The awkward toasts. The French press and cocktail shaker close-ups. Even the cats who scamper in from off-screen. If you’re like many people who used to work in an office and are now stuck at home, you’re tiring of the Zoom happy hours and coffee breaks.
While Zoom (or any other videoconferencing tool) might seem less demanding than in-person events, since there’s no need to leave your home or even put on pants, researchers have found video sessions can be their own source of stress. That’s in part due to factors such as the need to focus on facial cues from tiny pictures and fears of technical failures or other surprises, such as pets, kids, or spouses entering the frame, that apply to work social events as much as more formal meetings.
But even if you’ve come to dread Zoom happy hour, many of us still crave the social side of work and want to connect with our colleagues. Companies also have a vested interest in helping their employees communicate and work well together—which can be more difficult to achieve remotely. Remote teams often have to make special efforts to ensure workers are engaged and collaborating well.
TRIVIA BY EMAIL
As companies look for ways to keep people motivated and talking to coworkers even informally, some are turning to games such as those from Water Cooler Trivia. The company builds online trivia games that are text-focused and accessible by email or Slack, meaning it’s possible to play with coworkers without triggering that Zoom fatigue. It can also adapt questions to company needs, says CEO and cofounder Collin Waldoch. “We have companies in the insurance industry who get an insurance question each week,” he says.
The game was originally designed to be playable in in-person offices, with elements such as bobblehead trophies that can be moved to a winner’s desk, but it’s taken off in popularity for remote play since the pandemic.
TAILOR-MADE TEAM BUILDING
The host of companies that offer these kinds of virtual team-building activities aim to tailor their offerings to what their customers are looking for, whether it’s competitive challenges that help teams bond as they face off against others from the same company or icebreakers that let people get to know their coworkers a little better.
“A company comes to us wanting to help build a specific goal like fostering team communication,” says Charlie Harding, the CEO of Denver-based Let’s Roam, which ordinarily puts together urban scavenger hunts for corporate groups, tourists, and parties. “We can actually build in challenges that target those type of things.”
After virus-related restrictions forced people to stay home, Let’s Roam launched in-home scavenger hunts, where players search for items within their own homes. “You’re competing virtually with your teammates, and you can bring in your friends and family when you’re at home too,” Harding says. The company is also offering other virtual game options such as trivia, charades, and a Pictionary-style drawing game, with different options available to corporate or social groups based on what they’re looking to accomplish.
BREAKING THE ICE
Icebreakers have been a particularly popular type of team-building activity, perhaps because they’re easy to do virtually. Brightful Meeting Games, a Hong Kong-based company that provides free browser-based games that can be used during calls, videoconferences, or Slack sessions, has rolled out a number of icebreaker-style games. The company’s present mission came about after realizing the need for such activities during work on an earlier planned WhatsApp-style product, says founder and CEO Alvin Hung.
In a demo of the company’s “Question of the Day” game, Hung was prompted to describe “the most amazing place in nature” he’d ever been (he chose the Grand Canyon), while I was asked to name a restaurant I’d want to eat at if I could only pick one (I cheated a bit, saying I’d find a classic New York diner with a huge menu).
The company also offers a two-truths-and-a-lie style icebreaker, a would-you-rather game, and a secret word guessing game. It just rolled out a set of card games including hearts and rummy. Exactly how companies or social groups use the games is ultimately up to them, says community outreach manager Calvin Cheung.
“We definitely want to encourage video calling when you can, because then you can laugh together and see people’s reactions,” he says. “Sometimes the situation’s a bit different, and you might just want something a little more chill and relaxed on Slack.”
A LIFELINE FOR EVENTS BUSINESSES
Many of these companies are themselves dealing with pandemic-related changes to their event-based businesses.
“March came, and we essentially had to postpone or cancel 100% of our business,” says Mat MacDonell, founder and CEO of The Offsite Company, which manages corporate retreats. “Essentially [customers] were asking the question of, we can’t go and do this in the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Catskills—how can we do it virtually?”
Offsite has replaced its traditional events, which usually include activities such as office Olympics, mountain hikes, and scenic river rafting, with new offerings that workers can participate in from home. One event is lip-sync karaoke, where participants break into teams that individually lip-sync to the lyrics of popular songs. Offsite’s team then edits the videos together, giving the teams something concrete to watch over, yes, a video happy hour. Other options are Rube Goldberg machine or tower-building events, where people construct comical machines or structures using items scavenged from around the house.
And even when pandemic restrictions ease, some employers are likely to continue using remote team-building experiences to accommodate a workforce increasingly geographically distributed and able to work from home. That means there will likely be steady demand for online activities more stimulating than yet another Zoom call with workers’ beverages of choice.
“I’m getting reports of companies where they’re saying, ‘I don’t think we’re ever going to go back,’” Dyer says. “This is an opportunity for them to get better around doing virtual teams.”
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