Bottle with message inside in a riverbed

August 26 2020

by Tim Peacock


Encouraging Virtual Team Engagement During COVID

Zoom and other video conferencing tools have been a godsend during COVID. For many industries, they’ve allowed teams to continue to work together even when physically apart. And for the first few weeks of remote work, things seemed okay despite the national toilet paper shortage. We were getting work done, able to connect with others, finding fun resources to keep us busy and eliminate horrible commutes!

Then fatigue set in. We realized being on Zoom all day is really tough for everyone. We missed the impromptu conversations, the group brainstorms, the office dogs and the creepy security guy we call Cactus Jack. How could leaders keep their teams together and motivated when everyone was working remotely?

What We’ve Done to Improve Virtual Team Engagement

Here’s a list of things we’ve tried here at VSSL to promote virtual team engagement:

1. Barnacle Buddies

One way to virtually recreate those impromptu office conversations is through something we call Barnacle Buddies. Employees can opt-in to the program, and each week, the free Donut app for Slack will randomly choose two people to meet. The app can even check calendars to find a time when both participants are free. This has been well-received by our team with high usage every week we’ve been running it. To keep things fresh, we recently upgraded to have it choose groups of 3 to mix it up and encourage more boisterous conversations. Check out some of the reporting data we’ve received from our Barnacle Buddies hangouts over the last few weeks:

screenshot of reporting data from barnacle buddy hangouts

2. Video Call Superlatives

We’ve also been hosting regular happy hour get-togethers with the team. As always, these are a great way for everyone to kick back at the end of the week, but sometimes when there are a lot of people on the call, it can be hard to get everyone to engage. So it’s good to have some kind of activity to get everyone involved.

Video Call Superlatives takes a page from your 80’s high school yearbook, and starts with an emailed link to employees to fill out a bunch of “most likely to…” questions. Some we’ve used are:

  • Most likely to sound like there’s a stampede of elephants in their house
  • Least likely to put on pants before starting their day
  • Most likely to be sitting in a new place in their house for each call in a single day
  • Most likely to have the best Zoom background

Then our design team put together these fun photo composites of our winners. Totally bodacious!

80s style headshot of Christina

80s style headshot of cat

80s style headshot of Alex

3. Scavenger Hunt

For a more active happy hour hang, we gave everyone on the team 5 minutes to find as many items from a scavenger hunt list as possible. After, we collectively displayed our findings to the group to pick the favorites. Some ideas for this one include:

  1. Luggage Tag
  2. Something baked
  3. White Claw
  4. Something brown that weighs over 10 pounds
  5. A holiday decoration
  6. 3 things that are yellow
  7. Something you regret buying
  8. Something gifted to you
  9. Novelty printed socks
  10. Something VSSL related
  11. Etc.

4. Theme/Dress-Up

When you can’t dress up for the office, do it over video conference! Zoom adds a fun twist with their virtual backgrounds feature. During our Pride happy hour, we encouraged everyone to dress up and select their most festive virtual background. It was awesome to see the whole team’s enthusiasm.

team photo

5. Goat to Meeting

To be honest, we haven’t done this yet, but it’s on the list. Through Sweet Farm, a non-profit animal sanctuary, you can invite a goat (or other animal) to converse with the turkeys at your office for just $100.

6. Photo Share

Another idea that’s more of an icebreaker is to have everyone share a specific photo from their phone. Some ideas here are to have everyone share their most recent photo or maybe share the last photo they took in the before times. Either way, it can be a fun way to get a discussion rolling.

7. Paint n Sip

Here’s another tried-and-true team-building activity that works well remotely and definitely boosted our virtual team engagement. Ahead of the event, we sent every employee the materials they needed to participate (wine and some painting stuff) and then Cat, one of our senior designers, led the team in painting an awesome jellyfish. Check out some of the finished products below!

team photo during paint night

8. Mystery Crew Member

Another fun way to get to know your teammates better is through mystery crew member. Ahead of a team get-together, submit questions to everyone asking them to write a little bit about themselves, their hobbies and more. Then, during the meeting you can put people’s answers up on a slide and have everyone guess who wrote each response. This works best if you can encourage everyone to pick three prompts from a longer list, then write 3-5 sentences for each. Here are some sample questions to get you started:

  • Favorite hobbies + how you got into them
  • Favorite place you’ve traveled to + tell us about it
  • Drink of choice + where you like to get it from
  • Top 3 San Diego restaurants + what makes them rad
  • Pet’s name and backstory + we want details
  • If you could spend a day with someone who inspires you, what would you do and who would it be?
  • Album that changed your life + tell us about it
  • Favorite junk food + why
  • Favorite hikes or campgrounds + where and why
  • Morning cup: Coffee or Tea + how do you take it

9. Fresh Keel

For years now, we’ve been holding a Friday get-together we call Fresh Keel. We’ll all have lunch together and someone will present an interesting topic to everyone else. Half the time, this session is a good way to share useful, work-related information like learning about new SEO techniques or paid media. But it could be anything that a team member  is interested in — how to do a kick flip, sharing the history of horror movies, or watching a creepy bicycle safety film their grandfather made.

Since COVID, we’ve taken Fresh Keel online as another way to keep the virtual team engagement flowing by learning about interesting topics. In fact, our most recent topic was how to take care of yourself and recognize signs of depression… a timely topic for our current situation.

10. Memorial Day Surprise

This one took a little planning, but was well worth it. Heading into the Memorial Day weekend, we told the crew that we had a special delivery coming to their house and to make sure they’re around on the Friday before the holiday. Our principals drove to each employee’s house and dropped off a Memorial Day kit with an inflatable pool, camping chair, cooler (with beer or kombucha) and more. Thankfully no one spilled the beans on Slack with exactly what was coming… so it was great fun to surprise everyone. Depending on how distributed your team is, this might not be feasible, but it was great fun and an awesome way to show appreciation for the team.

Memorial Day Swag

What tips have you tried to energize your team meetings? Continue to search for strategies that will encourage virtual team engagement within your crew. Every team functions differently and it may take some trial and error to find the right fit, but it’s definitely worth it. We’re in this together.