One hundred years ago, companies sucked.
- work fatalities were at an all-time high;
- fair wages and basic benefits were a luxury; and
- if workers demanded better treatment, they could be attacked by a goon squad.
Good news, work fatalities decreased 96% in the 1900s (Lebergott, Wages and Working Conditions), and other working conditions improved too. Because here’s the thing: companies sucked, but it wasn’t their fault. In the early 1900s, workers were commodities. Anyone that showed up for the day shift could build a widget. If one worker quit or wasn’t able to continue working, he was easily replaceable.
But now everything has changed. Fair wages and a full set of benefits aren’t special anymore — they are the price of admission. You may be able to build a company by doing the bare minimum, or even by cutting corners and exploiting loopholes, but you won’t thrive. If you want to be the best company that attracts and retains the best people, you have to invest in your team.
We recommend investing in your team through company team building. It’s not a buzzword; it’s the glue that holds the best teams together at the highest performing companies in the world, and it’s the #1 investment we’ve made to grow our team to 40 people and $1.2 million in revenue in just two years.
In today’s article, I’ll focus specifically on how to do team building with a remote team.
Does Your Company Suffer From Team Dispergence?
Our company, Museum Hack, offers unconventional tours at the world’s best museums. Most of our “on the ground” people that lead these tours are in NYC, DC and SF. And we have an amazing support team of customer service reps, sales/marketing people, and admin staff that work from Canada, Colombia, Belgium and the Philippines. We are a distributed team with no central office. Instead, we work out of coffee shops, museum cafes and fancy lounges.
For our company, the benefits of being an entirely remote team are huge. We get to work from convenient locations so having a commute is optional, and we’ve eliminated “expensive NYC office rental” from our overhead. The biggest challenge is growing a cohesive, passionate team that truly understands our business, vision and clients.
The following tips for team building with remote staff are not just best practices, they are battle tested techniques we’ve developed to combat Team Dispergence — the tendency for groups of people to “scatter” away from their work, especially when they aren’t held together by proximity.
How to do Company Team Building With a Remote Team
Following are three techniques we’ve developed for company team building with our remote staff. We’ve included a range of options, from team building exercises that are free and just take a few minutes, to larger investments of both resources. It may help to think of investing in your staff like caring for a garden — a little bit of water and sunshine will help your carrots grow faster, but they will grow the fastest when they have 100% of the resources they need to thrive.
Team Building Activity #1: Icebreakers For Fun & Bonding
An icebreaker is a soft question that is meant to make people comfortable speaking with a group and to introduce themselves in a way that may not come up in the normal work setting. Examples include questions like, “What is the one thing you are awesome at cooking?”, “Do you have something planned for 2016 that you’ve never done before?”, and “What was your first job?”
The answers to these questions give insight into the employee not just as a worker, but as a person with actual experience and interests. And you will quickly see your team bonding over their shared qualities. “Growing up you HATED chocolate milk? Me too!”, “You are planning a cruise next year? I’ve always wanted to try that!” When your team-building becomes “friend-building”, you’ve won. Icebreakers are an activity you can start using today, with zero investment and almost no planning.
Team Building Activity #2: Company Trainages to Upgrade Your Skills
About once per month, all of our NYC staff gather for Company Trainages, where we have fun and learn new skills together. This activity includes both full time and part time staff, and we hire a consultant to teach us something new. Examples from past sessions include improv training, which we recommend to all teams as a way to learn how to “think on your feet”, and healthy voice projection, which is important for our guides to avoid voice strain on tour.
Trainages are a larger investment than icebreakers, but you will see an exponentially greater gain. Example: this is paid time for our staff, so two hours of wages, plus the consultant’s fee, snacks, etc. can easily reach $1000+. This is the kind of investment we LOVE to make, and we do it monthly. The skills and friendships we’ve built have had a 10x greater ROI for the business. If you are interested in learning more about hosting your own trainage, we’ve written a step by step guide.
Team Building Activity #3: Thick Presence for Deep Connections
One of the best ways to build a tight-knit and thriving team is to find more opportunities for thick presence — the “we are in this together” experiences that are like super-glue for your staff. You know you’ve found thick presence when you see your people engaged and focussed for long periods of time, but also truly relaxing together, e.g., openly sharing their memories and feelings. It may help to picture thick presence by imagining the exact opposite, thin presence. You know you’ve found thin presence when people are hacking away at their computers during meetings, or thumbing their cell phones instead of collaborating on a project.
One example of creating more opportunity for thick presence includes when people meet tight deadlines together, which you can artificially increase by setting internal deadlines in addition to your public release deadlines. Other examples are Company Hackathons where you work on mini projects with “all hands on deck” and everyone contributing with their expertise. More examples of thick presence, including something we learned from Elon Musk, are available in this article: Use Thick Presence for Better Team Building Activities.
Bonus Activity #4: Paid Trips for Bonding & Localization
Even if you are a functional, productive team while working remotely, nothing quite replaces the value of face-time. For Museum Hack, many of our team members live and work from outside NYC, but we invest in bringing them to NYC for a weekend to meet our team here and experience our Renegade Tours. The weekend may cost $800+ for a return ticket and airbnb, but we take a long view of our business and the ROI is obvious: there is a noticeable increase in productivity, dedication and collaboration when our people have met in person. Plus, once a team member has visited and gone on tour with us they have a better understanding of our service and what we do for clients. That’s a huge win.
Wrapping it Up: The 1 Thing You Can Do Today to Start Team Building
Team building activities are easily the best investment we’ve made in our business and in our people. We recommend starting your efforts today with an easy activity like icebreakers. Once you start engaging your team with these quick, fun exercises, you will see the benefits almost instantly.
Do you know of a fun team building activity we didn’t cover? Have a question about team building for your company? Let us know in the comments below.
Museum Hack does renegade tours at the world’s best museums in NYC, DC and SF. Our tours include the untold stories of the art and artists, juicy gossip about the museum, and activities in the galleries like “Buy, Burn, Steal” where guests choose their favorite (and least favorite) pieces. Team Building is a large part of our business. We host teams for excursions through the museum that offer the same, fun and fast-paced approach as our public tours, but optimized for bringing a team closer together and fostering a great company culture. Some companies do a scavenger hunt where their team works together to follow clues in the museum. Our team building clients include Google, Facebook, Spotify, Etsy, KPMG, Lego, Adobe, ESPN, and the New Yorker — but you don’t have to be a big company to invest in team building, our minimum group size is two guests.