One of the best things about working remotely is the freedom to do your job from anywhere in the world. But being part of a distributed team comes with certain challenges: when you can only meet your co-workers in person once or twice a year, it’s difficult to learn about interesting habits they may have outside of work, spot character-defining quirks, or even just get to know them as people.
As our team continues to expand (we’re aiming to reach 100+ people in 2019—join us!), we’re finding that we have to be very intentional and proactive about building personal connections. Here’s a list of five of our favorite strategies for creating virtual spaces to socialize and hang out with one another.
Virtual team building is the practice of organizing online activities and spaces that give remote co-workers a chance to socialize and connect with colleagues they rarely meet in person.
Unlike physical office spaces, where it’s easier to have a ‘watercooler chat’, remote teams don't have the same opportunities to interact outside of the scope of work—there’s no stopping by each other’s desk when one of you is asleep in Canada and the other is having lunch in Cyprus!
Why virtual team building is important
The lonely reality of working remotely can catch some people off guard. In their 2018 State of Remote Work report, Buffer found that loneliness was the biggest downside for 21% of remote workers, and one of the reasons that made them more likely to quit.
Virtual team building can help replace valuable in-person forms of communication that are missing from the remote office; increasing the chances of talking to and interacting with one another helps remote co-workers get to know each other better, which in turn enhances their communication and teamwork skills.
5 virtual team building activities we love
At Hotjar, anybody can come up with strategies to help us socialize and get to know each other from opposite sides of the globe.
It all begins with activity #1:
1. The “10 things about you” list
One of the very first tasks all new employees at Hotjar must complete is penning a list of 10 interesting facts about themselves: anything from their favorite types of music, to what they do for fun, to weird stories about their childhood. It's a fantastic way to spark friendship-starting discussions.
Why do we do it? In a remote team, new hires can feel isolated from their co-workers, especially people they don't interact with on a regular basis. This task replaces typical in-office chit-chat as a way to get to know new teammates, and also combats the feeling of first-week confinement. When people find they share a common interest like a love of running, video games, or sourdough pizza, that immediately creates an affinity between them.
How does it work? During their first day onboarding, new team members are instructed to compile their list and post it to Discourse. Since these pages remain live and public to the entire Hotjar team, they can also go back through old lists and learn about their new co-workers:
This is where we recently discovered somebody’s talent for selling unsellable things on Craigslist, found out that one of us named her kid after a Game of Thrones character, and learned that someone gets intensely freaked out by the sprouting bits on older potatoes. As soon as the list is published, everyone has a chance to read it, ask questions, and make comments—reading through the entire thread is usually very fun!
2. 15-minute coffee & learn sessions
Coffee & learn is a recurring 15-minute session we hold in the Marketing department. The team comes together for a coffee break, and we take turn delivering short presentations on something we do, something we know, or something we are.
Why do we do it? Back at the beginning of 2018, our Marketing department grew from 5 to 9 people in the span of one month. We needed to figure out how we’d all work together, and we also wanted to make sure the newest hires would feel part of the team from the very beginning.
I’d just read a Google study which argued that the foundation of effective and successful teams was psychological safety. Long story short, when team members feel comfortable and safe with each other as people they are willing to show vulnerability, take risks, accept challenges, and find new ways to work together and innovate.
I’d also just come back from a nomadic summer in Scandinavia where I’d learned about the Swedish tradition of ‘Fika’: taking a pause to socialize with colleagues while sharing a drink and a snack. Combining the two things gave me the inspiration to host a recurring 15-minute event to help create that base layer of trust and feeling of safety.
How does it work? As the activity owner, I only have two tasks: make sure that my co-workers take turns signing up for a speech, and send out recurring calendar invites. Once coffee & learn day comes, we stay online after scrum for an additional 15 minutes, and one of us shares their screen and delivers a presentation. Here is the schedule for last year:
These presentations are a way for us to get to know each other better through learning from each other, with each other, and about each other; our team has grown closer as we continuously create trust through sharing and receiving in a supportive environment.
