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’ve likely gotten a bit tired of the tropes and rituals of Zoom coffee breaks and happy hours. 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, says Gibb Dyer, a professor at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business who has written extensively about team building.
“Virtual teams have to check their process or critique their process more often, I think, than do the colocated teams,” he says. “It’s very easy to get off track and to lose a team member on a virtual team so they’re not engaged.”
I have to use the word boredom, because we are all Zoomed or [Microsoft] Teamsed out.”
That’s why some companies are going beyond Zoom happy hour and turning to a host of virtual activities, from trivia to icebreaker games to in-home scavenger hunts. Their goal? To help keep workers entertained and connected while the pandemic makes it impossible to go down to the corner bar, a rustic cabin, or the local escape room. Using a variety of activities such as these can help stave off fatigue, says Joyce Weiss, a Michigan-based communication strategist and career coach. “I have to use the word boredom, because we are all Zoomed or [Microsoft] Teamsed out,” she says. “We have to make it exciting.”
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 textual approach makes the game more easily accessible to teams working across time zones, since players can answer the questions throughout the course of the day when they have time and then, typically, receive scores the next day after they’re graded by computer-assisted humans at Water Cooler Trivia. And it’s not just another Zoom session.
“There’s kind of that dread of having to join another Zoom call, another virtual thing,” Waldoch says. “When your day is all timed meetings, even if it’s a fun or social event, that can be pretty painful.”
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, says Waldoch, a onetime pub trivia host. Andrew Lieberman, a process mining consultant at Celonis, an international company that makes software for analyzing business processes, says his company has adopted the game as a way to keep “team spirit going” while working from home.
It helps that awkward reaching out to people you’ve never met on Slack.”
“We’ve actually hired a lot of people since moving remote, and it’s been a great way to give them something to be a part of right away and something to look forward to,” he says. “It helps that awkward reaching out to people you’ve never met on Slack.”
Players generally compete by department and office location, and while it’s certainly possible to cheat, Lieberman says he and his coworkers generally abide by the honor system. “If you’re cheating on trivia with your coworkers, it’s not a great look,” he says.
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.
In general, companies in the virtual team-building world say it’s important to target activities toward a team’s needs. In some cases, that does include Zoom or other video-based tools and games, even if employees aren’t thrilled to get on another video call. The Go Game, based in San Francisco, offers browser-based video team-building game sessions of roughly 45 minutes to an hour, with a live host guiding players through events such as trivia, karaoke, and activities where people match coworkers to fun facts about themselves.
Those fun facts can be a little bit different based on how well a group is already connected, says cofounder and CEO Ian Fraser. Teams that are getting to know each other for the first time might share basics such as where they went to college and what they studied that coworkers will later be “quizzed” on, rather than more esoteric facts or inside jokes about themselves, he says.
Similarly, traditional trivia elements the company offers can vary based on company needs: If a business is bringing in players based around the world rather than just in the United States, the Go Game can use fewer questions related to pop culture and more related to world geography, internationally played games such as chess, and scientific facts such as, say, the pH of water. “We go easier on the Brady Bunch and NASCAR trivia,” Fraser says.
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). Hung says the game can offer a mix of icebreaker style questions—which helped lighten the mood for the rest of our interview—and more deep questions about career aspirations, depending on how people plan to use it.
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.”