In the digital world, our time and productivity is more valuable than ever before. But the rules have changed.
20 years ago, everyone working in an agency was stationed onsite 9-5, Monday to Friday. In the world of paper newspapers, waiting on a fax or an important call on the landline, meeting with the Creative Director—physical presence in the studio used to be a blanket requirement.
Now, of course, with the advent of tools such as Slack, Skype, Google Hangout, and Dropbox, agencies communicate, plan and collaborate in a completely different way.
This newfound flexibility is a boon in many ways, but managers are now faced with new challenges: how do businesses create a close-knit team? And how does that work within a remote environment?
IS CULTURE EVEN THAT IMPORTANT?
"Culture" is not about installing a ping-pong table and giving yourself a pat on the back. The key is instilling a dynamic that encourages great communication, which in turn breaks down departmental silos and gets people to interact across functionalities.
Studies have shown the impact that social bonds have on efficiency and happiness in the workplace.
Dr. David Pauleen, senior professor at the School of Management at Victoria University of Wellington, explains how virtual team leadership and relationships in virtual teams is an important aspect of contemporary management.
"The link between team effectiveness and team member relationship has been an important area of study in virtual teams. Stronger relational links have been associated with higher task performance and the effectiveness of information exchange. Effective communication is key to successful virtual teams, and one of the keys to effective communication is how well team members are able to build and maintain their personal relationships” (Pauleen, 2004).
TEAM BUILDING: THE BAD OLD DAYS
“No fear Barbara! Janice will catch you!!!!”
Although it seems faintly ridiculous now, trust falls and blindfold games were really a thing! At the time it was heralded as a way to break down barriers of communication or trust between staffers.
The problem with these archaic team-building exercises is that they didn’t really help integrate people into workplace life or culture in a meaningful or impactful way - and occasionally they even ended in tears and hospital visits.
Today there are tons of resources, activities, and creative ideas out there that can help pave the way for a more cohesive team. Try to schedule these within work hours if possible; that way team members with young families or other commitments don't miss out.
TEAM ACTIVITIES FOR THE MODERN WORKPLACE
(THE IRL EDITION)
1. Escape rooms
If your team is good at cracking codes, finding the missing piece to the puzzle, or discovering the hidden key, try out an Escape Room. An escape room is an game in which teams figure out riddles, puzzles, or codes in an effort to escape the locked room.
A little bit of history: the game rooms originated in Japan and later became popularized in North America. Since then they have exploded all over the world and have become a major attraction for both small and large company parties.
Escape Room prices typically range between $20-25 per person, and group packages are often available.
2. Virtual reality
VR has become extremely popular in the past couple of years, especially within the tech and startup communities. Experiencing something novel like this as a team can be an interesting way to open up discussion, spur creative thinking and fire your team's imagination.
3. Adventure activities
If you have time and budget for a day off-site, this could be a good option.
Sarah Marion is an analyst at iNova Capital. She and her colleagues have work retreats on a regular basis, which offer the team the opportunity to work and connect on a personal level. “We get together for a retreat offsite at least once a quarter, where we spend two days as a full team. Most of our time is spent on strategy, but we do an activity at every retreat—rock climbing, axe throwing, sailing, indoor skydiving—and personally connect over meals.”
4. Brewery or winery tours
You could try taking your team on a microbrewery tour or a visit to a local vineyard (but obviously if you have staffers who are pregnant, breastfeeding, in the program, on antibiotics or are sober for any other reason, you may want to consider other options).
5. Volunteering with a nonprofit/charitable organization
Volunteering in your city is a good way to do something on the social good front and get involved in your office’s community while providing a space for your team to engage and interact. It’s a good idea to pick the organization together with your team if possible, and discuss the nonprofit’s mission and how your team’s work with the organization is going to help.
Websites such as https://www.volunteermatch.org/ are a great place to start looking for an organization that feels like a good fit, or you can just Google nonprofits in your area.
6. Interactive online games
iPhone Scavenger Hunts have been trending the last couple of years, and now there are a bunch of different apps you can download, offering a pre-mapped version of the game. Of course, if you’re up for a little challenge, you could design your own scavenger hunt using phone GPS, Apple or Google Maps, and Slack for instant messaging.
7. Boardgame lunchtimes
These are great over winter. Everyone digs out their boardgames and brings them in to play after lunch. In a larger company environment, your team can be broken into smaller groups. You can stick with the classics like Scrabble, Snakes & Ladders or Checkers, or try something more contemporary like Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity. (Pro-tip: we suggest skipping monopoly because the longest game supposedly lasted for 70 days.)
