The coronavirus pandemic has kept many office workers away from their workstations for nearly a year. And, with vaccines slow to roll out, it’s likely they’ll still be home for at least a few more months. While companies have found ways to use remote productivity tools such as Zoom, Slack, and shared document editing tools to substitute for in-person collaboration, most office workers have still gone close to a year without any quality coworker socializing.
“The loss of in-person interaction is basically creating a lot more loneliness among employees,” says Ruzwana Bashir, founder of the experience booking platform Peek.
To try to change that, Peek is launching a new platform with creative virtual experiences such as mixology classes, Queen’s Gambit-inspired chess lessons, and remote escape rooms designed to get even workers with Zoom fatigue excited. The goal is to recreate the unstructured socializing time people would normally get at after-work drinks, company outings, or simply around the coffee machine.
That kind of bonding is not only good for employee happiness but also for productivity in many companies, especially when people from different departments get to connect outside of usual channels. It’s also key to building relationships between organizations, as when sales teams take prospects or current clients out to dinner or a ball game. Peek aims to help bring more of those interactions online.
While offices and the bars, coffee shops, escape rooms, and other social outlets around them may begin to repopulate as workers get vaccinated, many companies have already said they intend to let employees keep the option of working from home for the foreseeable future. That means they’ll still need ways for employees to connect from home. “Remote work, after the pandemic, is here to stay,” Bashir says.
Here are a few options for connecting with colleagues and clients in ways more engaging than that awkward small talk at the start of a Zoom call.
Share a culinary experience remotely
While the pandemic makes it risky to gather with coworkers in a restaurant or bar, you can still share a meal remotely. Avital, a company that before the pandemic focused on culinary tours and excursions, now offers in-home cooking and mixology events. Participants can make meals or cocktails under the shared guidance of an expert bartender or chef. Then people are split into small virtual rooms to share their creations remotely with coworkers.
“I’m not interested in a webinar that just talks to you for an hour—that’s where Zoom fatigue sets in,” says owner Avital Ungar, who offers experiences through Peek. For some, diners even try their creations with miracle berries, the fruit that makes sour food taste sweet.
Play a round of trivia
Trivia games are a natural way to generate a little friendly competition between coworkers or teams at your company even when you can’t meet in person. You can work with trivia companies to design a live remote quiz experience that’s right for your business, reach out to the trivia host from the bar where you used to go to happy hour, or have coworkers take turns designing trivia challenges for each other. If you’d prefer something people can do quickly during the workday, consider Water Cooler Trivia, which dispatches trivia questions via platforms such as email and Slack.
Take a virtual graffiti workshop
Kabloom (formerly known as Wild SF Team Building) used to offer graffiti and mural tours in San Francisco. Now, thanks to the pandemic, it’s taken them online, letting coworkers hear about the history of graffiti and practice drawing their own tags under the guidance of a graffiti artist.
“It’s cool to see how many people have questions for the artist about their creative process,” writes Kabloom founder Wes Leslie in an email to Fast Company. “Most people don’t know much about graffiti beyond the name Banksy, so this is a really eye-opening and creative experience.” If graffiti doesn’t quite suit your team, search for another arts and crafts class that matches people’s interests.
Introduce a little comedy
While comedy clubs are largely closed during the pandemic, with even open-mic nights on hold, you can still bring some levity into your remote happy hour. Many national and regional improv and stand-up groups that traditionally offer in-person team-building activities to help get workers out of their shells are now holding classes online. And if a class seems a bit too intense, you can look for an online comedy show that matches your workplace’s sensibilities to watch online.
Drink some wine and maybe even learn something
Zoom happy hour would be much improved with a remote wine tasting. Plenty of wineries (as well as breweries and distilleries) will sell serving-sized samples of their products to a group of coworkers or friends interested in trying their wares when they can’t come in in person, although regulations on liquor shipments vary from state to state.
Shadybrook Estate Winery in Napa, California, offers one-hour online group tastings guided by winemakers or company reps, says Kimberly Bothwell, the winery’s director of marketing and hospitality. Corporate customers often see it as a good way to relax at the end of a sales discussion or similar meeting. “Wine helps people loosen up a bit,” she says. But if you or your coworkers aren’t big drinkers, consider a virtual coffee or tea tasting instead.
Escape from a virtual room
Escape rooms traditionally brought people together to play with physical props and follow clues to escape from mock dungeons and similar environments. During the pandemic, creative designers have set up a wide variety of ways to bring these puzzles online. Exact experiences vary from company to company, but picking a local escape room can be a fun way to support a local business and potentially access a game with ties to your city. Many escape room companies offer in-person guides to help you and your team with hints for having a fun, not frustrating, escape experience.