Cassa Hanon serves as a Course Facilitator for Stanford GSB Executive Education, and explores new ways of learning as Adjunct Faculty at Washington State University.
In my technology career, I’ve relied on a variety of activities to build teams, create cohesion, and enhance communication. This became more challenging as I took on roles leading geographically dispersed organizations and working in online learning. I’ve adapted team building activities to work with remote participants and I’m getting many requests from leaders who want to keep teams engaged and connected when everyone is working from home.
Educators have long known that opening and closing activities enhance learning. Asking a class to solve a puzzle or maze as a warm up activity uses the brain pathways for problem-solving, making learners more receptive to a problem-solving lesson. Meeting facilitators know that closing a gathering on a high note facilitates memory encoding of the high points of the experience.
These teambuilders can be adjusted for a variety of situations, for a 10-minute warmup at the beginning of a meeting or for a longer time dedicated to team building.
These rely on conferencing tools like Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts, or Teams. Some work best with everyone on video, some can work when only audio is available. Not all work with global audiences, but they can still inspire activities that you can make work.
Team building is often discounted or deprioritized, but teams managing through a crisis will be more successful with increased cohesion and a stronger connection to leaders. Some teams are onboarding new hires with everyone remote and this can help increase their sense of belonging. Stronger teams will encourage and bolster each other, maintaining morale and their own well-being.
I learned this one from high school student leaders who use this at school assemblies. With traditional Charades, one person “acts out” an idea while several people guess what it is. In Reverse Charades, one person guesses while everyone else “acts out” the idea.
You can use this as a 10-minute activity to open or close a meeting or take more time and give everyone a turn. This works best with everyone on video, but if you need to modify it for a large group and less reliable connectivity, have at least 10 – 12 participants on video for each round. Use the Chat features or your usual messaging tool (Slack, Teams, Yammer, etc.).
For each round, one person is the Guesser. That person should close Chat/Messaging, everyone else should have it open. One person is giving the Actions. That person types one Action at a time in the Chat window until the Guesser has guessed it. Everyone else is acting it out in front of their camera. You can enforce the “no talking” rule of Charades by muting participants, but it’s more engaging to hear laughter and comments.
After a Guesser has done 4 or 5 actions, choose a new Guesser and begin the next Round. Continue for the time you’ve allowed for the activity. You can also invite participants to be the person who gives the Actions so the facilitator can participate in acting things out.
Be inclusive! If all your meeting participants move with ease, invite them to stand to act things out. If any team members have restricted movement, let everyone participate from where they are sitting.
I’ve used this to empower a small number of remote participants with teams in two different conference rooms in different cities. Adapted for remote meetings, this teambuilder can be facilitated in many ways, with pairs of participants, separate teams, or one-to-many. Allow at least 30 minutes.
The idea is that one person reads a set of instructions and everyone else tries to follow them, usually resulting in an amusing variety of unsuccessful attempts. I’ve used this to empower a small number of remote participants when the majority are together in a conference room. I’ve done this with toy assembly, but you will want to choose an activity that makes use of materials that are readily available at home. Activities that work well include “How to Draw” or simple Origami.
The point is to do something fun together. Using childhood activities makes this lower risk for participants.
Participants should all reveal their results at the end. If you only have audio, they can send a photo. You can have people vote for the best or most creative or least like the intended result, or just enjoy seeing each person’s contribution.
Debrief the activity with discussion prompts about the importance of clear communication, asking clarifying questions, and creating detailed documentation.
Depending on how this is facilitated, you may debrief the distinctions between verbal communications only or verbal and visual instructions.
When I worked for Weyerhaeuser Company, I was leading a project with six implementation teams in six different cities for 12 weeks at a time. As a teambuilder, we asked each team to create a care package to send to another team to be opened all on the same day. A random drawing was used to assign teams, including the home office. The care packages included local delicacies and memorabilia from each city.
Adapting this for remote teams, ask individuals or teams to create a virtual care package to share food, traditions, and specialties meaningful to their location. The care package can be shared as a photo or a graphic representation of the various items.
Update your meeting invite to ask each participant to bring a deck of playing cards to the meeting. Give everyone 10 minutes to build a card house. The participant with the most cards standing in their house when time is up is declared the winner. Participants can all be on video, use video one at a time to reveal their masterpiece, or be on their honor on audio.
