Video happy hours were fun for about a minute. Remote working and hybrid teams are here to stay, so it’s important for tech companies to offer novel and engaging ways to keep employees connected to each other.
Enter the next generation of team-building activities: Continuing-education conferences that combine learning with socializing. Storytelling by company officials with tales that appeal to kids and parents alike. Wine and tea tastings led by experts. Online baking classes. Keep reading for more details on these and other effective virtual team-building ideas.
Include the Kids
Chicago-based mobile engagement platform Vibes expects most of its team to continue to work remotely. That means virtual activities born during the pandemic will survive in one form or another, said Shaunagh Vollmer, vice president of talent and development.
To recreate the water-cooler atmosphere of the office, Vibes used Gather, software that creates a virtual simulation of a company’s actual office. Each employee has an avatar that moves around the office, with sound levels raising and lowering as the avatar moves from space to space, just as it would at the real office. The added bonus: The virtual space allowed employees to connect with colleagues they might not encounter at the real office, Vollmer said. “It helped deepen relationships,” she said.
Vibes created kid-friendly activities which were helpful for parents with little ones at home. Story time featured Vibes executives reading aloud; for instance, the head of sales at the time, who is from England, read “Paddington Bear.” A team member who owns a farm in Illinois led a tour of the farm, showing off his collection of donkeys, peacocks and emus. A biscuit-making class, hosted by celebrity chef Jumoke Jackson, also proved popular.
So did the company holiday party, also kid-friendly due to its virtual nature. The highlight of the party — in addition to the collection of ugly holiday sweaters — was a Vibes-centric trivia game where audience members were picked to answer live on camera. “It felt a lot like being together in person,” Vollmer said, adding that the company is mulling a hybrid event this year. “The question is, how much connection can we continue to build virtually and will our teams want to return to a more traditional gathering?” she said. “Either way, we’ll listen to our teams and create something memorable.”
You Can Keep It Simple
Team building activities don’t have to be fancy or elaborate. NECI, an industrial process automation and digital services company based in Mansfield, Massachusetts, hosted three virtual events, organized by the company’s Fun Committee.
One was a virtual trivia night. The event took place after hours on a Friday evening to allow employees to unwind, give family members a chance to participate, and emulate the good old days. “Fridays were traditionally used for a physical social get-together,” said Cheryl Laliberte, a communications specialist for NECI. “You can’t completely replace the power of in-person mingling, but the virtual event was an excellent way for people from across our company to interact and have fun together,” she said.
The event attracted 40 to 50 people, a mix of veteran and new NECI employees. Employees participated in the game via videoconferencing tool Kahoot, which customized the trivia game for NECI.
The trivia game included fun facts about the participants, to help new employees get to know colleagues who weren’t part of their everyday work teams. An optional “three lies and a truth” game provided even juicier get-to-know-you material. “That was a great way to increase engagement,” said Laliberte, who hosted the event.
As work returns to normal, NECI plans to host more virtual events, including a painting lesson where employees get supplies mailed to them. “We have offices across multiple states, and it’s an easy and relatively inexpensive way to get people together to have fun,” Laliberte said.
Virtual Socializing Over Real Drinks
In March, GetThru, a company that handles chats and texts for retailers, hosted a virtual tea and wine tasting hosted by SocialTable, a San Francisco-based company that orchestrates tastings as a way to turn strangers into friends.
Launched in 2017 as a dinner-party host, SocialTable last year began offering virtual tea and wine tastings. In January, it created SocialTable for Business, which offers companies the chance to connect employees via beverage tastings. Each event, customized for the client, includes a branded sign-up page. SocialTable averages eight to 12 events a month, with attendance ranging from 50 to 200 people.
The company matches guests through an algorithm similar to those used by dating apps. “We are good at helping people create connections with people they don’t know,” said Ben Stokes, founder and CEO, noting that the dinners resulted in two weddings and a baby.
Participants are sent samples of the tea and wine to be tasted, and an expert winemaker or tea sommelier walks them through the experience. After the group tasting, the algorithm sorts people into breakout rooms so they can better get to know each other, Stokes said.
“The groups laugh and talk, like you’d do with Friday afternoon office drinks,” Stokes said. The structure of the wine or tea tasting helps keep the party going more so than virtual video drinks. “People sit there, have a couple of drinks and then jump off,” he said.
GetThru had 75 people in five time zones participate, said Andie Washington, people success partner at GetThru at the time of the event. (Washington is now a freelance consultant in the HR and people industry.) The event offered a bit of socialization and extracurricular learning during a week-long company retreat that included serious talk about strategy and an anti-racism workshop, Washington said.
The activity also allowed employees to meet coworkers they wouldn’t have otherwise. Washington talked to a part-time employee whose name she had seen, but whom she had never met. “I actually got to talk to them about tea and have a really interesting conversation,” she said. “It was great to see those moments throughout.”
The event was “seamless” from a management point of view, she said, because SocialTable handled everything from creating the signup page to sending boxes of wine and tea to participants. “All I had to do was share a link and give a deadline,” she said.
Host a Virtual Conference
Seattle-based digital marketing firm Sincro closed its five offices, including home base, when the pandemic hit. Months later, a survey indicated that 85 percent of its 1,000 employees wanted to keep working from home, so Sincro became a permanent remote-first workplace.
