Illustration of people popping out of computer screens to socialize

The bad news: team building is a lot more challenging when everyone is working remotely. “Trust falls” don’t work over Zoom. (Ouch.)

The good news: we have a trove of the best virtual team building activities to share with you. These are the same super-creative, road-tested, remote-team-approved activities that we’ve been using here at Atlassian. (Besides, no one likes trust falls anyway.)

Team bonding is important to us. In fact, we even have a whole team devoted to creating a Team Playbook of exercises and workshops to help teams work better together. And, as a company of several thousand people distributed across five continents, we’ve had plenty of chances to act as test subjects for all of our virtual team-building activities.

6 inspiring teamwork rituals from around the globe

But we’ll admit that 2020 has brought some interesting challenges. How can teams create human-to-human connections when some team members have never even met their coworkers in-person? It’s a question we work to answer every day.

Below, we’re going to give you the scoop on some of favorite ways to promote team bonding in distributed teams. But first, let’s talk about why this is important.

The challenges of virtual-team bonding

Our recent survey on remote work uncovered the real-world complications we’re all facing with distributed work: feeling that our work is “invisible,” navigating new barriers to organic collaboration, and having less access to our managers, among other things.

The common thread that runs through many of these challenges was also the most obvious: being physically isolated from our coworkers.

Working from home can be lonely. Losing the office environment has meant losing those built-in opportunities to form social bonds and build trust with colleagues. That can lead to disengagement, which, in turn, can lead to poor performance on the job.

That’s no small deal. In fact, 94 percent of workers we surveyed said that mutual respect and connection were critical to their team’s success, and 19 percent said it’s the most important factor in their sense of well-being at work. Understanding each other on a personal level means we can communicate more effectively and have an easier time distributing roles and responsibilities across the team.

So how can teams overcome these hurdles?

Tools of the trade

We use Trello boards as sort of a virtual whiteboard, Slack as our chat tool, and Zoom for video conferencing. You’ll need at least one of these tools (or their equivalent) for each of the activities shared here.

Fun ways to stay connected when working remotely

Here’s what we do to promote team connections at Atlassian. Some of these virtual team building activities come from the “plays” in our Team Playbook, and some are less-structured activities we enjoy. You can choose what’s right for your team by checking out these categories:

Real-time vs. asynchronous – Do you need to do this simultaneously, or can each person participate at whatever time works best for them?

Practical vs. just for fun – Is the activity intentionally unproductive (which is not necessarily a bad thing), or does it serve the dual purpose of building social bonds and improving the way you work in a more tangible way?

One-hit wonder vs. on the regular – Is the activity something you do daily or weekly, or is it something you’d do once (and maybe again when new team members join)?

12 ideas for online games and activities for virtual teams

1. Don’t overlook the classic: icebreaker questions

Type: real-time, just for fun, on the regular

Time: 5 minutes

Tools required: video conferencing

Before you roll your eyes and go “Duh … like I hadn’t already thought of that,” understand that some of our distributed teams (my own included) do an icebreaker at the start of our team meetings every week. Even though we’ve been working together for a couple of years and feel pretty connected already, there are always more interesting tid-bits to learn about each other. Some recent favorites include:

  • Who was the last artist you searched for on your music streaming service of choice?
  • What are your parents’ best qualities?
  • Put these morning routine items in order: breakfast, coffee/tea, open up your laptop.
  • What was something that always frightened you as a child?
The ultimate guide to effective team building activities

2. Have an online lunch date

Type: real-time, just for fun, on the regular

Time: 60 minutes

Tools required: video conferencing

This one comes from the engineering team that built the Trello app for Android. Once a month, the team links up via video conferencing over lunchtime. Team members can even expense up to $25 so they can join from their favorite cafe, order delivery, or cook up a little something special at home (because, real talk: heating up leftovers gets old).

Only have 15-30 minutes to spare? No worries. Virtual coffee chats and virtual happy hours are fun variations on this activity.

