With the COVID-19 pandemic sending everyone home to work, more than workflows are disrupted. Communication channels, professional relationships, and corporate culture are also profoundly changed by moving to a distributed work model. Suddenly, team members used to interacting and collaborating with each other on a daily basis are working in relative isolation. A recent survey by FinanceBuzz of 500 respondents who worked from home before COVID-19 found that 49% felt the top challenge is building relationships with co-workers.
How Virtual Water Cooler Activities Can Promote Teamwork
Despite the challenge, it is possible to maintain and even enhance collaboration when working remotely. The key is to implement new opportunities for informal interactions and socializing outside of work. Employers need to replace or replicate the real-world situations that occurred in the office with virtual situations. Essentially finding a way to implement virtual water cooler activities for their remote employees.
“In month one of working from home, it was important to stay engaged and create multiple touch points per day to stay connected. Now that we’re in month three and see this as the new normal longer-term, we’re building and developing new strategies, programs and activities to bring the collaborative nature of our company and in-office culture to life online.” – Mia Gravina, Corporate Office & Program Manager, Freshly
Encouraging employees to gather around the virtual water cooler may go against the grain for many companies. But informal interactions between employees are essential to reach business goals and improve productivity.
“There has been a noticeable ‘team’ element grown within the team since we stopped trying to police out socializing and started actively encouraging it. The end result is we will often find people working together to solve problems, without oversight.” – Morgan Taylor, CMO, LetMeBank
Setting the Scene
The scope and variety of informal group and individual interactions are practically endless. However, the key to creating a successful socializing opportunity—just as it is in the real world—is to set the scene. Create an environment that is conducive to relaxation and communication. Just like when you’re planning the perfect cocktail party, certain elements need to be in place:
- Decide the purpose of the event or the situation that the event is replacing. For example, you can organize a Friday happy hour. Other examples could include virtual coffee breaks, lunch, book clubs, cooking classes, and so on. The options are endless and limited only by your imagination.
- Find the right venue. This involves identifying and setting up an appropriate communication channel. You can use video, audio, or text channels, depending on your employees’ comfort level and size of the event. You can choose from a variety of options. But the best choice is probably to use one of the applications your team is already familiar with.
- Develop a program or agenda. Finally, add a little structure and design some fun elements such as games, trivia contests, or conversation starters. These will help people feel comfortable when taking part. Keep it simple by developing a few discussion topics. Get fancy by sending out party favors or making up original games.
Now all you have to do is send out the invitations and see what happens. To get creative juices flowing and give you a few virtual water cooler activities ideas for your company, read on for real-world examples.
Ask Me a Question
Many virtual water cooler activities center around getting to know your co-workers. In addition, these are great opportunities for employees to create common bonds and also to bring new hires up to speed.
“Every team member submits a personal or work-related question they would like to know about members of the team a day before the meeting. The team leader assigns a range of numbers to each question received, then creates a Picker Wheel to select a random team member by spinning the wheel. The team member chosen by the wheel gets to pick a number and proceeds to answer the question assigned to the number selected. It’s always super fun as it helps team members develop a feeling of better connectedness while working remotely.” – Tope Longe, Content Marketing Manager, Time Doctor
“One game we’ve started is, “Whose Pantry Is It?” Sounds silly, and it is, but that’s what makes it fun! Here’s how it works: Team members were encouraged to send photos of their pantries to our office manager. She posts one image at a time in our #watercooler Slack channel while keeping the pantry owner anonymous. Our team would work together to find clues and guess whose pantry it was!” – Aly Russo, Sr. Outreach Specialist, FinanceBuzz
“Participants log into the game on their own phone or tablet. For a half hour, employees answer questions about themselves. When the game ends, they hop back on a web chat together and they can view a pie chart showing statistics from the office’s response (i.e. 80% chose popcorn, 20% chose candy as their response), and see a presentation reel of everyone’s photos and videos to share while enjoying F&B and a laugh together.” – Lisa Jennings, Chief Experience Officer, Wildly Different
