Teambuilding without travel

As of mid 2020 the business world is communicating remotely. But can you run a team building event in this way, or keep people engaged with a brainstorming session? Perhaps so!


It is no surprise that plans for strategy events, conferences, learning events, team building workshops and any other reasonably large and/or international gatherings are being put on hold. The delays to getting these sorts of events rebooked could be many months yet.

But in this day and age, why not run them remotely?
Well, there are all sorts of very good reasons why not. Team building days and strategy events feature certain critical components, which it’s natural to think really need to be done face to face.

Airing of opinions and ideas – many of which maybe opposing viewpoints; exchanging feedback – positive and negative;
team tasks such as brainstorming or risk assessments which often get off track.

These usually need sensitive handling. It will typically need a facilitator to keep the group focused and encourage good behaviours.

And a facilitator will be the first to encourage you to get your group together in the same room, with a relaxed day or two to explore issues thoroughly.
Right now we can’t do that. People are obviously postponing such events for a couple of months and preparing to postpone further depending on the situation at that time. But what if you really have to do it, or at least have to get started on something now?

It can be done – but there are some important things to take note of.

Let’s not forget that even if we weren’t in a pandemic, face to face team events are increasingly difficult to organise. Days out of the office, especially with a cross functional team, are difficult to plan. Add in international travel and it means that events are needing to be arranged many more months in advance to get everyone free. Then things always crop up; key people have to cancel travel at the last minute. In at least one sense, virtual communication avoids all of these problems!

What you can’t do
With patience there’s not much you can’t do. But perhaps you do have to steer clear of some highly emotional issues – where trust has really broken down; where people may be angry, and intense facilitation, with lots of attention to body language – or even mediation – may be required. But this leaves masses of scope.

Contract with the team
There are benefits to working remotely – saving time and travel costs, more convenience for busy team members, quicker to set up. But a team building exercise can’t be ‘just another meeting’. In return for the benefits there must be a properly committed plan.

Make a realistic time plan
No-one will perform well if they have to sit on a call for a whole day or most of one. Long sessions also are pretty hard when there are large time zone differences. Your process should be broken into a logical series of calls with follow-up in between. Position these as required attendance – as you would a face-to-face event.

Plan to keep people engaged
Lots of people do email and other unrelated stuff whilst they are bored in remote meetings. To make your team building or strategy process work you need to design participation and input, not just a set of slides with Q&A. This needs a carefully facilitated mix of questions to inspire open discussion but with discipline and organization to make it work.

You can use timeouts when people need to think for a while make some lists of ideas then reconvene to share them (and get a coffee).

Make extra efforts with technology
In your experience how many remote meetings take place with no irritation or impatience with an aspect of the format? Or some people losing attention? To do something like a teambuilding session remotely you must have three things:
• A conferencing platform that is fully tested and that people have practiced with (Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, BlueJeans, Skype, Zoom)
• A way to capture and share peoples’ contributions between everyone quickly, in real time (may be handled by the system but you can use real-time documents like Google sheets, Office online and so on).
• Somebody to facilitate and to manage all the above so that you can focus on the people and their contributions

Functionality is available in conference platforms that people don’t use or don’t know how to. For example, in a meeting room people may raise their hands when they want to speak. You can do this in a chat window but it needs to be established at the start as an important ground rule of the process.

Another tool that will help keep people engaged is an online voting system to take peoples’ views about the ongoing process .and make sure that everybody is feeling they can contribute and their time is being used properly

Follow up really efficiently
To retain the engagement of all participants between the successive call dates it’s essential that summaries, conclusions, sets of ideas are documented extremely clearly, in a common location. Reminders for everyone to go and check them out or important.
Again, a good facilitator can take the time to make sure this happens.

Plans for subsequent sessions should be reviewed and revised as necessary, to keep the process alive.


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Written by John Faulkes

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