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Practical tips and team building exercises for distributed teams

Getting closer to your teammates when you are remote


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Herman Meeuwsen

3 years ago | 5 min read

During this pandemic many of us have exchanged the formal office workplace for a far more informal workplace at home.

As individuals some of us are used to work from home occasionally, when it is convenient due to personal circumstances, our choice, our benefit. But now entire teams are dispersed and everybody is working remotely from each other, quite a different experience.

Even more so if you have to look after kids, who are staying at home too because schools are closed. In the Netherlands this situation is already taking more than a month now, and the same is happening in other countries in Europe.

Right after the covid-19 outbreak many teleworking tips and practices were shared on social media to make the new working situation bearable. Not many people were used to work from home on such a structural basis.

Various reports show that working remotely has its own advantages and disadvantages which we all should be aware of. In an interesting TIME article by Alana Semuels various teleworking initiatives are covered. In the article professor of psychology Susan Holtzman elaborates on several studies into the impact of teleworking on social interaction.

Still, even people who are on video calls all day and feel connected eventually miss the little interactions around the office; talking about the weather or joking about their need for coffee, Holtzman says.

“We are just inherently social creatures,” she says. “Those little interactions are going to enhance our feeling like we’re connected and we belong to something bigger.”

As a scrum master for two teams on a big IT project, I can testify from personal experience that working from home can be quite exhausting for several reasons:

  • Since there is no clear distinction between home and office, it’s quite easy to keep on working way beyond your normal working hours. There is always one more task to pick up or email to answer, and there’s no traffic jam to beat….
  • Communication takes more time and effort to be effective compared to normal office life. No more ad-hoc conversations at the coffee machine or water cooler. No jumping into interesting discussions because you overhear some colleagues debating. No picking up of non-verbal communication signs when you can only see some talking heads in tiny windows on your laptop screen.

So what can you do to stay connected with your fellow team mates? The answer is simple: invest in social interactions!

Be flexible

As a scrum master you help your team to stick to the 15 minutes timebox of the Daily Scrum as mentioned in the Scrum Guide. But not these days. I want my team to socialize and interact in all ways possible online. So our Daily Scrum sessions can easily take half an hour, and that’s okay.

Socialize on purpose

We have setup a weekly chill-out session where we meet online and just chitchat about anything but work (although that’s sometimes hard). It helps to stay connected and in touch with your teammates.

Some teams have organized a daily coffee break or weekly drinks on Friday afternoon. Other teams have a virtual lunch, eating their salads and sandwiches together while sharing their screens. There are plenty of options to recreate social events online, just be creative and give it a go.

With a bit more preparation, you can make it even more engaging, fun and worthwhile to get to know eachother even better. Here are two suggestions for remote team building.

Music quiz

Ask all your teammates to send you their favorite piece of music, something that lights them up, a song that has a special meaning for them. They should send it in individually because it needs to be a secret for the others. You’ll be amazed what you will get, here the fun already starts.

Your role is to be the team’s DJ in the upcoming music quiz. Setup a playlist with all these songs, and get ready for some serious fun in the next online meeting. Don’t forget to add your own favorite song too! At the online session, randomly play the songs from the playlist, and let your teammates figure out whose song it is. Let them guess and enjoy the music.

Everybody will be suprised by the variety of music. It’s also a great opportunity for people to share why their choice of music is so important to them.

Practical tip: to play music in an online session, you typically have to share your screen to find a checkbox for sharing system audio. Test it beforehand to avoid frustration.

Question time

Invite your team mates to send you individually all the questions they can come up with, stuff they would like to know about their teammates. Any question that could help to get to know them better. Questions you may get could be anything like: What’s your favourite movie? Do you have any brothers or sisters? What are you proud of? Which country would you like to visit next? What was your first job? Etcetera…. Collect all these questions in one list and order them randomly. You will be the team’s quiz master, so you might want to dress up for the occasion :)

In the online meeting, read out the first question to the first volunteer. He or she answers the question out loud, so the others can hear it and learn more about their teammate. Then the next person gets the next question, and so on, everybody takes their turn, you included.

So everybody participates, and the question you get is always a surprise. You might get a question you submitted yourself, and that is fine too.

Some answers will trigger some further conversation which is nice to deepen the team connections. For sure there will be some laughing out loud together, and maybe even an emotional story.

As long as you keep it a safe environment for the team, where it’s okay to share personal stories, it’s fine. It will help the team feel stronger together because they become closer personally.

Even when they are remote.

To increase the dynamics of the quiz you can apply some variations:

  • when someone has answered a question, let them choose who goes next (instead of following a strict order)
  • when someone gets a question, let them decide if they want to answer it themselves or want to pass it on to another teammate (it could be interesting to hear their motivation too)
  • Put a question out to the entire team, so everybody answers the same question.

You can play this quiz as long as you want (timeboxed) or until you run out of questions.

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Herman Meeuwsen

Herman wants to inspire people on their paths to happiness and success by sharing stories from his own personal experience. He has plenty of experience in various leadership roles. As a consultant he works in scrum master and agile coach roles to help organizations forward.


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