Let’s Play a Game
Games are a great way to get to know people and have a little fun. There are tons of great options to choose from or you can make up your own. Check out these ingenious ideas:
“We have a Zoom water cooler that we call into every Friday at 4pm for our Happy Hour. Our VP of Sales puts together a Kahoot! trivia challenge that the team participates in as well. It’s just a fun way to spur some friendly competition and banter with people who we haven’t seen in a while.” – Rich Pusateri, Marketing Associate, Postal.io
“I use a virtual escape room called The Escape Game. The virtual escape room allows my employees to log in remotely from their location via Zoom. Each employee logged in can view a live feed of the place they are attempting to escape from, and they have hundreds of clues they have to search through. I have had team members divvy up the evidence to work through them individually or in teams, and I have had experiences where one team member steps up as the leader and delegates based on the teammates’ skills. I find The Escape Game to be a fun yet challenging event to engage my remote team and to promote bonding.” – Sarah Franklin, Co-Founder of Blue Tree AI
“Online role-playing games, Dungeons and Dragons to be precise. We wanted to give our employees the ability to engage in a fun, company-wide activity that would help keep them socially engaged during the pandemic. Since you can’t have 50 people in the same game at the same time, we randomly assigned teams of six. The results were great and what started as a voluntary after-work activity on Fridays turned into weekend-long marathons.” – Dusan Goljic, PharmD, Co-founder of DealsOnHealth
It’s a Celebration!
There are many celebratory events that commonly take place in office environments. Whether it’s a birthday or a weekend wedding shower, these important bonding opportunities can be moved online.
“When one of my team members was pregnant, we threw her a virtual baby shower! We decided on a tea party theme, sent party evites to each team member, and then went out and bought tea cups, petit fours, a few different types of tea, and some shower game supplies, and packaged them up into boxes and mailed one out to each attendee. Meanwhile, everyone ordered gifts for the mom-to-be and had them shipped to her house, where she was under strict orders not to peek until the shower. Once everyone’s packages had arrived, we all got on a video call, chatted while we drank our tea and ate, played some silly shower games, and then oohed and ahhed over all the sweet baby gifts as she opened them. It was a huge hit with everyone involved!” – Angela von Weber-Hahnsberg, CEO and Founder of Manoula Marketing
Companionship During Daily Activities
There are some activities during the day that just need to get done. Whether it’s making a meal or getting some exercise, sometimes it’s more fun in a group.
“One of the things I like to do to lift their spirits is to get everyone to cook the same meal when online and rate whose looks the best. We sometimes post them online. Another thing we like to do is watch a movie or series and have others guess what it was we were watching. This can spark some great conversations and build a bond between team members.” – Christopher Prasad, Marketing Manager, JookSMS
“We did some virtual exercise together. Stretching and a virtual walk in the park were the main creatives there. In general, the goals of the activities were to create a sense of togetherness in a time when that is much needed.” – David Bakke, Remote Worker at National Air Warehouse
Have a Grown-Up Conversation
With many staying at home and parents challenged with childcare 24/7, sometimes all you want is a good adult conversation. In addition, being able to have discussions about relevant issues is also a great way to relieve stress. Virtual water cooler activities can also achieve these goals.
“To create spaces where people can talk about the issues that matter to them, we use Zoom’s ‘co-host’ feature to hold virtual Open Space “unconferences.” We let people pitch conversational topics in chat, and then use those topics as the names of different breakout rooms. The goal is to give everyone the same freedom of movement and choice that came with hanging out in a common area. When a conversation gets stale, or I simply want to find out what other people are talking about, I can wave goodbye and pop into another breakout room. I might go from a conversation about racial justice into a conversation where people are drawing pictures of their inner emotional state into a breakout room where people are competing to make the best puns.” – Jack Nicolaus, Facilitator, LifeLabs
As you can see, there are endless opportunities to create virtual water cooler activities. Using real-life examples, you can design options that will effectively engage and entertain your employees. When you start seeing improvements in collaboration and problem-solving by your teams, you’ll be glad you did!
iStock Image: fizkes, Eva-Katalin, metamorworks
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