).

12 Team Building Activities for Remote Teams

Team building research often focuses on activities and exercises that revolve around 4 main pillars:

  1. Trust building
  2. Communication
  3. Problem-solving
  4. Collaboration

While these are all distinct areas, most team building activities address one or more of them at the same time.

I’ve put together a collection of the 12 best activities that are specifically designed for remote teams.

The best ones for your team will depend on the time you have available and the budget (if any).

Some activities are short enough to do quickly at the start or end of a video conference. Others take a serious time investment.

Many are free, but some will require your company picking up a small tab.

While it would be ideal to meet in-person once a year as a team, I don’t consider that a realistic option for most businesses.

1. QuizBreaker – Learn About Each Other Through Fun Weekly Quizzes

QuizBreaker is a neat game and team building activity that focuses on improving communication and trust between 2 members.

It starts by everyone answer a bunch of questions about things they like and basic (not too) personal details.

Then, every Friday, everyone receives a different question through email that lets them guess what another team member answered:

It’s a fun, low-effort way to get to know each other better.

The best part is that it takes a bit of effort up front but then runs automatically.

2. Map Out All Your Locations Together

This is a fun activity to help everyone learn how diverse the team is, and even spark conversation about certain locations.

It’s particularly good if you have a large remote team.

You can create a map in Google Maps, and then allow the rest of your team to edit it.

Everyone can put a marker on the city they live in.

Alternatively, you can turn this into a bit of a fun scavenger hunt by having a team member name their city and country, and then having the rest of the team trying to find it first (no cheating!).

3. Compile a Bucket List for the Team

The fastest way to bond with someone is if you find out they share important desires and beliefs.

A bucket list is a list of the most important things you want to do in your lifetime.

By creating a bucket list as a team, members will start to see that other team members share certain hobbies or life goals.

4. Show and Tell Isn’t Just for Kids

At the start of each video conference, have someone share a prized possession that’s important to them.

It’s a small and easy way to help team members get to know each other on an ongoing basis.

5. Give Virtual Tours of Offices

Similar to show and tell, you can ask team members to give a virtual tour of their office.

Obviously, this could bring up some privacy issues, so make sure it’s clearly an optional activity. An alternative: Ask them to share a photo of where they’re working. This could be shared in a dedicated channel in Slack, like #whereiamworking.

It also provides an element of fun and surprise since remote workers sometimes work in different locations.

6. Share Your Favorite Pictures

The final activity that focuses on team bonding and communication is also a quick, free one.

Choose one person per meeting and have them share a few of their favorite pictures, and explain why they’re meaningful to them.

These can be of them, from their lives, or even an online picture of something they really like.

7. Two Truths and One Lie

This is a traditional icebreaker that still works well on group video conferences.

You go around the group, and everyone comes up with 3 statements about themselves. They should all be somewhat believable, which is what makes this fun.

Two statements are true, while one is a lie.

The game is really engaging when done right, which makes these personal facts even more memorable.

8. Play Video Charades or Pictionary

Charades and Pictionary are both classic games that help develop teamwork.

They can also both be played remotely through video. There are many sites like this one that gives you a free topic generator and scoreboard.

charades tool online

9. A Day in the Life Of . . .

Maybe not a day, but have people with roles that blend into each other show each other how they worked on a task.

For example, have a writer and editor team up. The editor can go over how they approached a piece that the writer submitted, and why they made certain changes.

Not only will this improve job performance, but it will help team members understand each others’ roles better, and have more consideration for each other.

10. Have an Online Movie Night

Rent or buy a movie, then share your screen with your team (tools to do this are discussed shortly).

This is primarily for bonding and socialization. Not all team members will be interested, but it’s worth a try if there’s interest.

11. Learn to Cook With Each Other (Play Overcooked)

If you have more time and a bit of a budget to play with, certain video games like Overcooked are great team building activities.

It’s still reasonably cheap, but fairly time-consuming.

The game involves 1-4 players running a kitchen. They have to work with each other to fulfill food orders together.

It’s a really fun way to bond with each other and work on collaboration skills.

12. Disarm Bombs Together

Finally, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is another great co-op game.

Players work together to figure out the answers to puzzles and disarm a virtual “bomb” in a certain time limit.

It can get pretty intense, so make sure you try to keep things light.

The 11 Best Tools For Working With Remote Teams

So how do you manage your team and do all these activities?

There are lots of tools out there, but only some are specifically built for remote teams.

I’ve put together a list of the most popular and useful ones here. They mostly feature collaboration features and can accommodate workers in different time zones as well.

1. Slack

Slack has gained in popularity in the last few years.

It’s a sleek, intuitive, and powerful chat application, that’s perfect for remote teams.

You can create “channels” for chatting about specific topics or projects.

Slack

2. Trello

Trello is a simple project management tool.

It allows for collaboration, which means that all your team members can see the status of each task, and be assigned to ones that are relevant to them.

3. Google Drive or Dropbox

There are many cloud-based storage options to choose from. Google Drive and Dropbox are the most popular, but they all work similarly.

It’s important to have a central place that team members can access process documentation, and save work that others can access.

4. Google Hangouts or Zoom

Both of these tools allow you to do video calls, conferences, and screen sharing.

You need some sort of tool like this if you want to hold effective remote meetings.

5. World Time Buddy

Most remote teams will have workers from different regions.

This is a simple tool to help you convert time zones to coordinate collaboration and meetings.

6. TechSmith Snagit

TechSmith Snagit is a versatile screen capture tool.

You can use it to quickly record your screen, take a picture of your screen (or a custom portion), and edit or annotate the image.

This is useful particularly for giving feedback and clear directions, particularly for software or design teams.

7. When I Work

When I Work is a scheduling team which lets each team member add their typical working hours to the schedule.

It will help you plan meetings when everyone is available, and assign work to members who have the most upcoming time available.

8. Canva

Canva is a simple image creator.

It’s very easy to use, and great if PhotoShop is overkill for what you need.

You can work on images together, so it’s even better for teams.

9. WooBoard

wooboard example

WooBoard is a way to let team members earn points, rewards, and reach accomplishments.

It’s a great way to gamify work. You can even use it to start some friendly rivalries between teammates.

10. Awesome Boss

Awesome Boss is built to make sure managers don’t forget anything important.

It will remind you of things like birthdays and work anniversaries, and you can also reward workers through it.

11. MindMeister

MindMeister is one of the best cloud-based mind mapping solutions.

It’s great for brainstorming, and multiple users can edit a mind map.

Summary

The research behind team building shows that it overwhelmingly leads to performance and happiness improvements.

It’s even more important to actively encourage team building as a manager of a remote team.

If you found this helpful, feel free to share it with anyone within your organization that’s involved in building a remote team.

And explore our other tips helpful for remote work:

Master Interpersonal Communication

Work-Life Balance: What Does It Really Mean in 2019?


Contributing Editors: Bronwynne Powell and Sherrie Gossett

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