How to Effectively Build a Team Remotely During a Pandemic (and Beyond)

Read time 7 minutes

Building an effective team within the workplace can be a challenge in and of itself. After all, between fostering genuine connections among colleagues, driving collaboration, and recognizing each person’s unique contributions, this can leave many managers scratching their heads even without a global pandemic. But add that 2020 curveball into the mix? The task can seem downright impossible.
The pandemic radically altered how we conduct our daily lives, and we still have a ways to go till we resume “normal” life. When most non-essential workers were forced into a virtual setting last March, many companies entered unchartered territory as they quickly adapted their technology and practices to simply function in this new realm. Beyond the logistics of running a business, there is one piece of the puzzle that is the underlying key to any company’s success—its employees. Global pandemic or not, it’s vital to maintain and build your team to keep morale high and productiveness in check.

Considering the impacts of coronavirus are projected to dramatically shift the way companies operate indefinitely (with corporate giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Square leading the way and declaring staff can continue working from home even after the pandemic), it’s likely that remote teams are the way of the future. And for good reason, too.

One study demonstrated that two-thirds of managers who offered remote work to employees reported higher productivity from their teams. An additional study confirmed similar results, showing a flexible work style can lead to a 60% jump in productiveness. As a bonus, it also found these teams were 80% more likely to showcase high emotional well-being.

Throughout my career, I’ve managed remote teams filled with associates, clients, and freelancers logging in from distant workspaces from coast-to-coast. During that time, I’ve picked up on some tried and true strategies to creatively and successfully engage employees remotely. While these tips are especially relevant today, they can and should be referenced year-round to guide your team-building approach. Here are four recommended strategies to effectively build a team remotely during a pandemic (and beyond).

#1: VIRTUAL HOLIDAY EVENTS

With the holidays just around the corner, now is the perfect time to plan a special way to keep your employees feeling connected to both you as an organization and each other.
While the annual in-person gatherings over festive food and drinks may not be in the cards this year, that doesn’t mean you can’t create a memorable experience virtually. For example:

THANKSGIVING

Create a virtual Thanksgiving potluck and encourage employees to share their favorite Turkey Day recipes leading up to the big day. From there, upload into a PDF or digital flip book to be sent to staff for a company-wide recipe exchange. There’s nothing quite like the bond over food, and most families have unique dishes that have become a staple in their homes with special stories behind them. A virtual potluck is a memorable way to get to know your colleagues on a deeper level by learning how they celebrate, opening up to new heritages and cuisines, and even learning about a new ingredient to test out at your own dinner table.

If you’d like to take this one step further, arrange a virtual Thanksgiving lunch via Zoom where employees can make their submitted recipes, showcase them to the group, and provide real-time tips and tricks with the secret to perfecting their dish. In between turns, propose a series of icebreakers to keep the conversation flowing such as:

WINTER HOLIDAYS

The winter is filled with festive holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and more, and it’s an excellent time to celebrate the past 12 months of professional accomplishments, kick up your feet, and simply connect with each other on a personal level heading into the new year.

To drum up excitement during the month of December, consider sending a special “countdown” kit via mail to employees.
Instruct employees to open one specific gift within the kit each day leading up to the holiday break. Ideas include practical office supplies such as company-branded notepads and pens, a gift card to treat themselves to a coffee, or even a DIY gingerbread kit to enjoy with family and friends.

In lieu of an annual holiday gathering, consider a virtual party held via Zoom with unique ways to mix and mingle with one another. For example, the party could include festive forms of:

 

TRIVIA: Create your own trivia or find tons of free options available online. Questions can include, for example, what is the best-selling Christmas single of all time? (Stumped? White Christmas.)
BINGO: Find digital bingo cards online that employees can fill out in real-time. Be as creative as you’d like (such as devoting squares to the ugliest holiday sweater or who can name all of Santa’s reindeers in order).
SCAVENGER HUNT: Get employees engaged with a holiday-themed scavenger hunt. This could include a physical hunt that will have them racing through their homes to locate seasonal items against the clock, or even a virtual challenge encouraging them to share with the team. For instance, the physical hunt could include finding a mistletoe, snow globe, or candy cane around their decorated home. The virtual scavenger hunt, on the other hand, could ask participants to share their worst holiday gift ever received or award who can belt out the best seasonal jingle.

