How to Get Along, Even When You Can’t Get Together

Bryan Zaslow

Mar 30, 2021


It is hard to believe that it’s already been a whole year since office life went remote. By now you’ve probably figured out a home setup that rivals your old office, with all the tools you rely on to get through the workday. But there is one aspect of office life that cannot be reproduced remotely: working closely side by side with your peers. Work from home has taught us that those office moments that we used to take for granted—like chance encounters in the hallway, those couple of minutes shooting the breeze before a meeting, or after work activities and holiday parties—played a role that is crucial for any company’s success: they are what transforms a group of individuals into a team.

The words “team building” used to be corporate retreats and “falling exercises” or cringe worthy images from TV sitcoms. But now we are beginning to understand how bonds among team members build trust and morale. Team building turns out to be a vital exercise for the well-being and productivity of coworkers, not to mention a critical tool for helping to overcome the isolating feeling of being home all day. So how can we recreate these activities in the work-from-home environment?

In the early days of the pandemic, before Zoom fatigue became a thing, many companies tried activities like virtual happy hours, where coworkers could meet over video chat and converse about non-work-related topics. While activities like these were cherished by many, over time some felt these after-work activities ate into time that coworkers with young families or other commitments may not have to spare. The key to a successful virtual happy hour is to make it not feel like an obligation, or an extra hour of work.

The good news is there are ways to incorporate team building and opportunities for interaction and conversation into our remote workday. Think of them as virtual “water coolers.” Even small moments of exchange can increase feelings of camaraderie and fight the isolation of working from home.

Make time for small talk

These opportunities don’t need to be big. For example, Harvard Business Review recommends adding “buffer time” onto work calls. While it can be tempting to maximize the efficiency of video team meetings, allowing a few minutes for casual conversation among coworkers pays dividends. “It may feel counterintuitive,” says HBR, “but if you make a point to open the call 10 minutes early and let people casually enter in, you are recreating that unstructured space in which people can build connections.”

Remember to check in

Short, daily stand-up meetings for teams have long been a feature of agile management styles, but they’ve taken on new meaning for remote workforces. These check-ins allow open communication, let everyone know what each other is doing, and keep teams on the same page. For those worried about “meeting creep,” rest assured. These group meetings can reduce the need for pre-scheduled one-to-ones to go over the same material. Try to include time for members to share their achievements and wins, not just their to-do lists. Celebrating victories, even small ones, helps remind teams that they’re working on their goals together.

Encourage Water Cooler Chatter

Set up a space online where team members feel free to hang out, goof off, and discuss off-work topics. At JBC my team uses Workplace from Facebook as a communication tool, but Microsoft Teams and Slack are also very popular. You can set up a #random channel where people can feel free to talk about any topic (in some platforms this is generated by default), or you can go even further and set up more organized activities. The team at productivity software maker Atlassian has a number of helpful recommendations, from messy desk contests to gif battles. Larger teams may benefit from services like Donut, which creates opportunities for “virtual coffees” and other connections among team members who might not get much opportunity to directly interact.

Be active together

For many teams, work from home means missing out on in-office perks. While you can’t send everyone a catered breakfast or a foosball table, group activities, like video guided meditation classes, offer a way to recreate the experience of these group perks virtually.

Many companies encourage their employees to volunteer. With some accommodations, volunteer work can be continued as a group activity, either remotely or even together in a socially distanced outdoor setting. 

A group activity that has proven very popular with the team at JBC is our book club. A new book is read and discussed once a month, and participation is voluntary. Everyone in the group can throw out a suggestion, and the choices are voted on. Then we discuss that month’s title via a little Zoom happy hour. It’s a great way to bring our colleagues together and foster camaraderie without the standard “happy hour” feel and gives our employees something else to talk about together other than work.

Team cohesion is also closely tied to individual well-being. When team members are stressed or overworked, the entire team’s productivity can suffer as a result. That’s why at JBC we encourage our employees to be active: get outside, go for walks, and take workout classes, even if it’s in the middle of the day, whenever they need to recharge and reset. We also provide each employee mental health days, a day each quarter they can take to just unplug. 

Team building is even more crucial when the team cannot physically be together. If you haven’t been actively creating opportunities for your team to get along, now is the time to start. Start by giving team members space to talk, whether it’s time before meetings or dedicated channels for informal chit chat. Offer group activities they can choose to join. Rediscovering their team spirit will help coworkers stay motivated and productive, even when they’re apart.