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See problems as supervillains—and 4 other fun ways to fire up your remote teams

This creative agency exec turns to neuroscience to boost cohesion and re-spark creativity in pandemic-weary remote workers.

See problems as supervillains—and 4 other fun ways to fire up your remote teams
[Source photo: stockyimages/iStock]
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We’re reaching the one-year mark since we were made to work from home (WFH). With the adrenaline wearing off and much of the world still locked down, 2021 will be the year we kick into cruise control. As business leaders, we have a responsibility to stop employees from despairing, hitting walls, and falling into isolation. 

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Injecting fun into your workplace as we build a new year—and a new narrative—is an effective adhesive to stop teams drifting apart, and to remind them that we still haven’t lost that sense of unity. We don’t just have fun for fun’s sake. Creative techniques are known to unlock dormant parts of our brains and enable our best interactions and ideas.

The initial productivity boost from WFH is giving way to exhaustion, and the more tired we are, the less we are able to nourish our social self. With less watercooler interaction, innovation is stifled. Almost 40% of people find it hard to collaborate with their coworkers when working from home. For some of my clients, that disconnect means teams fall back on old solutions, rather than build something new together.

Right now is the time to bring fresh solutions into the workplace—while we’re all still adjusting our eyes to our email inboxes after the holidays. I’ve used the science of fun on business giants from Google to ESPN to unblock those bottlenecks, get people’s creativity flowing, and solve problems in unison. So, take the next few weeks to carve out some virtual game time for your teams and nurture a sense of unified identity, mutual trust, and collaboration.

UNITE AROUND A COMMON ENEMY: SUPERVILLAINS 

Every good hero needs a good villain. One of our team’s favorite games is tantalizingly named Supervillains. By dramatizing a problem into a fictional villain, you make it less intimidating, and give your team a common enemy to unite around defeating.

Here’s the blueprint: hold a video call, divide everyone into teams, get them all to choose a problem they’re currently facing at work—be it personal or professional—and then turn that problem into a supervillain (“real” or made up).

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If Batman’s nemesis Bane is your main competitor elbowing their way into your target market, your team (Batman) will need a particular set of skills to stop him in his tracks. Get your teams assigning themselves new superpowers and gadgets worthy of the villain at hand. The Batmobile can be a new marketing campaign delivering free samples of your product to Gotham City. Robin can be a strategic new partner helping you dominate your market niche.

There’s something powerful in those classic movie traits of timid schoolkids developing superpowers, and random medleys of rockstar superheroes banding together to bring down the bad guy. When people envision themselves in those scenarios, they also tease out some more audacious or unexpected qualities in themselves. And it gets coworkers weaving themselves into the same narratives, in a way we often forget to do during a project.

PUSHING EACH OTHER FURTHER: HYPE PERSON 

When it comes to achieving life goals, people tend to undercut themselves, and aim for the middle of the road. Everyone on your team should believe that they’re creating something great, helping people lead better lives, and they should see themselves going all the way. Shoot for Mars and at least you’ll land on the Moon.

In this game, everyone is partnered up, and for 10 minutes each person takes a turn talking about their professional and personal goals to their partner, who acts as their “hype person.” Their job is purely to motivate them, take their goals and make them 10 times bigger, and drive their ambitions sky-high.

Afterwards, you go back through those extravagant goals and consider what you may actually be able to achieve, albeit in a slightly toned-down version. Encourage everyone to not fall back on their original ideas and to expand each one by a small or big margin.

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Other people are part of each of our milestones, even if we get there on our own. They help us recognize our achievements, show us who we do or don’t want to become, and they benefit from our successes. Reenvisioning your goals alongside someone reminds us that our team members, coworkers, friends, and loved ones are all along for the journey, and that knowledge will probably get us that little bit further.

REFRAMING PROBLEMS: THE NURSERY RHYME 

Here, small teams are tasked with reframing one of the core problems of the business. Each team should be assigned a different issue—a dip in sales during 2020, recent backlash over a branding decision, etc. That problem is then retold as a nursery rhyme, or children’s story.

This game is so effective in revealing the same problems teams have been immersed in for months, from a different angle. Once you turn an issue or event into fiction, the subtexts seep out, giving you a deeper level of understanding as to what actually happened, and how people were affected by it. It centers the team around the core issues, and shows them how to reapproach each problem.

One client of mine needed to figure out how to align their product, marketing, and partnership team around a new vision for the product. We turned their situation into the classic story of an awkward tween hitting puberty and becoming the cool kid over the summer. Through this lens, we transformed a traditional SWOT analysis into a story about how the next version of their product would be like the kid returning on the first day of school. Everyone perceives you one way, but you have new skills, new experiences, and new friends that make you way cooler. Getting to see the problem this way brought home that we didn’t just have a product issue. We had a reputation issue we had to overcome in consumers’ minds, that could only be solved with all departments working together to shift the narrative. 

EMBRACE THE CHAOS: BRING YOUR KID TO A ZOOM MEETING

Remote work has made our professional lives more hermetic and chaotic than ever. We need ways to cut through our home isolation bubbles and embracing that disarray. By doing so alongside our coworkers, we can turn potentially frustrating situations (like toddlers waltzing into your conference call) into moments that break down the tension—call it a surrogate for the countless informal episodes we have every day when working in an office.

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One simple way of doing this is by bringing your kid or pet, or even something that represents your passion, like a recent work of art—to some of your meetings. To turn this into an actual activity, the whole team has to then spend 10 to 15 minutes interacting with the kid (don’t expect much from a pet) and then come up with an idea for the business based on what was said.

Each home bubble is a person with interests far beyond work, and families to take care of. These games remind us that each person goes back to a wildly different reality when the camera switches off, and we’re more appreciative of their individual natures, challenges, and personal passions.

TALKING ABOUT THE WORLD AND COVID-19: PILLOW TALK 

We want to have meaningful connections with our coworkers, rather than purely transactional relationships. And even if you think you’re not interested, it’s kinda better for everyone when we do. You can talk more openly about internal problems and offer one another feedback without the sting.

Again, we can’t underestimate the importance of those 10, 20, (60?) minutes a day spent chatting by the watercooler. As a leader you should be proactively bringing them back into the workday.

Pillow talk helps us make a deeper connection. We can’t help but let down our guard a bit when snuggling a pillow. Each session has a topic—be it working during the pandemic, mental health, working with disabilities, etc. (let a different team member propose a topic each time, you never know what’s troubling the next person). Then you all simply burrow into a pillow on your sofa, bed, or desk, and chat away. Is the pillow necessary? No, but yes—it breaks down the official-ness of the meeting and flips the mood, even if just for half an hour. It becomes a safe space for sharing and without judgement (you might want to agree beforehand not to share what’s been said outside of the group).

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At the moment, the balance is off—our work lives are fully embedded into our home lives, while our personal lives are excluded from the work environment. That could make many of us more guarded with our personal time, cutting ourselves off even more from the team. (Which is also why these games shouldn’t be eating into people’s free time, and be part of the workday). While it makes sense for many, it also slowly kills off cohesion, synergy, and takes a heavier toll on those coworkers living alone. 

We need reminding, especially at the turn of the year, that we can still have a laugh at work, create authentic connections, and come up with radically new ideas together. We just need to trust in fun, and use fantasy to find real-life solutions.


Kenny White is chief creativity architect at Funworks, a creative agency using psychology, neuroscience and fun to generate extreme collaboration and progressive design thinking.