12 Virtual Team Building Activities
When we think about everything that has drastically changed over the last year; how we build, maintain and acclimate others into our culture has been a significant change for remote workers. How we collaborate and spend meaningful time with our peers has changed with remote work. Our work relationships and resulting culture influences so much, including recruitment to retention and productivity to innovation. The environment and culture in which we work also impacts our general satisfaction at work, and for many, impacts our mood, energy and satisfaction outside of work hours. Many have struggled to keep their team culture and rapport intact, and help new team members successfully integrate into their online team and company culture since work from home has been the norm during the pandemic.
A strong culture leads to an effective, positive, productive, and high-performing team. A focus on culture should be a responsibility of not just every leader, but every team member. And no matter our seat or place on an organizational chart, we can all be positive culture contributors and take actions to strengthen our peer-to-peer relationships, the overall state of our environment, and as a result, our products/deliverables/tasks.
The strength of our relationships with our peers is one of the top contributors to our satisfaction, and to a positive team culture. Trust, respect, open communication, and strong relationships are paramount to teamwork.
Therefore, continuously making a "social investment" at work is so important.
First, it's helpful to think about what contributes to the best team bonding and relationships:
- Sharing a new or fun activity
- Truly getting to know each other, such as by sharing vulnerabilities or establishing commonalities
- Learning / growing together
- Accomplishing and celebrating together
- Doing something good for society / giving back together
Second, it's good to evaluate how we currently help our teams bond in the workplace, and what else should we be doing? What are some quality team building ideas to explore or try out? What other team behaviors, routines or other actions would further connect and unite us? Here are some of the best icebreakers, team habits and other team-building exercises we've experienced, seen or heard about in the last year.
Icebreaker / Virtual Team Building Activities
Below is a list of ideas for icebreakers or employee engagement.
1 - Icebreaker Games
There is no shortage of fun, and often cheesy yet effective, icebreakers out there. Especially with new teams or welcoming new team members, icebreakers help individuals get to know each other. Throughout some of my team meetings, we had one to two individuals take their turn for '2 Truths and a Lie,' which is always a fun way to get started. During one of our Tech4Good Meetups, we tried a 'Commonality Quest' icebreaker. I put people in breakout rooms in Zoom, in groups of three, and they had 10 minutes to identify as many things in common as they could. When the groups came back, they each shared the total number of things they found in common, and then we had the winning group share some of the big ones. One of our teams does a weekly 'Hot Seat' game show after the office meeting, where one individual is in the 'Hot Seat' and has to rapid fire answer 10 pre-set questions, such as "What's your go-to karaoke song? Your first job? The worst job you can think of? Your favorite present of all time?" and then team members can ask questions as well in real-time.
2 - Icebreaker Questions
One of our favorite team icebreaker traditions is our weekly 'Get to Know Your Neighbor' question that we do every Friday. A different team member brings the question of the week and poses it to the group, and then folks answer one by one. Questions have ranged from "Something that terrified you as a child" to "Most under-rated restaurant chain" to "What you'd buy today if you won the lottery." The whole process takes less than 10 minutes each week, and it kicks the day off with a fun discussion that connects people and energizes them! One of the surprisingly fun icebreaker questions we did was "One thing in your line of sight that's kept you sane and/or entertained during quarantine." One of the STEM nonprofits we support, Year Up, does a different 'Log-In Question' in their weekly team online meeting, where a different team member submits a question and then everyone shares their answer to the question, such as "Who is an influencer you follow on social media that shares a lot of valuable tidbits?" after they log on.
3 - Leader and Team Member Autobiographies
We've known many different teams who have taken the concept of team autobiographies, where a team member puts together a one pager or a PowerPoint slide deck about themselves, and does a more thorough introduction. When COVID first hit, I had one person do an 8-10 minute 'Autobiography' in each weekly meeting via video conferencing. The presentations typically included slides for: overall background/career history, family/friends, favorite hobbies/interests, nerdy fun facts, and we ended with them sharing a silver lining from their 2020 ordeal/s.
4 - "Random" surprise presentations / impromptu Toastmasters
One of my favorite team buildings and ice breakers was an activity where team members put together a 5-8 minute PowerPoint presentation around a random topic/interest/hobby they were passionate about on a virtual meeting. No one else knew the topic until the second they shared their screen. The idea started as a joke, but was a surprise hit and huge success! For the 10 consecutive weeks we did it (one person went each week), it was a special surprise each meeting when the individual shared their screen and we saw the topic. Topics ranged from: favorite hockey team and their track record/trajectory, why my husband and I disagree that I'm a hoarder, my favorite dinosaurs, 5 unique Airbnb stays, health and wellness tips, the best BBQ, and the world's coolest libraries. Not only did we learn about each other in an interesting way, but we got to learn about different topics all together and each person got to practice new skills (i.e. putting together presentations and public speaking).
5 - Online Game Nights for Remote Teams
The biggest spike we saw in the area of virtual team buildings were game nights! Across all of our teams, there were at least 12 different types of game night ideas people planned. There was a lot of Trivia, Jeopardy, Family Feud, Bingo, and Poker. Some teams hosted challenges like 'Spelling Bees' and 'Are you smarter than a 5th grader?' A lot of teams did different themed scavenger hunts! Many teams had one employee who already had Jackbox Games, or in many instances, the Manager or a Team Lead purchased Jackbox and expensed it, so they could play fun games such as Murder Mystery Trivia. Several teams added philanthropic twists to their Scavenger Hunts, such as one team who included "You have four minutes to grab a piece of clothing from your closet to donate to a local shelter" and another team who organized a two hour game day with three fun games (a scavenger hunt, jeopardy and a draw your boss competition) where people made a $20 donation to a nonprofit to participate.
