Team building activities for remote teams

Remote teams are on the rise as more and more companies see the benefit of a globalized, decentralized workforce.

One 2018 survey found that 56% of companies were remote to some extent. Virtual teams that are dispersed are more productive, more innovative, and more engaged with their work. However, remote teams face the unique challenge of collaborating from a distance.

There are many ways to bring your remote team together throughout the workweek. Productivity tools like Slack and Trello can improve communication on key projects and workflows.

All-hands team meetings can help break your remote workers out of their siloes. But, deeper team building presents a different challenge.

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The best way to bring a remote team together for team building is to host a retreat for your remote team.

Offsite retreats are more effective than forced team bonding over virtual networks and productivity platforms. Retreats offer space to create a cooperative environment, motivate the remote team members, and align on company goals.

What should a retreat for a fully remote team look like? Remote workers often don't know each other before the retreat. Likewise, remote employees tend to be introverts.

They usually don't know much about each other outside the professional context.

As a result, retreats for remote teams need different activities than retreats for coworkers sharing an office every day. Here’s what Surf Office’s experience hosting retreats for remote teams has taught us.

Best remote team-building activities

Surf Office has lots of experience organizing activities for partly and fully remote companies, like Invision, Close.io, Mynd, and Mattermost.

Samantha, our in-house retreat planning expert, says the best way to plan is to start small. “You shouldn’t organize a big team-building activity as the first activity, especially for a remote team,” says Samantha.

“Surfing lessons, for example, aren’t a great way to break the ice when no one knows each other. We recommend getting there with smaller steps that don’t put too much pressure on new coworkers.”

Instead, start with some workshops or icebreaker games that can help remote colleagues get to know each other better. Here are some of the ones that have worked on our retreats.

1. Go for a hike or walk together

A good way to kick off the retreat is to go on a hike or walk together. Wander in nature or explore the city with or without a destination in mind.

It may be that you want to reach the top of a mountain together, or just head in the general direction of an ice cream shop.

This is an effective approach for remote workers because groups naturally interact and start to talk amongst themselves. Someone who is not in the mood to talk can walk faster or lag behind and join the group later.

Plus, you’re working toward a common goal.

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2. Cook something together

Monica Zeng from Aragon One brought her remote team on a Surf Office retreat for some quality time and team bonding.

One of her most popular activities was a dumpling-making class. Any type of cooking class is a fun activity for remote groups – no chef expertise necessary.

The goal is to split the bigger group into smaller segments. Then, the format provides the chance for intimate conversations while chopping, mixing, stirring, and baking. It’s a type of team building “problem-solving” activity that’s both lighthearted and rewarding. Plus, snacks!

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3. Organize the hackathon not related to work

Hackathons are design sprint-like events. Typically, computer programmers and software developers plan a hackathon to solve a problem. Hackathons can be organized to solve non-engineering related issues.

The most fun hackathon events have nothing to do with the company whatsoever. Organize a hackathon-style event to break into smaller teams and encourage creative thinking. The goal is to improve team cooperation while thinking outside the box.

Surf Office hosted a hackathon at a retreat we organized in Ericeira for the remote company Invision. The team chose to focus on solving for remote work communications issues.

Over the course of their one-day hackathon, the team built new product features, as well as a few internal communication tools.

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4. Invite a guest speaker or host a meetup

Peakon, a people analytics software company that’s fully remote, hosted a retreat with Surf Office in Barcelona. They invited the former director of marketing from FC Barcelona to talk about marketing ideas in soccer. The lessons he shared were surprisingly applicable for SaaS businesses, too.

A guest speaker can spark new ideas and curiosity for your team members. Bring in someone who can help motivate your remote workforce or bring a new perspective that sparks discussion. Or, organize lightning talks by members of your team.

Your team members are interested in different topics, so why not let them speak to their passion?

Lightning talks don’t have to be work-related. Wouldn't you be interested to hear about the experience of your coworker hiking in Nepal? Be creative.

If you’re seeking to learn about the culture of your retreat location, organize a local meetup. For Automattic, Surf Office organized a meetup in Lisbon.

The team hosted a meetup to showcase how their employees work within a distributed company.

A local meetup is a fantastic opportunity to attract great talent. It’s an effective way to represent your company to applicants with minimal investment.

Next steps for remote team-building

Surf Office has a ton of resources to help you plan your remote team-building retreat.

Our experience has also given us some key recommendations we can share. Start by planning your schedule for the biggest team-building activity to take place one day before departure.

For example, if you’re planning a three-day retreat, host the activity on the second day. Then, plan a dinner together as a group on the third day (and leave for home the following morning).

This gives your team plenty of time to get to know each other and debrief after the team activity.

We can help you organize a company retreat, whether its an annual retreat, milestone celebration, hackathon, innovation week, or leadership retreat.

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