Now more than ever, companies are looking for ways to engage the remote workforce. A year after most of us were forced to work from home, I cringe when I hear from online meeting managers that they still struggle to get participants to turn on their cameras. Speaking to a black tile on screen is a morale crusher. But when combined with overall lagging engagement and short attention spans, the situation becomes part of the broader challenge of team building on Zoom or your video platform of choice.
Faced with the reality that remote teamwork will continue even after many of us return to our physical offices, meeting managers are eager to find activities to bring teams closer together. A study in the Harvard Business Review that explores how to get people to actually participate in virtual meetings, points to voluntary engagement as a precondition for effective meetings. In short, give people a good reason to engage.
Online and in-person team building are both meant to supercharge collaboration, build trust, and bolster company culture. Yet, if handled properly, online techniques can achieve results more quickly given the immersive and intimate nature of virtual meetings.
How to get attendees to turn on their videos.
I have researched and tested several virtual team-building activities that can work across different industries, geographic regions, and organization sizes. Here are some of my favorites, which include icebreakers and games.
But before I get to the fun part, let us look at the nagging issue of people who do not turn on their videos. Here is my best advice:
- Specify that a meeting is videos-on when convening. Enforce the rule by calling out people who do not comply. Reasonable excuses aside (being in transit, sitting in a dentist’s chair or the like), mandatory video use could become like the business axiom that if you are on time to a meeting, you are actually late.
- Hold voice-only teleconferences periodically to vary meeting routines. Save video meetings for more special occasions to avoid burnout.
Participants who do not use their videos are the top meeting busters in my book. Next in line are the awkward silences, absence of questions, tense expressions, and overall sensation that everyone on the other side of the camera hates you. These situations can benefit from meeting ice breakers and carefully selected games.
Six team-building activities you can do on virtual meetings.
Designed as simple team-building activities to help ease employees or groups into a little bonding, icebreaker questions do not need to be dry or trivial. When an icebreaker is properly executed, it can diffuse team anxiety and increase information retention because these activities engage a different part of the brain. When you start a video call with a quick round of icebreaker questions for work, you give your people a chance to connect on a personal level. Once you get into the rhythm of warming up with good icebreakers, your team will expect them with enthusiasm.
Here are some of my favorites:
1. Virtual Show and Tell
One place to find inspiration for virtual team-building ideas is grade school. Teachers are experts at engagement. An example of a fun, school-inspired activity is Virtual Show & Tell. To facilitate, you can set a 1-minute timer for participants to find “something within arm’s reach that is meaningful to you.” Each of your team members then has one minute to share about their object, including information about its origin and why it holds special meaning. My pick for Virtual Show & Tell would be my Bird of Happiness mask from the Ivory Coast, pictured above.
2. Change Your Set
Another activity involves changing something in your shot or physical setting and challenging the others to figure it out. This is a good one for the other side of a five or 10-minute break. In my workshops, people often add flowers or a plant, or sports memorabilia, switch out a painting or change a shirt or blouse. The exercise underscores the importance of visual data and inspires us to pay more attention to what is on the screen.
3. Highs and Lows
Given the challenges of working from home, talking out the highs and lows of the week can help your remote team appreciate that everyone goes through the same struggles, and there can be a silver lining to the worst moments. At your next virtual event, have people volunteer the best and worst events of the week. For large groups, responses can be written into the chat and read out loud selectively by the meeting manager.
4. People Trivia
How well do you know your teammates? Getting to know one another better creates more open lines of communication and improves collaboration. Pick a team captain or facilitator. Everyone sends an interesting fact about themselves to the team captain. At the beginning of your meeting read the facts and everyone tries to match the fact to the correct individual. You can try this at the top of a meeting. Each correct answer wins points which can be redeemed for e-gift certificates.
5. Meeting Monsters and Other Roles
My public speaking colleagues and I assume the role of “meeting monster” for one another when leading workshops. The role entails serving as a combination waiting room host, chat monitor, emoji and reactions scout, poll launcher and breakout co-host. The help is invaluable. You can do something similar for business meetings but assign roles to several people to get them involved and focused. Alternate roles from meeting to meeting to give others a chance. Some suggested roles are:
- Meeting Monitor – keeps track of the agenda, order of presenters, attendance, and time.
- Tech Manager – makes sure virtual platforms are working properly and audio-visuals are shared without a glitch, and that advanced features like closed captions and whiteboards are deployed.
- Breakout Buddy -ensures breakouts are assigned properly and participants know what is expected.
- Facilitator – encourages conversations and initiates team-building activities.
- Chat and Emoji Scout – watches for raised hands, reactions, questions and ensures that everyone is acknowledged and heard.
- Scribe – Captures meeting recordings, chat history, takes notes on important follow-up items.
- Photographer – Takes screenshots of the group to share by chat or email later.
6. Typing Speed Race
Those who entered the workforce before the digital age may remember that typing speeds of 52 words per minute were required for many entry level office jobs. I remember learning the QWERTY keyboard on an IBM Selectric typewriter with a typeball. Typing speed remains a valuable business skill regardless of the technology. Typing speed races can be implemented using typingtest.com or a similar website. You can compete individually or launch a larger scale challenge by hosting a typing speed relay where you add up the cumulative scores to determine the winning team
Engagement is the name of the game for remote teams working online. The keys to success include giving people the unexpected, a reason to participate, some fun, and different tasks so that there is nowhere to hide—not even behind a black screen. But note there is no one-size-fits-all. Just as people and organizations are diverse, so are the types of activities that will achieve your goal of getting people excited about the next meeting on the schedule.