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Staying Connected While Far Apart: Remote Team Building During COVID

By Alexandra Summer

Let’s be honest—the office holiday party and fall retreat will probably look different this year—if they happen at all. While team-building has been an integral part of employee management for years, COVID has certainly changed the playbook. How can teams retain connectedness when working so far apart? How can agencies and managers make new hires feel welcome when coffee breaks, chats at the water cooler, and “doing lunch” is impossible? We asked Division members what their offices have been doing during COVID to keep employee spirits high and to foster interoffice camaraderie.

No matter what strategy your office takes to work on remote team building, remember the most important fact: everyone needs non-work related adult int

No matter what strategy your office takes to work on remote team building, remember the most important fact: everyone needs non-work related adult int

Photographer: adamkaz // Collection: E+ // Source: Getty Images

Schedule a weekly coffee break. Several offices have been hosting virtual coffee breaks where employees are encouraged to chat about non-work topics, catch up with colleagues, and sip their favorite beverage. Alisa Ferguson, associate general counsel of a state agency, relishes the time spent virtually with coworkers whom she would normally run into in the hall or pop into their office to say hello. “[During a virtual coffee break] we can all come together on video conference and talk about non-work related topics. It is nice to see everyone in case I don’t happen to have a meeting with one of the individuals that week and it is good to stay in touch,” she wrote in an email. To make it more entertaining, consider asking trivia questions or playing virtual board/card games. In addition, one respondent also suggested playing “show and tell” over video conference.

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Host a virtual fitness class. Regardless of what sector or type of office you practice in, we can all agree on one thing: snacking during COVID has certainly increased. Encourage employee wellness by hosting virtual fitness classes during the week. If your office doesn’t have the funding or desire to hire a trainer to do a live presentation, consider voting on a type of exercise and finding a few free Youtube lessons or classes. While employees might not feel comfortable leaving their camera on during downward dog, breaking a sweat is an effective tool to break up the work day and get some much-needed exercise. If scheduling fitness classes during the workday isn’t possible in your office, consider developing another type of employee fitness class or initiative: buy pedometers and have a scoreboard for the most steps in a week, have a five minute push-up contest before a weekly meeting, or even create a weekly fitness challenge. The important thing is that you are encouraging your team to stand up and be active—which is certainly a challenge when all the gyms are closed.

Create a feed or email chain for personal or funny photos. A terrific silver lining of this pandemic is the “my pet is my coworker” trend. Employees can send one another pictures of their pet or children with funny descriptions or quotes. Consider creating a company feed or email chain where employees can opt-in to receiving funny messages and memes. While not everyone will enjoy such a large flurry of emails, the opt-in/opt-out feature allows employees to control these types of messages.

Sherri Bevan Walsh, the Summit County prosecutor in Akron, Ohio, has gone one better, hosting a raffle where she asks employees to respond to a certain question or post a photo and encourages them to reply to the entire office. “The questions are primarily based on positivity and humor. Those who submit a response are entered into a raffle and one or more names are drawn weekly. The winners get gift cards that I have been buying with my own funds,” she said via email. “As the head of the office, I have learned so much more about my staff from reading their responses to the questions or looking at their photos. I also personally respond to every employee who submits an e-mail.” Walsh notes that the response from her staff has been very positive.

Host virtual learning programs. Online courses can be an effective vehicle to communicate new changes in law and or policy to staff, but they can also be an excellent tool for diving into unrelated topics and staying connected. For example, reach out to your local or state bar association’s Lawyers Assistance Program representative who can speak about substance abuse disorder signs, wellness, and self-care. Hosting courses on a variety of subjects (both legal and personal) is a great way to assure that your staff stays up-to-date while also giving them an opportunity to take a step back from the grueling toll of the everyday nine to five. Another option is to create a virtual office book club.

Although these meetings should be relatively short, even a brief interlude can create a sense of connectedness. Many believe that these types of breaks actually make employees more productive because they build morale and a sense of mission.

No matter what strategy your office takes to work on remote team building, remember the most important fact: everyone needs non-work related adult interaction. Whether employees are also supervising children during e-learning or caring for a friend or relative, we all need a moment to remove ourselves from it all and just relax. Even though the work is still getting done, something tangible was lost when we all transitioned to remote work: camaraderie. Staying connected as a workforce while far apart can be challenging, but with proper planning we can learn to adjust and thrive in this new normal.

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Alexandra Sumner


Alexandra Sumner is an attorney and freelance writer based in Indianapolis, IN.