Team Building Activities for Remote Teams

Danjue Li

Engineering Director at Google



Among many things, Covid-19 took away the informal interpersonal communication that was taking place across offices and hallways, over coffee and lunch. We suddenly moved from the immediate physical interaction that is deeply embedded in our nature to communicating through video chat platforms. Yet Zoom conversations are not only intentional but, most of the time, strictly business. Only now people are becoming cognizant of all the benefits that kitchen conversations over a cup of coffee or team lunches have on a team’s cohesion and happiness.

Actions taken

To keep people on my team productive and happy, we organized several virtual team building activities. We wanted to replicate the rapport and camaraderie our Friday happy hours, birthday celebrations, and team lunches were creating -- nothing of which is possible now. Simply, the remote setting took the human touch out of the equation, and we should adapt to the new reality.

We decided to use Zoom as much as possible to encourage non-work-related discussions. We used it to convene our happy hours online. What is crucially important is to come up beforehand with a theme or a game for happy hours; otherwise, the unstructured event would soon end up into a work-related chat. It also helps to assign a facilitator who would moderate the event and keep it non-working.

For Halloween, we had a themed virtual happy hour and have encouraged people to contribute with ideas. They were asked to go and find a costume in five minutes, and I was surprised by the amount of creativity they expressed. We also brainstormed about the games we could play and organized a competition over who has the scariest Halloween Zoom virtual background.

We also established Wednesday as a non-meeting day unless something urgent pops up. Nevertheless, we have to use Zoom for any non-meeting interaction, but people can say no to meetings.

Finally, it is important to mention that the mere work binds people on the team and helps them feel happy and fulfilled. Engineers are creative people who are challenged by challenging problems and are finding joy in solving near-unsolvable problems. We leverage that to pair engineers together and use pair programming to build connections and enhance collaboration.

Lessons learned

  • It is surprising how quickly people are adapting to any given situation. Many have already put their creativity into creating new tools and games to help with online team building. If you browse the web, you will be able to find a great many online games. Besides games, you can also take cooking or painting classes together as a team or engage in other activities that are inspiring cooperation.
  • Our responsibility as leaders is to dedicate time for team building and make it a priority. If we are not intentional about it and don’t allocate enough time it would be pushed out on the margins of our busy calendars. We have to create a safe environment for people to connect.
  • Both team’s performance and happiness are founded on one simple ingredient -- trust. Trust is built through work as much as through less formal human interaction that is often hard to replicate virtually. Trust enables tough conversations and healthy conflicts to happen without anyone being hurt.

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Danjue Li

Engineering Director at Google

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingFeedback TechniquesDiversity and Inclusion InitiativesTeam & Project Management

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