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How to Keep Teams Connected When We're Apart

It can be easy to put team-building activities on the back burner these days. However, it's a leader's job to ensure the team is engaged and functioning well. These are some ideas to help managers create ways for cultivating connections and creating occasions for social interactions while we're all working apart.

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It can be easy to put team-building activities on the back burner these days. Who wants to schedule another video call? However, it’s a leader’s job to ensure the team is engaged and functioning well. And if you’re not making time for team building, you’re actually making your team less productive.

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Although employee performance optimization — improvement of an individual’s own skill set — is important for personal growth, studies have shown that individual expertise is not what ultimately makes teams and companies more competitive and innovative. As clichéd as it sounds, teamwork really is what makes the dream work. Google’s well-known research into team dynamics reinforced what Amy Edmondson has been saying for the last 20 years, that psychological safety — a group’s culture that ensures employees feel safe, comfortable, included, and respected — is the most significant factor for team success. 

Related: How to Create Psychological Safety Among a Team

Connected teams work better

It makes logical sense. Social interactions are what connect us and help us relate to one another. The more easily we relate to each other, the more comfortable we feel opening up, sharing ideas and asking questions, and the better we work together — critical for high-functioning teams.  

Another study conducted by researchers at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory showed that the best predictors of a team’s productivity were the levels of team members’ energy and engagement outside of work meetings in social settings. In the study, when the manager synchronized employees’ breaks so they could socialize, the company saw a significant increase in productivity as well as in employee satisfaction. 

The upside to a manager’s responsibility for fostering social interaction and team building is that it can be enjoyable. Yes, remote work, video calls and lack of practice can make “social” seem slightly awkward or next to impossible. But many teams are doing it successfully, and they’re having fun in the process.

Being social in a remote world

Once you’re on board with the idea that creating space for team building and socialization is important, how do you actually do it? Shouldn’t social time be spontaneous? Maybe it used to be, when we could bump into one another in the office hallway or chit chat at our desks. Now, with social interaction at an all-time low, companies have to strategically create opportunities for folks to interact. Below are some ideas to help managers create ways for cultivating connections and manufacturing occasions for social interactions while we’re all working apart.

Related: 3 Smart Tips for Successfully Managing Remote Teams

1. Make it purposeful  

Although avoiding virtual conference fatigue requires limiting video calls to those deemed “necessary,” team-building video calls are absolutely necessary for a team’s health and performance. Prioritizing live team-building events and making other meetings, such as presentations and updates, asynchronous (recorded to watch whenever), can be a good solution. 

Make sure to leverage some of your team’s “live time” for important collaborative activities, such as strategic planning and offsite-style meetings to talk about past learnings and the future vision. A good example of how some companies are doing this is with curated “annual kickoff events,” bringing together leaders from across the company for a virtual retreat. These events allow leaders to share stories, connect employees to the company’s mission and values and build excitement for the upcoming year and the company’s goals. Unlike the in-person approach for these events, companies are spreading the content out over several days, making sessions work across time zones and building in time for mindfulness, physical activity and wellbeing.

2. Make it casual 

Not every event has to be planned to the minute. In fact, social connections can flourish if you set up meeting time with no agenda at all. For example, try an open virtual lunch confernce hour during which people jump on to eat together, a “bring your pet” happy hour or a new employee “shindig” for new hires to meet and also chat with old-timers. You can make these casual events even more successful by making an effort to reach out and invite people who may feel like they shouldn’t attend because they’re busy but would like to make connections. Keep these social connections going by also leveraging workplace messaging apps to share photos (check out my cute dog!) and funny stories. 

3. Make it personal

It’s important to keep celebrating the individuals on your team and not lose the traditions that are part of your company culture. In our past work life at Udemy, my team and I would always order cake for someone’s birthday and sit together in the kitchen to enjoy. These days even simple celebrations require a bit more effort, but the results can be just as satisfying. 

In lieu of cake, my team curates virtual birthday parties for teammates by creating group activities centered around the birthday person’s interests, like playing board games or having a casino night with a croupier. You can find creative ways to celebrate new babies, weddings, retirements, and holidays. Sign virtual cards, photoshop a “group” team picture, or make congratulatory or silly videos.  

At Udemy we’ve also included our employee’s new “coworkers” in some of our events. Recognizing many people are working from home alongside their roommates, significant others, families or while parenting, we hosted a virtual learning fair with story time and craft sessions for kiddos, music classes for the whole family, and cocktail and mocktail classes for all. 

Related: 6 Keys for Getting Temporarily Remote Teams Back Together

4. Make it different

Going outside the box from time to time to plan unexpected activities you can do together over a video call can make team bonding extra fun and memorable. For example, you could ship a boxed kit of ingredients to each employee and hire a professional chef for a cooking “offsite” where everyone eats together. Work together to solve the puzzles in a virtual escape room or do a scavenger hunt and “show and tell” what you found around your home. Play trivia, Jeopardy or Among Us online, do a yoga class together, sing karaoke, build floral arrangements, hire a magician or make (free) pixel art by coloring in a spreadsheet template. One team at Udemy actually went on a virtual event to visit llamas at a local farm. Ship beautiful, curated boxed gifts, like snacks, plants or holiday decorations and open them together as a group.

At Udemy, we have a tradition of doing end-of-year music videos, creating funny parodies of pop songs. This past year, our Culture Crew stepped a bit outside the box by supporting employees in making videos at home and assembled them all into a feature video that was shared across the company. The songs celebrated shared experiences from the past year and touched on the challenges we all faced working from home in a pandemic. It brought us all together, despite being so far apart. 

Make it happen: Practical tips 

As you think about what sorts of team-building events you might want to plan for your team, here are some practical tips to keep in mind to help boost success. 

  • Make it a team effort: Don’t put all of the planning on yourself. Ask your team what they want to do, and share in the effort to make it happen. 

  • Be visual: Social events don’t really work unless you can see faces. Make sure everyone has their camera on so that you can interact. 

  • Put it on the calendar: While it can be fun to surprise people with a magician, typically it’s a good idea to give people a heads up so they can plan to attend. 

  • Make it regular: Celebrate birthdays and life events as they come, but also regularly schedule social activities for your team one to two times per month. Larger, company-wide events should happen at least one to two times per year.

  • Be inclusive: If you have employees or teams in different time zones, try to find practical times for events when everyone can participate. Or, create multiple events for employees in the different time zones. Also be mindful of other kinds of inclusion - the goal is to build a sense of belonging, so you don’t want to create an event that alienates, marginalizes or excludes.

  • Keep it reasonable: Being on a virtual conference can be tiring, so scale back your usual three-hour strategy session to a shorter meeting, or break it into multiple sessions. Also, be sure to schedule in some breaks so that team members can stretch, grab a bite, or take a bio break. 

Social director is in your job description

A year into the current crisis, it’s obvious that these virtual team-building solutions are not a temporary fix — you’ll need social events like these in place for the foreseeable future, as many employees will continue to work from home throughout the next year. And with more than two-thirds of employees indicating they’re experiencing burnout, putting social virtual events on the team calendar is not a trivial matter. Social time is actually incredibly important to fostering your team’s ability to work together. 

Related: 7 Mistakes Leaders Make When Managing a Remote Team

Shelley Osborne

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Shelley Osborne is an ed tech and learning expert. She was recently the VP of learning at Udemy, where she led the learning strategy and upskilling of employees globally. She is the author of the McGraw Hill book 'The Upskilling Imperative: Five Ways to Make Learning Core to the Way We Work.'