5 Exercises for Bonding a Far-Flung Team
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Personal relationships are vital in our professional lives. As employees, we are more productive in our jobs and happier as people when we truly connect with our colleagues. High-performance, “people-first” companies recognize this and invest in fostering these connections. Nonetheless, the increasingly mobile nature of work and the distribution of teams across geographies and time zones make this a challenge.
My company, LiquidSpace, is typical of many people-first organizations. In recruiting our team of 35 we have prioritized people over place. We now span five time zones. Team building is even more important, and more challenging, when your employees aren’t physically in the same office. Yet ours is the most productive team I’ve ever worked with. We are building a repeatable playbook of team building activities and everyday practices.
Related: Building an All-Star Virtual Team
1. Host a pop-up HQ. We have an established tradition of holding a pop-up headquarters once every quarter. We choose a new city and literally plant the company flag for a week of side-by-side work and play. It’s the classic company offsite meeting but on steroids. Every employee participates and we are embedded in our product experience, booking workspace for the week from our own network.
The core of this idea is easy to replicate. Whether you hop across town or journey far afield, gathering your team in a fresh and inspiring environment can spur creativity and surface new ways of thinking about old challenges.
2. Gather around the family table. “An army marches on its stomach,” said Napoleon Bonaparte. During our pop-up HQ week, one of our simplest but most popular team activities is a home cooking night. We share in the work of cooking a meal together and cleaning up afterwards. “Doing the dishes” includes documenting the event and the ideas that surface, as well as cleaning the pots.
It’s an intimate experience to prepare a meal with your colleagues. A shared task like this requires teamwork and delivers more than just a delicious meal. The memory of collaboration and camaraderie is lasting.
3. Serve an adrenaline cocktail. It’s important to pay attention to ‘team energy’. Working as hard as we do, the fuel tanks can sometimes run empty, so pop-up week has become when we serve up an energizing team experience, injecting fun and sometimes a healthy dose of adrenaline.
Our most recent pop-up was held in Sun Valley, Idaho. Our adrenaline cocktail was a very spirited day of whitewater kayaking and rafting. The inevitable social chatter created about what we did as a team, and the thrill of accomplishment, does wonders for the individual soul and for work relationships. The residual team energy following an activity like this lasts much longer than the activity itself.
4. Hack the business. Everyone on our team wants to see the company succeed and share the benefits of building a great company. I often get growth ideas passed on to me from individual employees, and these are great, but I generally observe that most of the team is heads-down in their roles with little extra time to deeply reflect on and offer creative suggestions for growth. A few times per year, we clear our calendars for a full day, book a large conference room with plenty of whiteboards, and hold a growth hackathon. We establish a theme and challenge the team to come up with innovative ideas on how to grow the business. It’s a day where there are no bad ideas, no interruptions and no limit to what our employees can propose. These sessions are fun, have generated some of our company’s best new ideas, and demonstrate to our employees how valuable input is from every team member.
5. Encourage more personal meetings. In our mobile worklife, business relationships often develop through email and phone interactions. Face-to-face meetings are very important but increasingly rare. Meeting face-to-face with your colleagues is probably the most underrated team building exercise of all but something every company can encourage their teams to do more often.
Although our employees are distributed across the U.S., most of our meetings are face-to-face (thank you, Zoom.us). Looking someone in the eye, whether she’s across the table or on another continent, is fundamental to how we work and a core element of our culture.