8. Picnic lunchtimes
When the sun comes, out why not take lunch breaks outside? No need to stay stuck indoors if you can all enjoy your packed lunches at a park nearby. Don't forget to pack your sunscreen.
This can take a lunch-&-learn format. Some ideas: If a team member has recently bought a 3D printer (or a knitting machine!) they could bring it in and give a short workshop to everyone. Or it could be as simple as making some popcorn and watching some TEDTalks as a group. This is a really simple way to give your team a break, while engaging in a learning experience together.
REMOTE TEAM BUILDING
Building a culture within a remote team takes a little more ingenuity. Teams who work remotely don’t have the same chance or opportunity to have idle chat during their lunch break or at the coffee station with their co-workers at the office. That “watercooler effect” is conspicuously absent.
If your team is scattered across the globe, or work from home, Skype, FaceTime, Slack and Google Hangout will be your best friend in paving the way for strong team dynamics from a distance.
But the key to remote team building is using these tools in a way that offers a sense of familiarity and connection.
1. Digital tours of your workspace
When new members come on board, be sure to give them a virtual video tour of the office. If the weather is worth a mention, why not face the camera lens to the outside and show your team what is happening outside the office walls? Find ways to allow remote members to feel visually connected and engaged with the office community and workplace.
2. Share your workspace
Icebreaker games can be cringe-inducing if they aren’t done right. Suggest something lightweight, easy and not too cheesy; perhaps your team could snap a flatlay of their work space, or a picture of their cat if they’re working from home.
3. Scheduling time to chit-chat
It’s important to establish a moment—say, 5 minutes at the beginning of your weekly team meeting—where everyone can take a break from work life and talk about anything; what’s on their mind or what they did over the weekend.
4. Sharing morning tea from afar
Another easy solution to making video conference calls a little more purposeful is incorporating an activity in throughout the meeting. You could post your remote colleague a sample pack of locally-produced tea or snacks that you can try together during your meeting. Something experiential like this can help close the distance.
5. Virtual cinema
Why not implement screening times into the work schedule? For example, if the Creative Director is hosting a talk at a conference with a live stream, why not watch it in the office and send the URL link to the remote team members. Both virtual and IRL teams can simultaneously screen conference talks together.
6. Align your goals
Communicating high-level goals remotely can feel like a challenge. But there are tools and software that help you get your perspective across without having to rely on screeds of Slack threads and endless emails. One example is a web-based tool called Align, which offers a simple, powerful way to identify how people feel about your team, to celebrate what’s working and to start talking about what’s not. Tools like this can be a good barometer of the way you work with your remote team, and create opportunities to check in on your top priorities.
7. Optimizing Slack for remote connection
Try setting up a Slack channel called “Random” or "Playlist" to share non-work links, music or photos. Other tips: set a witty status, use an emoji, make your username pop.
8. Create opportunities for remote workers to attend conferences or events in their city
Make sure to always keep an eye out for networking functions, conferences or work-related events coming up in the cities where your remote co-workers are based. Creating time and budget for this will help ensure every team member feels like a key part of your agency.
9. Use screensharing tools to code and design together
Nicolas Kruchten is the Head of Engineering for a startup that runs entirely remotely: the team is spread across 5 time zones from the Canadian Prairies to Thailand.
Nick and his team use a tool called Screenhero to collaborate on elements of the interface, especially if the discussion needs to bring together perspectives from both design and development.
Nick says: "The thing I like about Screenhero is that not only can everyone else on the call see my screen, but each of our mouse pointers are visible to everyone, and anyone can click on anything on my screen, making it even better than sitting side by side fighting over a single mouse. We use it for everything from user interface work to note-taking in a document to coding."
10. Make time for in-person connection
Even if your team works remotely throughout the year, make time a space to connect in person occasionally if possible. Attending an annual retreat or conference together as a group can do wonders for staff cohesion and relationship-building.
WHERE TO START?
Building a strong team can have a huge impact on your agency's ability to manage tasks collaboratively and meet delivery milestones. But it’s important to keep in mind that team building needs to be an organic process, the same way we develop relationships in real life.
In other words? All the perks of indoor skydiving or escape rooms won’t improve a workplace culture that isn’t built on genuine communication and respect. Start with that.