If you are reading this a few years after the publication you might remember the COVID-19 crisis. Entire teams ended up working from their homes and we needed to deal with it. Half the battle is won when we as a team are well organised, synced, experienced or used to remote work. It’s worse, if we are not.
The trouble could stem from many factors — a new team, its restructuring (team members joining and leaving), lack of experience or motivation for remote work, lack of a proper work environment in our apartment/house, hard economic situation, struggles in our families and many, many more. We could easily start feeling that we are gradually losing what made us a great or at least a working team.
This does not only happen during a crisis like a pandemic. Teams can start crumbling any time — people distance from each other, build walls around themselves which we do not even notice until something goes very wrong. However bad it is, at the same time it is natural and human. Keeping teams in shape is similar to keeping ourselves in shape — it needs training and repeatable exercises frequently.
One simple and quick solution for this issue, in time of COVID-19 or not, are team-building workshops.
Set up a foundation
Because time is money, before we even get to the fun part (the workshop itself), we need to take some more formal steps to make sure we will maximise the value we want to generate with the workshops.
The first step worth considering is creating a workshop card. This document should gather all the information about the initiative, such as:
- Reasons or potential observed problems
- Expected results
- Place (Zoom, Hangouts, Whereby, other)
- Rules (optional)
The agenda is the most tricky part at the moment — we have not chosen the exercises and only have a general feeling of what they could be. During the preliminary workshop card creation, the best way is to propose a day and range of time during it.
For a team-building workshop, we suggest 4–8 hours depending on the scale of alignment that needs to be done. Longer workshop sprints could also work, however if we want to conduct them regularly, the shorter ones could be more efficient and easier to keep in order. In the case of an 8-hour run and knowing your team’s capabilities you can decide up to one whole day or divide the workshops into two days. If you also add breaks for coffee/tea/lunch, then you would have a perfect workshop draft to start with and move on.
Get the buy-in
A team-building workshop is about… the team. Thus, to make sure people will invest their heart and mind to it, you will need to show them the workshop card to review, add comments, implement corrections or raise concerns. Being transparent makes the work collaborative. With such an approach, you are getting the buy-in, which is half of the success regarding the results you pursue. This phase is partly an exercise too — you are getting aligned on the problem, what you want to achieve. You all should know where you are and what is the destination.
How can we conduct it?
The clue of the workshops is the activities your team is engaging in. Their subject and type mostly depend on the problems you listed on the workshop card, however you will find out in time that team-building workshops show a repeatable pattern. You will encounter unique problems from time to time, although you will regularly go up against common misalignments. We prepared some suggestions for the exercises you can use on a monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly basis.
- Roles and responsibilities
You cannot run a marathon without warming up, can you? The same is true about workshops, especially ones which need you to open up in front of the rest of the team. Icebreakers and energisers are a great exercise to rouse your brain cells and have some laughs. Let’s create a comfortable atmosphere before we start. Examples of exercises we like to use:
1. Introduce yourself — as simple as that, define your role, job, maybe tell about your hobby. It should last up to 10 minutes.
2. 10 common things — everybody tries to find ten things they have in common with each person in the team. It could be just the fact that they are in the same team, or doing a similar job, or maybe they visited the same country? 15–30 minutes should be enough.
3. Aliens have landed — one of our favourites! Pick one topic and introduce the concept to the team: the aliens are arriving on Earth and they do not speak any of our languages (let’s skip the fact they would probably have intel or an alien device for that purpose…), you have to describe to them a topic only with the use of pictures/images. You can make up any topic, although we like to use the product/feature the team is currently working on. A 10 minute timer and 5 minute for the explanation of the idea for the rest of the team.
All team activities are framed into the mission and vision, so before moving on with other exercises it is good to realign towards the definition of those two. We can approach it in a few ways:
1. Mission/Vision deck — there is a big chance you already defined it in the past. Let’s review our statements with the team to make sure we are on the same page. Maybe some of them grew a bit old and need refreshing? Show, discuss, and decide upon action points. Dedicate about 30–60 min.
2. Fun-house mirror — if you would ask each member of the team, out of the blue, what is the role of the company you would probably get a set of different answers. And this is what the exercise is about — let everybody write down what is the mission/vision of the team or product, based on what they remember or believe. Then compare them, discuss, decide upon or align. You can do a survey from time to time to validate the alignment — it is said the consistency and similarity of the answers testify to the strength of the company’s direction. You can spare 10 minutes for the anonymous definition, 10–20 minutes for the discussions/alignment.
3. Belief table — set up a few (3–8) definitions of mission/vision and let everybody vote on the one they believe is true or appropriate. You may be surprised how different the opinions could be. Similarly to the previous one, spend about 10 minutes on anonymous voting and 10–20 minutes on discussion/alignment.
Roles and responsibilities
It is easy to get lost in the web of the dependencies and expectations. Who to reach out to regarding a specific matter? How is the ownership over parts of the product/project distributed among the team members? How do 2–3 people with the same roles complement each other? Moreover, roles are personal, thus misalignment can create quite sensitive situations. How to approach it?
1. Role definition — for starters, let everybody describe their role in one sentence, then list down the responsibilities and even what they would rather not do. It will be a perfect start for a review of expectations and fair distribution of work. You are also giving the team a chance to express their strong points and find out where they are not feeling well. You can set up a timer for 10–15 minutes for quit work and then do a group review within 15–30 minutes.
2. Team definition of role — do you want to measure the current state of knowledge about your team? Let everybody anonymously list what in their opinion is the role and responsibilities of each member. Review it together and clear up the expectations. 15 minutes should be enough for the listing and 15–30 minutes for the review.
What if we had an instruction on how to proceed with a human being to make sure they feel comfortable and productive? This is what in the essence this part is about — define the environment in which we would like to work, where we are most efficient. It helps to avoid pushing someone’s buttons and communicate better. Last but not least, it is about celebrating each other’s individuality, especially when our environment is different due to the roles or personal background.
Our favourite way to proceed is the „My user manual” exercise proposed by Atlassian’s Playbook — a great collection of the methods to push your teamwork forward. The idea is to let everybody answer the questions below:
- What are the conditions I like to work in?
- What is the best way to communicate with me?
- How would I like to receive feedback?
You definitely can add more of them, i.e.:
- How do I like to celebrate wins?
- How do I like to manage my tasks?
- What motivates me?
Give people some time for the definition and review it together to deep-dive into the cases that are not clear enough. 10–15 minute timer for quiet work and 15–30 minutes for the review will do.
If you do such workshops regularly, you can expect to deal with pretty unique circumstances, i.e. the COVID-19 pandemic situation. This is where the pre mortem exercise comes in.
- Take time to present the case to the rest of the team. (5–10 min)
- List risks and opportunities. (10–15 min)
- Conduct a voting session — assign a few votes and let people put them on what they consider to be the most relevant cards. As a result, you will have prioritised lists which will be the base for action points. (10 min)
- Similarly, let’s list the potential action points for the most voted opportunities and risks. (10–15 min)
- Vote and prioritise. (10 min)
- Decide upon ownership or follow-up after the workshops.
What is next?
What happens next is always up to the team and its ability to drive change. Team-building initiatives are very individual and you should work towards improving the value, satisfaction, and insights it brings.
At the end of the workshop, you should understand each other a little better and hopefully strengthen your bonds, not only as a part of the same company, but also as human beings.
Planning the workshops is one thing, however running them is a completely different part of the same adventure. Find out more about facilitation in the next part of this article.
Many thanks for talented illustrator — Iryna Korshak 💚