Getting started with virtual team building activities

Building and joining new teams are common parts of our professional lives. Whether assembling a new project team as a leader, or moving to an established team as a new member, the process of building familiarity and trust is an important aspect of team collaboration.

December 7, 2020

Why team building activities are important

Activities that involve sharing personal information lead to fostering trust in a team, as research has shown. For today's remote teams, it's even more critical that team members be given dedicated opportunities to become acquainted, to practice communication, and to build trust. In my career, the teams that dedicated time and effort toward building trust were closer, more successful, really more like teams than those that didn't.

Why we don't like them

If it's such an essential piece of building a high-performing team, then why do we sometimes encounter reluctance or resistance to conducting team building activities?

There can be many reasons, but an obvious one is that sharing personal information and thus exhibiting vulnerability makes us uncomfortable, particularly at a time when we don't know others on the team well. This is exacerbated when activities aren't run with sensitivity in mind, and lead to humiliation or exclusion. In these situations the activity can actually hinder the development of trust on the team.

For others, conducting icebreakers and team building activities seems artificial, like forcing something that should happen naturally. There's also sometimes a sense that spending structured group time on soft skills instead of direct business activities is a waste of important resources.

Finally, they can be perceived as boring or childish. There is a pedantic association with structured activities that require group participation.

We'll have more to say on addressing these -- let us know what issues you face. For now the best way to get started is to start small.

How to get started

If I'm faced with a practice that is very beneficial but can be misapplied or overused, I tend to look for a balanced approach to get started. As a first step, I try to find the minimum effective dose that produces a beneficial result. Do I need to start out by trying to run a marathon, or could I just start jogging to the end of the block every other day, and then evaluate my situation after a few weeks?

Applying a minimum effective dose to team building activities is not hard. To start out, a team leader can do something as simple as share a quick personal story at the beginning of a meeting as an icebreaker. What did you do over the weekend? Did you pursue any hobbies, watch any movies or TV shows? Maybe you cooked something. Or maybe you failed. Did you burn the toast? As a leader, sharing a story where you failed (and we all have) can help make you and the team more relatable. It can encourage others to share. Now ask around -- who else has something interesting, humorous, or relatable to share?

This is already a very common practice, so it should be easy to take it to the next step. Keep it in the realm of icebreakers and warmups. Try the mood word activity, which only asks team members to think of a single word to describe their mood. If you want to go a little further and give the group a chance to do some guessing, try the two truths and a lie activity, a very common game that usually gets people smiling and laughing while they're learning more about each other.

If your team is up for it, encourage more sincere but quick sharing by trying the one line life story activity.

What's next

After trying some of the minimum dose activities with your team, your next step is to evaluate where your team is at and what its needs are. Are you working to form a new team that needs to be better acquainted? Or are you working to encourage trust or more communication in a team that's been working together for a while? Knowing your team's needs can help you select the right activities. Expect more from us on this topic. Our team building activities hub is always growing, and can help you find the activities that fit with your needs.

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