3. 30-minute chatroulette
Unlike coffee & learn, which works at the team level, chatroulettes are coffee-break sessions where co-workers are randomly paired up to have a 30-minute chat.
Why do we do it? As teams and departments grow, people can go months without having 1-on-1 conversations with some of their colleagues. To keep people communicating outside of work-related tasks, you occasionally have to ‘force’ what would normally be a spontaneous interaction, and set a time and a place to hang out.
How does it work? Our Customer Experience department uses a Slack app called Donut. Teammates opt-in by joining the Donut room, then every two weeks the app randomly pairs up two people in the group, and they agree a time to have a call on Slack or Zoom.
DONUTS ARE NOT MANDATORY, ALTHOUGH THEY ARE HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
When it's time for the chat, both people show up with their beverage of choice (and the optional donut!) and have a long chat—they don't have to talk about work: they just casually hang out and talk about whatever they want.
Afterward, Donut follows up to make sure both people met and asks if they want to participate in the next round.
Tip: 30 minutes go by really fast when you're having fun—but if you are strapped for time, we did a shorter program in Marketing and 15-minute chatroulettes worked well, too. If you keep them shorter, you can do twice as many!
me & Bee comparing tea mugs
4. Weekly ‘Gamejar’ gaming sessions
Gamejar is a dedicated social fun hour where team members come together to play online games. This weekly tradition started in the Dev team, but expanded to be open to anyone in the company.
Why do we do it?The games themselves are fun, but we play them because the activity helps form cross-company friendships. Many of the games require an element of working together to defeat a common foe or achieve a goal; team members have a chance to collaborate with people from outside of their department whom they might not otherwise work with. If these people end up needing to work together on a project in the future, that trust and security already exist.
How does it work? Every Wednesday morning, the organizer sends out a survey where people can vote for the game they want to play that week. The choices change regularly, but Jackbox Party Pack is very popular at the moment.
Yes, we use Hotjar for our Gamejar survey!
Anyone who wants to participate shows up in Zoom at the appointed hour. Some games are played on separate websites; some, like Jackbox, require screen sharing on Zoom while players use their phones to participate.
One of the useful things about Gamejar is that it's easier to organize activities like this remotely than it would be inside of an office setting. Many games are set up to be played communally online, and it's easy for team members to casually join or walk away as needed. Usually, somewhere between 5-15 people show up to play each week.
5. 60-minute Wednesday bonfire
The weekly Hotjar bonfire gathering is a way for the entire Hotjar team to catch up or talk about interesting topics and personal growth. It’s a non-mandatory but highly popular meeting, and special guests from outside the company are occasionally invited as well.
Why do we do it? Bonfires are an essential chance for co-workers to interact with people outside of their immediate teams and learn a bit more about each other. By listening to one another's opinions and stories, we get to truly get to know each other as human beings months—perhaps even years—before meeting in person. The concept of psychological safety applies here, too: during the bonfire we get to have both lighthearted and deep, vulnerable conversations in a group setting.
How does it work? Our People Ops team is in charge of sending recurring invites to everybody at Hotjar and maintaining an updated calendar of topics and speakers. Each Wednesday afternoon, we have our bonfire chat in Zoom (so we can see each other's faces) and we usually open a shared Trello board that we can all contribute to. We recently covered topics like the pros and cons of working remotely, what effective leadership looks like, the craziest and most curious traditions from our home countries, and the practice of work/life balance:
Creating real relationships virtually
Twice a year, the whole company comes together for one of our meetups. This is when we clearly see the payoff of all the virtual team building we've been doing year round, as the connections we've forged throughout weeks and months are realized in the flesh.
During the meetup, we work together, learn together, share meals, and enjoy each other's company in abeautiful location. We even do some of those more traditional in-person team building activities like three-legged races and whitewater rafting. While spending five straight days with a bunch of near-strangers could feel awkward and forced, the meetup always feels like a reunion of old friends because we already know each other so well.
We see evidence of our solid connections in our team's commitment, problem-solving abilities, and the fact that we all actually really like each other. Strong bonds make for a strong team, and our bedrock of trust makes us one of the most efficient and effective ones around.