Team Building in the Time of Corona

Erin Ferguson
Oct 19 · 8 min read
A black facemask with “Here we are now, Entertain Us” written in yellow across the front
A black facemask with “Here we are now, Entertain Us” written in yellow across the front

Here we are now, entertain us,

I feel stupid and contagious

Here we are now,…

Here we are now indeed, at the start of what feels like the winter of our disconnect. Restrictions and the shadow of COVID-19 still hang over many of us, meaning virtual is our reality for the foreseeable future. So in this remote new world, how do we maintain our personal connections and build team spirit?

This is a problem we have been grappling with in Operations & Reliability (O&R). In our bid to find the holy grail of virtual togetherness we have begged, borrowed and downright stolen ideas, and along the way we’ve had some wins and we’ve had some misses. We know lots of other teams are facing the same challenge, so we wanted to share our lessons learned to inspire those with quiz fatigue and hangout weariness towards their own virtual team nirvana.

Starter for Ten

At the beginning of lockdown in the UK, I was asked to help organise some O&R socials to help keep the group connected while working from home. The teeny tiny complication to this request was that I had only joined the group two days before lockdown (having just returned from nine months adoption leave) so we therefore did the only thing we could in the circumstances - we organised a quiz!

For the first quiz, we went with a lockdown theme with an idea we borrowed from another team, and asked colleagues to send in photos of their work from home setups. We then borrowed the idea (and login) from yet another team of using Kahoot! to run the quiz.

The admin page for creating a Kahoot! quiz with three questions, each with a photo of a different working from home set up.
The admin page for creating a Kahoot! quiz with three questions, each with a photo of a different working from home set up.
Creating our first quiz using Kahoot!

I had no idea what to expect with that first social. In fact, immediately afterwards, I thought it had bombed. But a quick survey of the group revealed a majority had liked the quiz and since then we’ve run another four, all using submissions from the team. Themes have included Did You Know? (interesting facts about team members or their hometowns), Guess That Movie (recreating movie scenes using household items), Two Truths/One Lie and Guess The Vacation Location.

It takes work to organise, and a lot of prompting, but we’ve found getting the team to submit the questions has increased engagement and it’s also been a great way of finding out things about each other we wouldn’t in a usual team meeting setting. For example we’ve uncovered child movie stars, hand models, friends of Boy George and a junior quiz champion, amongst many other things!

To add a bit of additional competitiveness and glory to our quizzes, we also created a championship trophy. It physically lives at my house, but each round we have a new virtual winner and, just like Wimbledon, the quiz champs have their name ‘engraved’ on the trophy before the acceptance speeches are over. Does it get any better than that?

Two views of a home made trophy with a cardboard cylinder top, square foil bottom, and coloured pipe cleaners stuck on top
Two views of a home made trophy with a cardboard cylinder top, square foil bottom, and coloured pipe cleaners stuck on top
The wonder that is our quiz trophy

We’re supposed to start having fun in 15 minutes!

In the pre-covid world, we could be able to socialise with colleagues over coffee, lunch, a pint or while hanging around waiting for the previous meeting to finish (remember that?!). This is something we definitely lose in our virtual world, so as a team we've been thinking about how we can recreate those “water cooler” moments.

At the start of lockdown we, like many other teams, tried to schedule team social time. We started with daily coffee breaks, then gradually moved to twice weekly catch ups. Initially these were pretty well attended and led to some classic moments that only a virtual catch up can afford - for example, watching Luke Blaney spend over thirty minutes attempting to remove a knife that had become lodged in the back of his cutlery drawer. (Riveting viewing, 5 stars).

The relief when Luke finally got his drawer open was virtually palpable

But over time attendance waned because, despite what Monica Geller believed, organised fun is not always the way forward. So we have evolved. We’ve agreed going forward to get together for ad hoc reasons (birthdays, etc) but we are also making time in our already scheduled meetings for general chit chat. Meeting organisers can help foster this by setting the tone of their meetings and allowing people time to talk socially before getting stuck into the agenda.

We have also adapted some of our existing meetings to have a more informal tone. We now hold a weekly O&R Show & Tell, which is not a powerpoint heavy, run down of work completed, but rather a chance for anyone in the group to show a thing they are working on no matter how hacky or visually uninteresting, share a problem they are trying to solve, give an update on something, or simply show off their new Terry Pratchett posters to a captive audience (thank you again Euan Finlay).

You don’t always need to create a separate space for your team to chat, you just need to try to create a space somewhere.

