While our home offices might be feeling more comfortable with each day that passes in the pandemic, true team culture has yet to be replicated in isolation. When COVID forced remote work as the new normal, teams who were thriving in collocated office environments became isolated overnight. Individuals who’d spent years collaborating in person scrambled to recreate their dynamics online and to communicate in ways that felt natural and effective. Some adapted, others struggled, but just about everyone felt weirdly detached and lonely. Then came the avalanche of “virtual happy hours” in which managers and employees tried to revive a sense of social normalcy via Zoom calls. But even with the introduction of alcoholic beverages, these post-work gatherings devolved into meetings; unable to dredge up other conversational topics, coworkers inevitably talked shop via their laptop screens. These “happy hours” became work themselves, leaving people detached and emotionally drained.
At Bionic, the inability to reinforce personal connections hit us particularly hard. We work in tandem with our partners as a service-based firm, embedding small teams into Fortune 500 enterprises companies for short spans of time, and we strive to cultivate mutual trust in order to work productively. We were spending every other week in our partners’ offices, learning the intricacies of their lives as we walked their halls together. That trust is built with skill, but also with the help of group dinners (and drinks), team bonding events like axe throwing and escape rooms, and ritualizing victories over lunch at local favorites. Yank those things out from under us, and our partner relationships became trickier to navigate.
Luckily for Bionic and for our partners, the two of us are self-proclaimed gaming nerds whose personal hobbies and friendships had us already using digital solutions for our social needs.
How? Well, we have distributed groups of friends, and used our love of gaming to connect with those people in the virtual world long before COVID. So when quarantine hit, we set up a few Jackbox games to be played over Zoom for our own personal enjoyment with friends. Suddenly, we had access to raucous virtual game nights that created genuine feelings of togetherness.
As the weeks of COVID continued, we realized these same games could be used with our partners to rebuild and reinforce that all-important bond of trust. The games gave everyone who participated something fun to focus on together, so there was no dead air and no reverting to shop-talk. We assigned a game master from the Bionic team to each session — someone who acted as a facilitator and troubleshooter to keep the collective energy high. Sessions were quick and easy, so they didn’t require a huge investment of energy. We explored interpersonal dynamics together, and found out more about each other through game play. Plus, all that laughing and creative collaboration was a welcome de-stressor during a deeply stressful time. What we didn’t predict was that Virtual Game Night could create healthier interpersonal relationships among team members, draw out insights about team dynamics, and even help managers support their direct reports in new and better ways.
Games highlight how people choose to solve problems
One of the games we’ve reconfigured for Zoom is called “Patently Stupid,” which is a bit like Pictionary meets “Shark Tank.” Each player is given a fill-in-the-blank problem prompt, and the other players have to draw a unique invention that would solve that problem. Once the inventions are presented, players “invest” in their favorites to pick a winner. As you can imagine, inventions run the gamut, creatively speaking. If the problem is, “People are too sweaty,” solutions might range from, “Here’s my top-of-the-line air conditioning unit” to, “I’ve developed a rocket that takes passengers to an ice planet where they’ll never be hot again.”
Playing “Patently Stupid” over a video call reveals how people think, capture their ideas, and solve problems. This is especially helpful to supervisors and managers who struggle to understand how their team members are wired. One round of game-play reveals which types of problems each individual is best suited to tackle. Some folks will focus on humor and not worry about being realistic, showing wild creativity and a willingness to push boundaries. Others will think critically about leveraging their own strengths or resources to create something simple but guaranteed to work. Some put new twists on old ideas, hoping to merge proven success with their own innovative impulses. Insights into team-member strengths become clear, allowing supervisors to reconsider how workloads are assigned and how projects are staffed.
Games uncover individual challenges and stumbling blocks
Another game that we’ve repurposed for lockdown is “Quiplash,” which is essentially a Battle of the Jokes. Players receive wacky prompts like, “Something you’d be surprised to see a donkey do,” or “The worst theme for a pinball machine.” Everyone submits their answers, and players vote on the best one.
As we played this game with a partner team, it revealed communication and cultural hurdles that might have otherwise remained masked. One player on the partner team we were working with was not a native English speaker, and when her turn came around it became clear that making jokes in her second language was both challenging and overwhelming. She wouldn’t look directly at the camera, kept her voice quiet, and hesitated to share what she’d written. This was a key moment in which the game master (the Bionic facilitator) needed to step in so the player felt supported and safe. It is crucial for the game master to be attuned to individual needs and equipped to help anyone feel comfortable throughout the game. This scenario presented a learning opportunity for us, reminding both our supervisors and colleagues that team members from other cultures may experience frustration or embarrassment when conversation relies heavily on slang, jokes, or references to American pop culture. It illustrated the importance of ensuring that everyone feels fully comfortable vocalizing their thoughts and opinions on shared work. This situation also revealed to us that, as a service company, we needed to take steps to ensure this particular member of the partner team was not left out of future discussions. Our entire team was alerted to this insight in our post-game discussion and accommodations were made to ensure her voice and ideas would be heard.
Games can act as a mental unblock
The games mentioned in this article — along with many of the exercises we play/work here at Bionic — allow for customized prompts and inputs. We sometimes use them as brainstorming devices when we need to ideate on particularly difficult problems, such as ensuring our experiments don’t exclude underserved minorities. When used in small group settings during actual work hours, these games act as an excellent proxy for the goofy antics and in-person bonding experiences we had in our colocated offices.
Games reveal talents across the organization
Both “Patently Stupid” and “Quiplash” can shine a light on individual strengths as well as vulnerabilities. They are designed to draw out creativity in all players, which allows people working in traditionally administrative roles to showcase their ingenuity and resourcefulness. They are set up for individual game play, which means folks who typically sit back and let others lead must speak for themselves, allowing those naturally quiet folks to prove they can be smart, funny, and inventive. And since both games require everyone to “present” their ideas to the group, they underline innate charisma and public speaking abilities. Playing these games online with leaders and managers allows employees at all levels to shine, showing strengths that might have otherwise remained hidden. This enables those leaders to see their teams in new ways, and act on those new insights.
Ready to learn by playing?
If you’re interested in hosting a Virtual Game Night at your own organization, here are a few tips to make sure it runs smoothly:
- Everyone will need a laptop with Zoom or another video conference service installed, and a smartphone. Everything else is managed by the game master.
- The game master explains how each game works, keeps score, and does their best to entertain the players when there’s dead air. (We like to slap a few Dad jokes on screen while everyone works on their answers.)
- Keep it short. Tell people they’ll be playing from 5 to 6 p.m. so they know exactly how much time will be dedicated to this online gathering. A defined time slot encourages people to participate without fear of getting sucked into something open-ended.
- Plan for breaks between games. Playing back-to-back exhausts people, and creating some built-in unstructured time allows for easy socialization.
- If you decide to use these games in a client engagement, plan a team debrief after the session to share any insights.
No one has any idea when regular office work will resume, and in the meantime we all need ways to meet with our teams and draw out real insights. Everyone gets fatigued on regular calls, so just setting up one-on-ones with your direct reports won’t cut it. Online group game nights allow you to pull out key team dynamics and ensure individual strengths are properly leveraged, all while laughing uproariously together.