Engaging remote employees with virtual team building activities

Let me ask you a question. Of all the things that have transitioned from in-person to remote, what is the most critical?

If I told you it was fostering social interactions between team members and engaging remote employees, would you believe me?

To be honest, a few years ago, this wouldn’t have been at the top of my list either. But as remote working grew, I noticed that leaders often spoke about the same obstacles across industries. Technological challenges aside, the thing that came up most was, “How do I manage remote employees and build social connections?”

Is that surprising? It shouldn’t be.

When we are in the same geographical office space, conversations flow. A hello while walking past someone’s desk, catching up about weekend plans during coffee breaks, taking a break with a colleague who is having a bad day, a typical workweek is full of these moments.

But your team can’t meet in person anymore. So, what does that mean?

Now you need to take these moments that sparked joy and recreate them virtually.

Did We Drop the Ball on This? 🤔

No, not really.

In the past few months, I’ve noticed how the growth trajectory of virtual happy hours skyrocketed as COVID-19 hit us. But then it plateaued (Psst! it still measures higher than before).

Why is this curve flattening? Simply, a sense of fatigue seems to have set in. It’s replaced the initial excitement of virtual after-work parties or weekly team lunches.

 And what that means is it’s time to pivot. Find social solutions that enhance rapport, especially in the current landscape of social isolation and distancing.

Honestly, I can’t answer the question, “How to get employees engaged when working remotely?” with a one-method-suits-all solution. Happy hours and weekly lunches bring the team together, but what they don’t necessarily do is imbue remote setups with the same sense of collaboration and culture as at the office.

“Being a People manager means providing a consistent and positive employee experience for everyone on your team, regardless of location. This manager resource guide highlights the three key pillars of management: Strategy, Growth and Care. So what changes when your team is fully distributed? The good news—not much! These pillars still apply whether you manage a distributed or co-located team.” 

Jennifer Christie, VP, People, Twitter on the Twitter Blog

A big chunk of any business depends on human inputs, interactions, and collaborations. People, company culture, and employee experience are more important than ever. As managers, it’s important to remember that what we do now to motivate and engage employees will be an assessment of how much we value our team in the future. 

Your Team is Craving Social Interactions – and So Are You 🙇‍♀️

We are social creatures. From the beginning of time, human beings have gravitated towards each other, forming families, creating groups. We crave and depend on these interactions and communications. 

How many times have you met a prospective client at a restaurant or a café? Some of the best business connections I have today I made at dinner parties or over drinks. These social connections reflect our need to create meaningful relationships outside the four walls of a stuffy office. 

Social interaction can be a critical contributor to good health and longevity. The emotional support provided enhancing psychological well-being, too. Working remotely means people lose out on real-time communication and the convenience of a traditional, face-to-face working environment.

I know I miss that.

To do our jobs as leaders effectively, we need to encourage a virtual environment where relationships are built and flourish. Fostering and supporting empathetic workplaces is vital. For example, if you want to manage remote employees and connect with your team better, take a walk in their shoes. What are their motivations and ambitions? Are there any obstacles they’re facing? Can collaborative events like coffee catch-ups or team get-togethers be better organized? How can I create trust? 

Empathetic workplaces drive employees to push themselves and see higher levels of employee satisfaction and productivity.

The Time to Focus on Remote Employee Engagement is Now ⏰

As a big fan of Buffer, I always follow their blog. Their study on the State of Work in 2020 reported that 40% of remote workers surveyed cited lack of collaboration, communication, and loneliness as their biggest struggles.

These issues are more critical in our current, uniquely stressful situation. Personal and work lives have commingled, creating conditions that increase anxiety, frustration, and burnout. A few weeks ago, I experienced this first hand. The sudden change in work style meant that I found myself exhausted and experiencing burnout. I immediately informed my team that I was switching off for the next 24 hours. It was essential to take that break because unattended, I know it would affect my productivity and organizational performance. 

None of us are saying remote employee engagement does not require work. It is quite the opposite. 

Companies have had to make sudden transitions to remote working environments, making scenario planning and operational responses for business continuity an immediate focus. 

Leaders I have spoken to are increasingly investing in company culture, employee engagement, and bringing social elements to the table. They know that work culture is the differentiating factor that transforms the same 800 square feet of personal space into office space.

We’ve always invested in strong interpersonal work relationships because they’re the key to effective collaboration. Now we just have to figure out how to do that online instead of IRL.

Zsa Perry, Team Experience Designer of OfferZen

Team building with remote employees, whether that is a company-wide virtual happy hour, weekly lunches, or team celebrations, is crucial to alleviate employee isolation and increase engagement. Team members who respect one another, share a vision, and feel appreciated are more able to enjoy work and perform qualitatively.

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Are Virtual Team Building Activities Easier Said Than Done? 🕵️‍♂️

That would be a resounding, yes! 

One thing I hear most from People Ops managers is how difficult it is to run productive social activities for their teams. Most companies don’t have a dedicated person running social events. 

While talking to Jewel Paymentech HR Director, Evanna Chuah, she told me about a session with virtual team building activities full of awkward silence, a lot of hmms and haws, staggered questions, unengaged participants, and overall terrible experience. The story is familiar because we’ve all been there.

Team members may appreciate the effort put into a virtual social session, but what no one says is that it feels forced, unstructured, and boring. It may feel like yet another meeting that wastes time.

An excellent social interaction experience in a remote setup is dependent on a great facilitator. Companies are looking at not only using the right technological tools but also ensuring that people understand the context of working remotely so that these tools are useful.

