10 mins
You have 0 further articles remaining this month. Join LeadDev.com for free to read unlimited articles.

These days, I often hear from leaders that they’re struggling to keep their teams connected.

January 31 – March 30 Leadership course
graphic element

Move forward as a team in 2022

Join the six-part group development course addressing engineering leadership’s most fundamental challenges.

Maybe they were always fully remote, but for the past 18 months, they haven’t been able to hold the regular meetups that were crucial to their culture. Or maybe they shifted to a fully remote setup during the pandemic and are planning to keep working that way, but they don’t yet have the pieces in place to help people connect meaningfully. Or maybe their company has recently gone hybrid, but without many people in the office, they’re lacking a sense of community. With the pandemic lingering, and travel still in flux, you’re probably dealing with some version of this.

The bad news: There really is no silver bullet. Worse, the long-term psychological effects of the pandemic mean that connection is all the more important, as people deal with isolation, burnout, grief, and ongoing instability.

The good news: There are things you can try. I say ‘try’ because on any given team, some ideas will resonate, and some will fall flat. Plus, many of these things will be useful for a while but then need to be adjusted, retired, or replaced. As I've mentioned before, strong leaders will bring their teams together to brainstorm ideas and figure out how to test them

To get you started, here are some things that I’ve seen work well for teams. They’re all 100% remote-friendly, but it’s worth noting that any given activity may not be comfortable for everyone. Let folks opt out easily from anything that would make them feel more disconnected.

Start your meetings with Red/Yellow/Green (R/Y/G) check-ins.

In small groups, it can be powerful – and a surprisingly good use of time – to habitually start meetings with a bit of structure that helps people share how they’re feeling. R/Y/G, originated by the folks at Reboot, is what you might guess: Each participant shares the color that best represents how they’re feeling and, usually, an explanation of what’s contributing to their color, work-related or otherwise. Green represents happy and open; yellow indicates a little stressed; and red signals notably angry, sad, anxious, or otherwise distracted. Knowing how your colleagues are doing and what’s behind their feelings can be enormously useful in gauging how best to interact with them. And you can also try using R/Y/G for morning check-ins on Slack.

When my colleague Aisha was curt with me in DMs recently, which was unusual for her, I realized it was because she was worried about her mother’s illness, not because she was dismissing an idea I’d proposed. Conversely, I knew Sam was green because they’d run a revealing UX session, and I was able to congratulate them for something I might not otherwise have even known about. In other words, R/Y/G helps us show up more fully as ourselves and for each other.

Hold occasional icebreaker breakouts.

For larger groups where R/Y/G isn’t practical, you can help people to build personal connections by sorting them into breakouts and providing question prompts that will spark conversation. Among my favorites are ‘What’s your favorite kitchen appliance?’ and ’what’s your guilty pleasure (safe-for-work versions only)?’ Splitting people into subgroups of about four means everyone gets to talk, and you can engineer them to ensure that folks who don’t work closely together get a chance to connect. Crowdsource questions or hit the internet for ideas. I’ve found that this idea works well for intermittently replacing a regular meeting, like All Hands, about once a month rather than adding to the calendar.

Teach each other things.

‘Lunch and learns’ are commonly used in engineering orgs for sharing technical concepts, early demos, and other work-related info. But you can also use them to learn about each other’s interests and passions outside work. Every so often, try scheduling a slate of lightning talks where people can teach their teammates their favorite recipes, crafting techniques, pet-training tricks, or Lego triumphs. As a bonus, let different people host, increasing their visibility in the company.

Give home tours.

I’ve led remote teams for a couple of decades now, and one of the things I like most about it is seeing each other in our natural habitats. It creates a kind of intimacy that I always miss in largely in-person teams. Zoom-based home tours build on the benefit and give folks a chance to show off their favorite gallery wall or their Rubik’s Cube collection. Fifteen minutes is good for most tours, and you can do a couple at a time, spacing them out over months. (For the best camerawork, the tour guide should use the Zoom or other video software phone app, although this  can make it hard for them to see questions in the chat, so you might need a host who can let them know everyone is dying for the backstory on that platinum record hanging in their bathroom.)

Tell your personal stories.

Lightning talks and home tours are fast by nature and tend to be high energy. When you need a more contemplative way to get to know each other, try a private podcast where team members interview each other or talk about aspects of their background that might not be obvious. I first came across this idea when I worked at ConvertKit. Each episode of the private podcast features one team member learning about another with a series of questions about where they grew up, how their career has evolved, and tidbits like what they eat for breakfast. The episodes are 30 to 60 minutes each, and I found them to be a great window into my teammates lives; just listening made me feel a little closer to them.

Play silly games.

It’s no secret that playing games together is a great way to connect. Designate an hour or two every quarter or so for games that a medium-sized group can bond over. Here are two that work well for 20 to 100 people:

  1. Trivia. To make it a shared experience, have the whole group on video together, and then use Slack for teams to discuss their answers. Questions that are controversial but silly are great to include (for example, ‘is GIF properly pronounced with a hard or a soft G?’).
  2. Photo challenge. Have coworkers send in pictures of their home office from the point of view of their webcam – but without them in it. Then have a slide show, with a quiz at each slide, for people to guess whose office they’re looking at. You’d be surprised how hard this is, considering that you’re staring at each other’s home offices all the time. My favorite variation on this game is to have people send in pics of their pets, and then have everyone guess which pitbull and tabby is whose.

Make the fun mandatory.

Credit to Ronnie Chen, a Senior Engineering Manager at Twitter, who came up with the fantastic idea of mandatory fun days. Based on research showing that people will spend found cash on treats for themselves but tend to spend found time on chores, she instituted team days off that everyone had to use for something fun, and then they’d report back on their exploits. No chores or obligations are allowed (and nothing illegal or fire-able), and budget for meals is a nice extra but not required. In my experience, these days turn out to be three layers of fun: Anticipating and maybe chatting about the things you’re going to do; spending the actual time off; and then seeing all the photos and stories that everyone posts.

That last part – experiencing each other’s happiness – is more than a side benefit. It can feel quite meaningful, and it shows that sometimes, the best way to connect is to disconnect for a while.