Motivation of an Occasion

When I was checking in with my team about how they felt about our social catchups, one of my colleagues said, “I like the idea of catch ups but I just don't usually feel in a place to do them somehow... I can't really explain it. The added motivation of an occasion might work!”. So we looked at what other things we could do as a team that could bring us together with a common purpose.

The first thing we thought of was training. As lockdown progressed, we became increasingly aware that how we communicated in person didn’t always translate to remote working. So I contacted the FT's Learning and Development (L&D) team to discuss possible group training options. The L&D team helped identify our needs and they then put me in touch with two external providers who helped us put together a programme of training for O&R that could be delivered virtually. As a result, we have training sessions booked that cover the technical aspects of virtual communication and facilitation (delivered by InRehearsal), as well as workshops to look at how our teams can creatively problem solve virtually and how we can become more effective now our homes are also our offices (delivered by BrainWorkshops).

A screenshot of an article called Top Ten Virtual Communication Tips, showing two people speaking
A screenshot of an article called Top Ten Virtual Communication Tips, showing two people speaking
InRehearsal created follow-up articles with embedded videos to support their training sessions

Rhys Evans also brought a great suggestion to the team (borrowed from another group) of having a regular ‘discussion club’. The aim of the discussion club was to get together to discuss a topic - it could be work related or not - to try to replicate the sharing and challenging of ideas that seemed to occur more naturally when we were in the same physical location. At the first session the group discussed the concept of “How Reliable is Reliable?”, eliciting some interesting views on the very nature of Reliability Engineering.

For our next discussion we are going to build on some recent roundtables organised by the FT and hold a group level “Let’s Talk About Race” session. We are trying to challenge ourselves, in the hope we can not only make O&R a better place to work, but also increase the levels of trust and confidence we have in one another.

Again, these don’t have to be even more meetings in already overloaded calendars. Look at potentially repurposing existing meetings or using training sessions to address specific team challenges, for example using the creative problem solving workshop to investigate an actual technical challenge.

A little less conversation…

Building a well connected virtual team doesn’t just mean getting people to talk more on hangouts. We probably need to manage our own expectations about what team building will look like going forward.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that we can’t engage all the people, all of the time. Not everyone loves a quiz (shocking revelation, I know!). This is why variety is key. We need to not be afraid to try things, and to be okay with saying “well that didn’t really work”, because - to dredge up an old team building cliche - maybe it’s more about the journey than the destination.

It’s also about understanding and noticing when people need a break. Most of us can’t be virtually inclined 100% of the time, so we need to accept our colleagues may also need some distance and make that space available.

We should embrace some of the opportunities that remote working has given us. The rise in the use of Slack and other chat tools means those more comfortable with the written word can be engaged and actively participate in team building events, where before this might not have been offered or even possible. We also now have the ability to readily record workshops and training sessions which we couldn’t easily do before.

Screenshot of a webinar, showing slide and chat function
Screenshot of a webinar, showing slide and chat function
Utilising the chat function during our Virtual Communication workshop with InRehearsal

In O&R, we have by no means got it completely right yet, so we know it’s important to keep checking in with each other and to remain curious about new ideas and opportunities. We are all working on this together, because sustaining our team relationships shouldn’t be something we wait for someone else to organise for us, especially if we see a need.

So is it worth the effort?

We all know that encouraging open communication and fostering strong relationships is important in building effective and efficient teams - but let’s be honest, it’s not always easy. Add to the mix the shift towards remote working, a global pandemic and a year that has been very emotionally charged for many of us, and understandably sometimes there isn’t the time or energy left to think about how we maintain our connections. The easier option is to hope that what’s already built will be strong enough to last. And maybe it will...but what if it isn’t?

So I’ll let you into the secret of what motivates me to want to do something about team building in the time of covid. Purely selfishly I want to work in a happy team. No longer are my colleagues people I only see in the office for eight hours and then get to leave behind. Now on a daily basis I invite them into my home, so it feels of vital importance at the end of the day, when we close our laptops and our desks turn back into our kitchen tables, that the lingering smell of team spirit is a good one!

We hope these ideas help motivate you to nurture the relationships between your teams and colleagues during these uncertain and constantly changing times. Please do share back any flashes of brilliance or anything that you find works well. Let’s stay connected!

I'm worse at what I do best

And for this gift I feel blessed

Our little group has always been

And always will until the end

Kurt Cobain, Smells Like Teen Spirit

FT Product & Technology

A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology…

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