For Evanna Chuah and Jewel Paymentech, this is where Toasty came in. It was a structured way, with clear prompts and activities for participants. Its intuitive and flexible functionality enabled engagement, and the session became a more open and fluid experience where everyone left feeling much more connected.

So, What is the Best Way to Facilitate Interactive Team Meetings Virtually, Then? 🤷‍♀️

A Gartner study I read on cultivating effective remote programs discussed using technology to enable more fruitful interaction and establish and nurture trusted relationships with colleagues. 

Of course, that makes sense. But the big question is, how exactly? 

It’s essential to treat virtual team building activities and engagement events with the same seriousness as a daily standup or a retrospective. While designing your event and creating a structure, answer these questions:

  • What is the objective of this team-building event? 
  • Is this a part of a larger company Town Hall? 
  • How do you want your employees to feel? 
  • Do you want this to feel more personal? 
  • Do you want to encourage conversations between teams? 
  • Are you trying to build rapport? 
  • Are you trying to build trust? 

Having a clearly defined objective helps create remote team building activities that build social connections and rapport and foster a sense of care. The latter is an indicator that predicts employee and workgroup performance.  

Virtual team building is not about making everyone ‘feel good.’ It’s about recreating the same emotional bond and interpersonal connections your team has in a traditional office. And there’s a lot you can do. Here are some tips and recommendations.


Break the Ice 🤜🤛

Here’s the thing. Icebreakers get a bad rep, thanks to mundane prompts. Imagine being asked, “How was your weekend?” or “Tell us something about yourself,” every time you have a meeting. It’s boring. It’s tired, and honestly, your team feels the same way. Make this fun. Some questions we use at Toasty can show people in a new light.

Running Lunch Party on Toasty
  • What’s the last movie you watched at the cinema?
  • What 3 items would you take to a desert island?
  • If you are only allowed to take one book to an island, which one would it be?
  • If you were an animal, which animal would you be and why?
  • What’s the weirdest thing you have eaten?
  • What do you spend too much money on?
  • If you could make a website disappear, which one would you be?
  • What’s a skill you want to pick up?
  •  What’s a hobby you have that’s unique?

These fun icebreakers, a mainstay of virtual team building activities, can jumpstart the meeting and break that metaphorical ice in the room.


Celebrate with Each Other 👏

Let’s face it. All-hands meetings or Town Halls can be a serious affair, especially now. The right vibe then becomes essential. When I was a kid, school assemblies were more or less annoying. But the one thing we all enjoyed was celebrating achievements and festivals.

Take a cue from that. Use the first ten minutes of your company meeting to celebrate your team. Birthdays, babies, engagements, marriages. If you can clap for it, it’s game.

Starting on a positive note builds the energy of the meeting. Encourage everyone to unmute themselves. Let people shout out their congratulatory messages and wishes. It’s a great way to build team morale.

A little chaos can be good.


Go on Coffee Runs and Game Nights 🥤☕🍕

So yeah, you aren’t actually going for a coffee run. But nothing stops you from getting your team’s coffee orders delivered to their doorstep. A small gesture can go a long way. Ella Kern, Office Manager of a German FinTech company Finanzen told me how she ordered lunch to be delivered to every employee’s home so that they could have a fun Lunch Party session on Toasty. I was amazed when I heard that!

Have a long-ish coffee break and get together on a video call with absolutely no plan. Creating feel-good moments, peppered with laughter and conversations, is key to running effective remote meetings. You could also take a cue from these.

  • Do you have a book club at the office? Or a movie club? Or even a bunch of avid gamers? Turn these in-person clubs into virtual meetups. Organize these over video calls and let the fun continue uninterrupted.
  •  Organize coffee breaks between randomly assigned team members. Use this as an opportunity for employees to get to know each other better.

Divide and Roll 🙋‍️🙆‍️🙋‍

Long sessions with one person delivering a monologue, yikes, we’ve all been there. It’s overwhelming and not particularly conducive to get people talking.

Breakout rooms on video conferencing platforms, then, become a game-changer. Divide employees into smaller groups and give them conversation prompts to get the discussion flowing. Such virtual team building activities can really establish rapport between employees.

The conversation starters can range from the outright bizarre to something thoughtful.

  • If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
  • Which rockstar’s life would be better suited to you?
  • Tell us about a time when you saved the day.
  • Are you a night owl, or do you wake up at the break of dawn? 
  • If you could snap your fingers and go anywhere, where would you go?
  • How can we do our bit in the COVID-19 landscape?

Ideal for extroverts and introverts, both these breakout rooms can be all-around engaging. It’s also a perfect space to get insight into topics that the sessions cover, and curate responses. That’s nothing short of a win-win.


Questions are Important 💯

We often don’t make the most of Q&A sessions. Team members may not want to ask questions with all eyes focused on them.

Allow them the freedom to submit their questions beforehand. Or use a platform like Toasty that allows participants to submit anonymous questions through an interface. Collect these questions and then answer them at a fixed time during the session.

I know this is a lot to digest. I am not saying try everything at once. Find something that works for you and, more importantly, for your team. Stick to it. Remote team building is not only possible, but it’s also fun. It’s not about how many people turn up for that virtual coffee session; it’s about how many people are excited to log in and how many feel great when they close the tab.

The office of the future is here. The question is, are you?


🕗 Virtual team-building activities take a lot of time to prepare for, and it is also hard to run logistically. But don’t worry. To help remove the hassle so you can focus on the bonding your team together, Toasty has a number of engagement tools and ready-made team-building templates that you can grab and use instantly. Give Toasty a try today.