FIRST DAY OF WINTER

This year, the first day of winter is Monday, Dec. 21. The timing is ideal for a custom winter “survival” kit to be shipped to each employee’s home as an unexpected surprise. (Add a handwritten card from leadership, and this can even be a great idea for your company’s holiday gift). For example, your kit could include items such as hot chocolate, spiced cider, tea bags, mini bottles of seasonal liquor, favorite cookies, company-branded mugs, hot hands, and directions on how to download a festive fireplace screensaver to keep employees feeling literally and figuratively warm this season.

If you’re looking for a no-cost option that is guaranteed to still create engagement, consider distributing a winter-themed Zoom and/or computer background featuring company branding on Dec. 21 as a fun surprise to celebrate the beginning of a new season. Or, encourage employees to share a photo of their favorite winter pastime via a dedicated chat in Slack, Microsoft Teams, Chatter, or your company’s preferred instant messaging system to create a forum for colleagues to get to know each other better.

NEW YEAR

The new year is another prime opportunity to send a swag bag to employees for a fun, light-hearted, and engaging way to put a smile on their faces and keep the bond strong. Fill your kit with confetti poppers, sparkling water, Tylenol, a “do not disturb” sign for at-home desks, ear plugs, and more. It’ll provide employees a chuckle and funny conversation starter heading into the new year.

#2: ZOOM HAPPY HOURS

In addition to the winter holidays, take a look at the calendar and find opportunistic times throughout the year to schedule festive happy hours via Zoom. For example, this could include Cinco de Mayo. Make your happy hour one to remember by sending a physical kit to employees prior with the recipe and ingredients for the perfect margarita that you will each make together during the call, including the mix, lime, and salt. 

Take it one step further by encouraging employees to sport the colors of Mexico and providing them a custom background to use during the Zoom so you can feel like you’re all together.

However, Zoom happy hours don’t have to be a big production. Simply rallying the team occasionally for a virtual after-work gathering is an easy, yet effective way to foster a bond outside of strictly work to-dos in a casual, informal setting. If you’d like to add some structure, encourage employees to share their wins and “wines” of the week as they sip their beverage of choice.

#3: VIRTUAL SPIRIT DAYS

Remember the excitement of spirit days back in school? Who says it has to be over now that you’re an adult? Create virtual spirit days in the workplace to keep morale high, get to know your teammates better, and simply have some laughs. Consider dedicating at least one day of the month to a virtual spirit day. Again, utilize technology like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Chatter, or other messaging platforms by creating a special channel dedicated to virtual spirit days to help balance communication between work priorities and outside fun. Ideas include:

Make it a friendly competition by asking employees to vote on the winner with a virtual poll and award the champ with a special prize (like the freedom to sign off at 4 p.m. the day of their victory).

#4: DIGITAL WATER COOLER CHATS

We may not have impromptu conversations in the office kitchen while the coffee is brewing or casual pit stops by a co-worker’s desk to catch up on non-work related topics, but there are ways to foster this imperative bond virtually. Consider introducing weekly virtual coffee breaks. Keep it informal and provide the voluntary space for employees to pop in, connect with one another, and perhaps even share some personal news or wins with the group. Do create time parameters to stick to, though, to ensure employees stay on track with work priorities and tasks. Consider 30 minutes as the sweet spot.

Your company’s instant messaging system can also come in handy. Create a channel dedicated to appropriate, non-work related banter where colleagues can share a funny or cute photo of their nearby furry “co-worker,” reactions to a trending pop culture event, or provide recommendations for binge worthy programs to watch.

Ready to Give it a (Virtual) Go?

Team building in the workplace is the secret sauce behind increasing employee productivity, satisfaction, and engagement. If a global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our need for human connection is greater than ever. However, pandemic or not, virtual team building is the way of the future as we see a trend toward dispersed work environments.

That makes now the time to introduce one of these proven virtual team-building activities into your workplace. Once you do, sit back and watch the remarkable benefits of simply laughing, learning, and growing alongside one another in a new way.

By Karen Frost, Senior Vice President of Creative at Epic Strategies. Epic currently has offices in Missouri, California, and Arizona.