When my teammates and I first started to play Codenames, the conversation felt like a car hitting every red light on a long road—unable to find momentum and constantly stifled. The long moments of silence, amplified in Zoom’s virtual chambers, didn’t help either. But, I’d rather experience that awkwardness than relive the first conversation I had with a former manager, which was uncomfortable, at best.
I initially entered his glass office eager to learn about the project I would be working on for the summer. As soon as I sat down, though, I realized my intentions were naive. My manager barely looked me in the eye, texted as if he were a teenager, and so much silence filled the room after every question I asked I wondered if he could even hear me (he could).
I hoped my experience would improve over time, but the conversations with my manager remained static, as if I were trudging through thick mud. Consequently, during meetings or project updates, I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my thoughts and ideas freely. Soon the “Sunday Scaries” plagued me multiple days a week and my psychological safety at work was low.
As I later learned, psychological safety, or the absence of interpersonal fear, is essential in developing high performing teams. When Google sought to answer the question, “What makes a team effective?” they found that there are “five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams” and that “psychological safety was far and away the most important.”
Luckily, this was an internship, so I only had to work at the firm for a couple of months. Nonetheless, I vowed that whenever I became a manager, I would never make a teammate feel uncomfortable and would work to create an environment where they could express their ideas freely.
So, a couple of years later, when I became a manager at a different company, I made a conscious effort to ensure that the people on my team felt seen and heard to the best of my ability.
This took shape in a few different forms. I took time to understand who my teammates were outside of work through informal conversations like coffee chats or after work hangouts, and I learned about their professional aspirations through more formal conversations like weekly development check-ins. I asked for specific feedback on how I could improve as a manager, smiled when appropriate, and made myself as available as possible for collaboration or questions. This worked well, for the most part.
After the pandemic struck, my role and team changed, and we worked remotely. I continued implementing similar tactics such as 1:1 conversations and creating team norms virtually to cultivate relationships and create a safe team environment, but something felt off. I knew my strategy had to evolve, but I wasn’t sure how.
One day, after work, my team decided to play Codenames virtually, a team-based word game. Perhaps naively, I mentally bucketed this activity into the category of general socializing.
Playing games with new coworkers can be awkward. As I tried to convey at the beginning, playing games with new coworkers on Zoom can be even more awkward.
As the game progressed, though, I observed that my teammates slowly relaxed. When we played the game, titles and hierarchy went out the door. We were each strategizing to win for our team in this imaginary game world.
We played a couple of rounds that evening. Regardless of who won or lost, after each round, laughter increased and connections sparked. In between each clue, teammates occasionally revealed a morsel about themselves as well.
“Pepe as a clue for penguin? As in Kroger’s mascot? No way—I grew up in Ohio, too.”
What I initially believed would be time spent socializing and simply getting to know one another evolved into something greater. I observed that teammates felt more comfortable not just with me, but with one another. The game forced team members to not only chat about life, but to strategize and work together creatively.
In the days after we met, like the discussion after a clue in the game, I observed that team members more readily offered suggestions, participated in discussions, and debated ideas. When they were curious about why I went one way on a project’s direction or wanted clarification on a topic, they were more comfortable asking me questions or pushing back if warranted. And, while working on a project thread, they were more comfortable reaching out to me to gather feedback. Although I didn’t start this activity intending to improve my team’s psychological safety, it appeared that was a direct result. Now, Codenames is a part of my manager’s toolkit for building culture and creating psychological safety.
Playing games and team building activities at work sometimes have a poor reputation, though, and understandably so. A pair of coworkers can become too competitive, draining the fun from others, for instance, and, honestly, no one likes to take part in mandatory socializing. So, for implementing this in your workplace, pick games that are accessible and interesting to all the members of your team, and allow them to vote for what they’d like to play. And don’t make the activity mandatory. If a couple of team members are constant no-shows, try changing the timings or asking them in private how to alter the activity so they attend in the future.
So, play games at work. It’s team building after all.
Suneil Kamath, a LinkedIn Top Voice, is a writer and a manager at an ecommerce company.