Katie Evans-Reber, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is the Vice President of People and Culture at Wonolo, the leading in-demand staffing platform.
Long gone are the days of standing in a group waiting to catch your fellow colleague in a “trust fall.” The pandemic completely rewrote the script for company off-sites and presented HR and people leaders with the following question: Is it possible to bring teams together virtually and create close bonds?
In leading the people function at a remote-first company, I set out to answer that question myself. In 2021, we had to make a difficult decision to postpone our annual in-person off-site to 2022. Rather than cancel the off-site event altogether, my team set out to create the best virtual “off-site” event they could with the goal of fostering strong team connections in a remote world.
Whether your team is fully remote or hybrid, spending time together in a non-work setting is crucial. It helps teams connect with one another, improves collaboration and provides a good way to get to know one another better. Virtual events might seem difficult to coordinate, but they can be essential for team building. Here are the top dos and don’ts of creating a successful virtual off-site.
Give Zoom A Break
In the past two years, virtual meetings have skyrocketed. As a result, “Zoom fatigue” has become a real issue for many. Commonly described as the tiredness or burnout associated with overusing virtual platforms of communication, Zoom fatigue can be hard to avoid in this new world of remote work — especially for off-site summits or company bonding.
To avoid fatigue, I’d recommend factoring in long and frequent breaks. People need to recharge before they can process new information. Otherwise, Zoom fatigue may easily take hold of them and lead your colleagues’ attention astray. Taking 15-minute breaks every 90 minutes gives people time to reset, handle other business needs and deal with issues at home.
Creativity Sparks Deeper Connections
Humans are social beings, and establishing that feeling of connectedness in a remote setting has become a challenge for businesses today. As we enter another year of the pandemic, employees could still feel isolated. Engaging team members in a meaningful purpose outside of their day-to-day work together is likely to increase overall job satisfaction. A virtual off-site is the perfect setting for developing these connections, but how can it be done behind a computer?
During our 2021 virtual off-site, we had everyone take an enneagram test, which is a self-discovery and personal growth test based on nine personality types. People were then separated into smaller groups according to personality types to learn more about each other. We found this to be a great way to bring people together who don’t normally talk. It also encouraged people to have deeper what we call “level-five conversations” beyond surface-level small talk.
Team connection is essential, so it’s important to build activities into your agenda to foster engagement between employees. Whether it’s comparing personality tests or setting up virtual breakout rooms, splitting up employees into smaller groups can clear the way for bigger ideas, feedback and collaboration. If done properly, you will find that you can build strong relationships in a virtual setting.
Make Room For Fun
Off-sites don’t need to be only about company strategy and alignment in the business sense of the word. Create a space for social activities, like quizzes or online games, and help your team relax and let their hair down a little — even online.
It can be as easy as creating “spirit days” for the duration of the off-site. As part of our virtual off-site, we started off the week by having everyone wear our company colors, black and yellow. The next day, we asked them to wear their favorite sports team jersey. One of our employees took the assignment very seriously by dressing up in head-to-toe hockey gear — skates included. These prompts sound simple, but it’s a way to encourage people to show their true personalities. You never know who might surprise you.
Invest In The Unexpected
In “normal” times organizational leaders set aside a large portion of the off-site event budget for travel, hotel and food expenses. But because we aren’t operating in normal times, it’s important to take advantage of this and reinvest that money into technology to enhance the virtual experience in lieu of that travel plus prizes to incentivize employees.
Virtual reality (VR) was one technology we implemented that I highly recommend you consider using to enhance your next off-site. Compared to typical team-building activities, VR gives employees exciting ways to interact and collaborate. From virtual retreats to immersive gameplay, there are plenty of exercises to choose from. For instance, we used VR to host gatherings like dance rooms, tower defense games and AR-powered trivia.
Finally, there’s nothing wrong with adding in a few incentives to your off-site agenda. If your budget permits, send company swag in advance, pay for lunch (we partnered with UberEats to give everyone lunch stipends) and offer prizes for any of the games you play to encourage participation. We upgraded our prizes to include an iPad, a drone and more. If the budget is there, think big. The prizes worked out to be a lot less than hosting an in-person event.
Not only can these practices be applied to company off-sites, but they can also be used to improve employee onboarding, monthly team meetings and more. We might not be able to perfectly replicate the experience of an in-person off-site in an online setting, but there are still ways to do it successfully until we can again. With the right preparation, technology and an open mind to experiment, you’ll be able to conduct virtual off-sites that allow your team to create stronger bonds as a company.