6 - Workouts
Work:life balance, a focus on health/wellness, and taking actual breaks are all goals of most employees and their employers. Yet people are finding it difficult to truly take breaks unless they intentionally plan or schedule. Organized workouts with friends or peers is a great way many have focused on achieving all three of these goals while working at home! One of my co-workers is on a team that was normally dispersed prior to COVID, although they would see each other in person at least 4-6 times a year. Missing that in-person connection (and missing the gym since they were shut down), they decided to start weekly Zoom workouts that were 15-20 minutes each! Some weeks they get in one workout and others they get in 3-4. But the point is they knew it was important to keep that connection and rapport building going, and they all wanted to stay fit!
7 - Cooking classes
In one team meeting, a discussion topic was around new recipes people were trying, which could also fall under an icebreaker question. Everyone decided it would be a good personal goal to try to cook something new over the next week. This later turned into a recipe showcase, and then virtual cooking classes, where two to three different team members took turns monthly sharing their favorite new recipes and brief instruction and tips for how to make!
8 - Coffee Break/Lunch/Virtual Happy Hour Hangouts and Chats
One of the biggest changes with many people now working from home is the missing socialization opportunities throughout the day, such as at the water cooler/coffee machine, in the break room, or an impromptu lunch date with a co-worker. Many organizations and teams implemented a standing weekly, bi-weekly or monthly 'Coffee Chat' with the goal of minimal work conversation, and instead focusing on getting to know each other, catching up, talking about sports, TV shows, etc. via a video conference.
9 - Mentorship Programs
Whether informal or more formal, many team mentorship programs got a makeover over the last year, to ensure new/er team members are getting the opportunity to know their peers, learn best practices, talk through challenges, etc. New team members across my state were each paired with a mentor, where they have daily check-in calls to talk through their to-dos for the day, any challenges and just general Q&A. Another co-worker who had new team members onboarding during COVID put together a formal mentor program where each person on the team spent individual time with the new team members and covered different topics over a 16 week period. The first 4 weeks are the most intense, and it was a time commitment on everyone's part, but it ensured that they spent time with everyone over that 16 week period and got to know their new co-workers one on one!
10 - Virtual Book Clubs
In one of my favorite virtual development experiences yet, we started a bi-weekly book club with a professional development book we all voted on. After discussing the idea and gauging interest, the individuals who wanted to participate did research and sent in book suggestions. In our next meeting, we used the Zoom polling feature to then vote on the 8 nominations. The winner was Shawn Achor's 'The Happiness Advantage.' Each person then ordered the book, expensing it. We've now been doing 30 minute reflection discussions every two weeks, where a different team member has been owning the facilitation of the discussion around one chapter, coming up with the discussion questions, any partner activities they might want to do using Zoom breakout rooms, and driving the discussion. It's been a really rewarding team building and professional development activity, and it's only consuming 30 minutes every other week, which has been a nice break and way to fuel the brain with something different and inspiring!
11 - Collaborative Trainings/Lunch n Learns
Truly interactive and collaborative training sessions that are insightful and good idea sharing forums will forever be one of my favorite team buildings. If done right, they are motivating, provide extremely quality social interaction and bonding experiences, and grow problem solving skills and knowledge to make us better professionals and better people. As part of my job, I have helped several teams and associations/user groups frame out a monthly lunch n' learn series. After getting input from people on their preferred topics, we come up with a calendar 3-6 months at a time, typically one Lunch n Learn a month. We find an article or training recording relevant to that topic, and participants read or watch ahead of time. After doing an icebreaker, the 1-2 facilitators of that session facilitate a guided discussion around 3-5 open-ended questions they came up with. To make it as engaging as possible, and provide people that small group interaction many are craving, we typically do 1-2 small breakout room sessions via Zoom during the one hour training. Many participants have shared that it was their "favorite work highlight of the week!"
12 - Volunteering
What's something most people could use a little more of right now? A sense of purpose, fulfillment, and/or helping others. Luckily, there is a plethora of virtual volunteer opportunities that you can do as an individual, or organize with some of your peers. You could get involved in technology for good efforts like charity/civic hackathons, Code for America Brigade meetups, or TechSoup NetSquared Tech4Good meetups. You could research data for good nonprofits/events, such as the Data Science Bowl, or contribute to projects on GitHub. You could look into associations or communities like Operation Code or VPMMA (Veteran Project Management Mentoring Association). You could contribute to a local STEM program or coding/data school, who are always looking for volunteers to do guest speaking sessions, technical training, resumes reviews, mock interviews, panelists for general career/job search guidance, etc. Or you could set up a virtual fundraiser to support a nonprofit that resonates with you and your team!
An evaluation of team culture and reflection around how else we can be making a professional "social investment" is beneficial for any team member, not just leads and managers. Give some periodic thought, and strategize around, some of the key areas that contribute to a strong culture. Take some time and reflect on the following questions:
- Do I view fostering team unity and maintaining strong peer-to-peer relationships as part of my job?
- How am I building and maintaining strong relationships with my peers and others I work with?
- How am I welcoming new remote employees, and contributing to their orientation? Am I making an effort to help them acclimate?
- Are we prioritizing "social investment" and giving opportunities for everyone to truly bond and connect?
- Which of the above 12 ideas have we tried, or could we try? Are there additional spins or ways we can be adjusting any of those to make more effective?
Last Updated: 2021-04-16
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