3. Socialize over group chat

Type: asynchronous, just for fun, on the regular

Time: varies

Tools required: Slack, Teams, or other group chat app

Group chat is an ideal way for distributed teams to stay in touch, but who says you have to keep it strictly business? Atlassian set up a channel in Slack called #social-remote where we remote workers, a.k.a., pretty much all of us, talk about what we had for lunch, compare notes on standing desks, share articles related to remote work, and generally discuss anything but the projects we’re working on. There are even off-shoot channels for cities or states where clusters of “Remote-lassians” live. Let’s just say that more than a few hot-dish recipes have been swapped in the #minnesota channel.

4. Have a messy-desk faceoff

Type: asynchronous, just for fun, on the regular

Time: 5 minutes

Tools required: Slack, Teams, or other group chat app

When you work in an office, you feel compelled to keep your desk at least minimally clean: no used tissues, three-day old cereal bowls, or constellations of coffee rings. But when you work from home, there’s no such social contract to uphold. So one of our rituals in the #social-remote Slack channel is “messy desk Thursdays” in which we out ourselves for the abysmal state of our workstations while the ROTFL 🤣and 🤦🏽‍♀️ facepalm emojis fly fast and thick.

It’s also a chance for your preternaturally tidy teammates to do some humble bragging about their austere, magazine-worthy office spaces.

Screenshot of a conversation about messy desks in Slack

5. How do you make online meetings fun? Presents

Type: real-time, just for fun, one-hit wonder

Time: 60 minutes

Tools required: video conferencing, Trello board

Whether your team prefers white elephant style or something more thoughtful, you can pull off a gift exchange even if you’re not at an offsite. Start by copying this handy Trello board template and inviting your teammates to join. It has full instructions in the “Rules” column, but here’s the gist. Each team member buys a gift that can be shipped easily. Instead of announcing what the gift is, you’ll add a card to the board with a picture and title that provides a hint.

During the game, you’ll take turns clicking on cards to reveal what the gift is. Once you turn over a card, you’ve claimed that gift. You’ll also get chances to steal a gift someone else has already claimed. After the game is over, mail the gift you contributed to the person who ended up with it.

6. Teach people how to work with you with “My User Manual”

Type: asynchronous, fun but practical, one-hit wonder

Time: 60 minutes

Tools required: Keynote or PowerPoint

When you’re just forming as a team, or when a new member joins, it’s worth taking the time to share your personal workstyle. Do you prefer chat or email? What time of day do you do your best heads-down deep work? Are you cool with impromptu video calls? Check out this example from the CEO at CultureAmp:

Inspired? So were we. That’s why we created the My User Manual play, where you’ll find instructions on how to run this exercise in your team. Set up a meeting to review everyone’s “user manuals” in real-time, or share the decks so people can review them asynchronously. Either way, collect the decks in a central repository where future team members can access them.

7. Expand your professional skill sets together with “Learning Circles”

Type: real-time, fun but practical, on the regular

Time: 30-60 minutes

Tools required: video conferencing, study materials as needed

It’s easy to get so caught up in executing on your work that you forget to expand your horizons, especially when working from home with no office banter happening around you. Plus, remote work can be isolating if you don’t make a point to connect with your teammates on a personal level.

Our Learning Circle play can address both issues. Choose a topic related to your work that you want to learn more about – anything from SQL to leadership styles to trends in recruiting practices – and find colleagues who share that interest. Each month, gather over video conference to discuss a book or article, or have someone in the group give a short presentation. The best part about learning circles is that you can extend them beyond your immediate team and connect with people across the entire organization.