To keep employees united and engaged with the company’s goals, Sincro hosted Ignite, a virtual conference focused on continuing education, for three days in April. Employees could choose from among 10 seminars, ranging from career development to Google Analytics. Breakout rooms after the main sessions provided the chance for hands-on learning and let employees from different teams and locations meet each other. A social hour featured a Funniest Home Video contest, Sincro trivia quiz and a talent show, which included musical performances by employees.
Sincro required employees to attend at least four of the 10 sessions, if possible; early-morning sessions enabled employees based in India to attend, and all sessions were recorded and are now available on demand. All told, 781 employees registered for 2,725 sessions, and gave Ignite an average 4.2 (out of five stars) review. Sincro plans to repeat Ignite next year, and employees have asked for more sessions and an opportunity to attend in person, said Shazia Hasan, vice president of human resources.
“People really crave opportunities to connect with each other and Ignite did just that,” she said. “It was invaluable for boosting corporate culture and morale.” Stacey Overturf, director of training and sales enablement, agreed. “I walked away from it re-energized about Sincro’s future, the role I can play in it, and the smart, inspiring people I’m lucky to call my teammates,” she said.
Send Monthly Work-From-Home Surprises
Every month, remote employees at Groove, a San Francisco-based Salesforce engagement platform, receive a surprise designed to make their work-at-home lives a little easier. Recent packages have included Yeti tumblers, snacks, plants, UberEats gift cards and even pumpkin pies. Personalized gifts mark occasions such as work anniversaries and employee birthdays.
On top of that, a weekly calendar of activities, ranging from Netflix nights to happy hours and book clubs, keep the company’s 100-plus employees engaged, said Kristin Hersant, vice president of marketing. Over the last year, Groove has held 12 major team-building events, among them a craft beer tasting, virtual game nights, a virtual escape room, and a sangria-making class led by drag queens from Portugal.
One of the most popular virtual events was Groove’s 2020 holiday party. The party’s marquee event, “Deal or No Deal,” blended the elements of a TV game show with a white elephant gift exchange. Employees took turns choosing a box to reveal a prize, after which employees could steal the gift. The banker, Groove’s vice president of finance, could also step in to offer a cash prize before the prize was revealed.
Because some of the prizes were worth hundreds of dollars, “there was a lot of drama in deciding whether to take the cash or reveal the prize,” Hersant said. She added that 90 percent of the company participated, and no one dropped off during the four-hour event. “I never thought a four-hour Zoom could be so much fun,” said Taylor Burrows, a customer success manager at Groove.
In addition to bringing everyone together, Deal or No Deal tapped into the company’s competitive nature. “The style of this event fits perfectly with our culture,” Hersant said.
Employees, some of them skeptical at first, agreed. “I wasn’t sure how Groove was going to pull off a fun and engaging event virtually, but they really nailed it with the Deal or No Deal game,” said Logan Steinberg, associate marketing manager. “Everyone got really into it, and it doesn’t hurt that I walked away with $300.”
During the pandemic, both business and hiring heated up at New York City-based fintech startup Alloy. To provide stress relief for the company’s then-65 employees, Alloy began offering free therapy sessions, guided meditations, therapist-led coping webinars, virtual exercise classes, monthly food delivery and home-goods purchase credits, and stipends to set up home offices, said Edwina Johnson, COO.
Alloy also offered non-traditional ways to keep employees connected, for example a plant propagation class hosted by Instagram influencer Hilton Carter and a happy hour hosted by drag queens. Virtual cooking classes and home ergonomics workshops rounded out the offerings.
Johnson said that anywhere between 15 and 40 people attended the classes and due to that level of participation, it’s kept up with at least one activity a month, including shorter team-building activities during the monthly all hands meeting. The company regularly surveys employees “so we can offer bespoke experiences that are meaningful and authentic to our team,” she said.
Use Escape Rooms as Training Tools
Intel plans to host an escape event later this year for employees and customers in North America, said Tyler Loop, HPE Intel category manager. The event will double as a training tool: Winning players will have gained sufficient knowledge on the training topics, Loop said. The game can be played solo or in a team, and can be played at any time. “It was selected as a new and engaging way to train individuals as an alternative to traditional virtual calls and online presentations,” Loop said.
Intel will use Emeraude Escape, a European company that expanded to North America last year, for the escape room. Emeraude Escape will create a 3D room while executing Intel’s vision for a successful training, said Loop, who described the escape room as a “new and refreshing” approach to training. Players will watch videos and solve puzzles throughout the escape, and engage in teamwork. Six people can play together at a time, using webcams and microphones to make the game collaborative and fun.
All corporate Emeraude Escape games are customized for number of players, type of team building desired, and even messages such as DEI, said Florian Mesny, head of international and managing director for North America, who is based in Montreal. As teams move around the rooms, the company collects data on how long it takes to find the clues, how they collaborated and the number of clicks indicating how players distribute themselves around the game. “Is everyone doing exactly the same thing, or are they scattering to collect information and then exchange it?” Mesny said. “How do they adapt strategically to the game?” The data can help clients gauge exactly how well teams work together.