Other activities could include having each player deal themselves a poker or Black Jack hand and see who wins after one draw. Or, have a shuffling contest. Which of your team members can do a card shuffle worthy of Vegas?
A trivia contest is fun and easy to facilitate. Participants can play individually or as teams. Varying the number of questions allows you to manage the time needed from five minutes to more. Everyone is on their honor not to use Search to get answers.
Participants shout out or type answers in the chat window for an easy way to tell who’s first. When playing as teams, you can alternate asking each team a question or use breakout room features to have teams work on the same question at the same time.
When I worked for The Walt Disney Company, I made each week’s trivia contest about a new product launch, ESPN sporting event, movie release, or company anniversary. You can involve team members by asking them to take turns picking a topic and devising the questions for the next meeting. Team members may choose their own hobbies or interests to share, creating another way for people to make connections.
One of the most memorable team gelling moments I ever had was completely unplanned. I was working with a group of students and one of them had a bag of Laffy Taffy candy to share at lunch time. Everybody took turns reading the silly jokes that are on the candy wrappers until we were all in giggles.
To adapt this for a remote group, do a simple search for Laffy Taffy jokes. Send them out to participants in advance of the meeting and have them take turns reading aloud. It works best if participants read a few in a row. Or, simply have them all search during the meeting and take turns reading them like popcorn popping. Be sure everyone takes at least one turn.
It’s okay to be 8 again. That’s the point.
Talk Show producers have teams that research guests to discover obscure details about the person that will be new information for the audience. The host may say they learned that “one of your hobbies is…” or “you spend volunteer time doing…” or “you once…”. For this team building, challenge your team members to interview each other and discover something new that they don’t know about each other.
This is a great team builder for teams still forming because it allows members to form a bond with one other person at a time. It is lower risk to interact with one team member and the connection can become an ally.
To facilitate this for a remote team, pair up participants. You can do this in advance of the meeting or as they join. Use a random process to assign pairs or be strategic and assign partners who don’t know each other well. Using Chat or Messaging, give the pairs 5 minutes for each to interview the other. Let them know when it’s time to switch.
There is no need to rush this process; team members are creating connections. When interview time is complete, pairs will take turns introducing each other to the group. Introductions will sound something like:
This activity can be extended into another activity now or later. Ask team members to draw something that represents the person they interviewed. You might make it something specific, like designing their Superhero emblem or a Logo that represents the person’s brand. Team members share their creations with the group as they present to the team member they interviewed.
An old-fashioned Scavenger Hunt is ripe for reimagining for an online meeting. As a “Get Acquainted” activity, you can create a Scavenger Hunt worksheet that’s all about finding personal characteristics. Use prompts like, “Find a Team Member who:”
Share the list electronically with each participant. Participants use Chat to query team members one at a time and try to get their sheet completed first. Another version can be structured more like a traditional scavenger hunt. Give participants 5 minutes to round up a list of common items they would be likely to have at home.
At the end of 5 minutes, everyone must return and show their items. The participant with the most correct items wins. Suggested items: paper clip, tape measure, toothbrush, whisk, paperback book, salt shaker, button, remote control, ball, shoelace. Again, keep inclusion in mind. If you have participants who don’t have freedom of movement, choose a different activity.
Give participants a minute or two to think of a hidden talent they have that others might not know about. This may be something they can demonstrate on the spot or something they will simply describe. You may be surprised at the results. Someone may be uniquely double-jointed, able to hit a high note, skilled at yodeling, or clever at making funny faces.
There will be days when light-hearted teambuilders aren’t a fit. High-functioning teams may already have some mindfulness best practices. For others, mindfulness exercises may be just what is needed in times of stress and uncertainty.
Many wonderful mindfulness exercises can be found with a simple search. With some creative thinking, these can be adapted for online meetings. Some ideas include:
Participate! If you are the leader or manager, actively engaging in team building activities makes you more accessible and relatable. For anyone who facilitates, find ways to take turns and empower the team to take the facilitator role.
If you are a team member, this can be an opportunity for you to demonstrate leadership skills. Offer to lead a team building activity or organize the team to facilitate these. You will show your manager that you can be a leader who makes a difference.
Keep inclusion in mind. Consider accessibility when you choose an activity. Share your ideas! These are just a few of the many ways we can incorporate team building into remote work. I would love to hear yours!
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