8. Take your team’s pulse with “Health Monitor”

Type: real-time, fun but practical, on the regular

Time: 30-60 minutes

Tools required: video conferencing, Confluence, or Google Docs

Health Monitor is a variation on the classic agile retrospective. It prompts you to examine how you’re working together, instead of what you’re working on. Through extensive research, we identified eight attributes that healthy, high-performing teams tend to have in common, then developed the Health Monitor as a framework for assessing how your team is doing in each area. Do you have the right balance of skills on the team? Are you making decisions effectively? Do you understand the dependencies around your work? Here’s a one-minute overview, staring yours truly.

Although this activity was not designed specifically for remote teams, it’s amazingly beneficial. When your team doesn’t sit shoulder-to-shoulder, it feels easier to sweep issues under the rug rather than address them head-on. But little problems have a way of growing larger while you’re not looking, and eventually, you’ve got a crisis on your hands. Health Monitor prevents this by prompting teams to self-assess on a regular basis and keep their weaknesses from becoming full-blown liabilities.

9. You can’t have Nerf wars, but you still have .gif battles

Type: asynchronous, just for fun, on the regular

Time: 15-30 min

Tools required: video conferencing, Trello board

If you’ve ever been jealous of the Nerf dart wars waged by your co-located colleagues and friends, you’ll love .gif battles. Copy this Trello board template and invite your teammates to join it. (Click on the “How it works” card to see full instructions for the game.)

The game consists of four rounds, each with its own theme. You’ll use Giphy.com or Google Images to find a .gif that fits with the theme for that round and attach that gif to a card. Once everyone has their .gifs in, you’ll vote on the round’s best submission. At the end, the person who wins the most rounds will be crowned the Ultimate .Gif Battle Champion of All Time™. Just think of the glory! Don’t be afraid to add a tiebreaker round if needed.

Screen capture of a trello board with fun categories ie. "find the best walrus gif" and users have each added a fun gif that matches the category.

10. Uncover your superpowers

Type: real-time, fun but practical, one-hit wonder

Time: 30 min individual prep, 60 min as a team

Tools required: video conferencing

What’s your virtual meeting IQ?

If you’re ready to go beyond surface-level connections with your team, this is the activity for you. Each person will prepare for the session by taking an online strength finder assessment such as Clifton Strengths. During the group session, everyone hops on a video call and takes turns sharing their results. When my team did this, each person shared top three strengths, lowest-ranked strength, and something in our results that surprised us. Then we’d discuss as a group how that person’s top strengths contribute to the team already, and how we could make even better use of them.

This is an intensely personal activity. You’re going to feel a bit vulnerable and exposed, so it works best if there’s already a sense of psychological safety amongst teammates. But because you’re discussing each other’s strengths, the conversation tends to be very positive and affirming. Chances are, everyone will walk away with a deeper sense of belonging and an understanding of the unique value they bring to the team.

11. “How you doin’?”

Type: real-time, fun but practical, on the regular

Time: 5 min

Tools required: video conferencing, Trello board

(This one is so much better if you say the words “How you doin’?” in a low, Jersey mobster voice – think Sal from “The Sopranos.” But I digress …) The team that looks after the Atlassian Community website and our user groups added this five-minute ritual to the beginning of their weekly team meetings.

The board they use to track agenda items includes a space for each person to add a card representing how they’re feeling that week. Maybe they’re struggling with something in their personal life and are a bit low-energy. Maybe they finally ran that 10k over the weekend and are PUMPED for the week ahead. It’s an easy way for teammates to let each other know when they might need some extra support or patience, or when they’ve got good vibes to spare.

12. Make sweet music together

Type: asynchronous, just for fun, on the regular

Time: varies

Tools required: Spotify or Google Play, Slack or other group chat app

Raise your hand if you and your remote teammates talk about music. (Thought so. Pretty much everyone does.) The content team at Trello is no different… but they’ve gone next-level with it. Using Spotify, they create collaborative playlists that anyone on the team can listen to and help curate. Try creating an upbeat, “get $#!t done” playlist, a soothing “de-stress” playlist, or any other theme that suits your team.

The best virtual team building activities, according to full-time remote workers