Can virtual team building successfully deliver on desired goals and return on investment? And if so, what do planners need to know to succeed, particularly with activities and processes that traditionally are so hands-on and face-to-face?
Regardless of format, team-building success depends on many factors, including the make up of the group and the specific goals. The purpose might be as simple as having fun and putting the group in good spirits. Educating and facilitating new ways of thinking, acting and interacting are common goals, and sometimes team building helps participants self-correct a serious team problem. With virtual/hybrid meetings and events frequently the only option now, it’s crucial for planners to know how to facilitate team building with participants scattered across the country or even the globe. We asked our experts to weigh in.
John Chen, CEO of Geoteaming, a company that, according to its website, “helps the world work well together through the power of play and an experiential learning model,” points out that virtual team building is both similar and dissimilar to traditional team building. That, he says, means “Planners need to think differently now when planning team-building programs.” At its core, however, he points out that team building is always about people. “Behind the flat screens are people. People want to connect. People want to communicate. People want to collaborate. People want to belong.”
And regardless of format, he says it’s also about communication, trust, planning and execution. Additionally, the need for psychological safety is paramount in both virtual and in-person events. “While creating psychological safety is different,” Chen notes, “it’s still the same psychological safety you need for high-performing teams.” Not surprisingly, technology is a major differentiating factor. “The massive amounts of technology and the use of the technology is something that’s very different,” Chen says. And that impacts not just the process but leaders and instructors. “You need to find a team builder who is good at team building and good at the technology.” Even though virtual and in-person team building share core elements, such as engaging participants and facilitating new and deep connections, those elements are not optimized in the same way within the two formats. Today’s team builders need new skills in order to achieve success with a virtual event.
The bottom line, though, is less about how the two systems are similar or different, but whether virtual team building can produce the same results as traditional team building. Chen says it can. “I got my first hint that virtual team building could elicit the same results as early as 1999. We set up two laptops with webcams in separate rooms and asked pairs to tell childhood stories to each other over a video connection. Our research showed that we could increase trust by 20% in as little as 20 minutes. The light bulb went on that we could get the same results or better virtually.”
And virtual team building, Chen says, has its own distinct advantages. “It certainly lowers the budget, as you can remove travel and other expenses; and almost everybody has already paid for their camera, computer and Internet. It’s also easier to accommodate a large group. I can now run multiple inclusive 500-person team-building programs for less than $90/month in technical costs. Also, creativity is nearly endless, and there’s the added advantage of participants gaining valuable tech skills they can use in day-to-day work.”
While technology can be a real benefit, it can also be a source of problems. “There are so many ways to go wrong, including forgetting to unmute, not playing music at the right level, sharing slides when the screen is not in presentation mode, etc.” Chen encourages planners to always use dry runs to make sure the technology works for what they’re trying to accomplish. But some tech-related issues come down to human error, such as a leader telling participants to chat, but neglecting to follow through by reading some of the chats. “To me,” Chen says, “nothing is worse than when a facilitator calls out for a response and then doesn’t respond to the audience.”
Given the importance of technology to success, choosing the right platform is critical. There are many products in the marketplace, but differences exist in terms of the specific capabilities and tools a platform provides. Chen advises planners to look for a platform that offers the following: stable audio and video, gallery view that supports 49 people per screen, both general and private chat, breakout rooms, share screen, and other virtual tools such as Poll, Whiteboards and annotate.
Last summer, the American Association for Public Opinion Research gathered 945 attendees for its virtual annual meeting. Among the team-bonding events was a virtual social hour for 190 of the attendees. Linda Arcangeli-Story, CMP, manager, meetings and expositions, with association management company Kellen, says it was a great success even though they had to flip their in-person meeting into a virtual one in a short amount of time, leaving people disappointed they wouldn’t get to be with fellow attendees in person. They did a full run-through of the social event a week before it took place.
The social hour, held the day before the annual meeting opened, included chats between participants via chat box and “in person,” followed by seven different chapters of the association introducing themselves. A trivia game was run through the poll function — it was all about fun rather than who was right. And because it was the organization’s 75th anniversary, members were asked to raise their hands to show how many times they’d been to the annual event over the years. At the end, there was a drawing among the attendees still there, with $100 Amazon gift cards as prizes. “It was a huge hit and it jazzed everyone up for a virtual conference when some were nervous about how it would go,” Arcangeli-Story says. “We had amazing participation, interaction and happiness overall in the group. I was so impressed with how much fun it was.”
She encourages planners considering a virtual event to first and foremost get over the idea that no one will participate. “People are now used to doing virtual things every day, be it holding staff meetings or teaching their children, or participating in a book club. Once you get people out of their comfort zone and let them know this can work, the only way you can go is up.” One thing that caught Arcangeli-Story’s attention is what happens at the end of a virtual event. “When an in-person event is over, people peel off and go to their room or the hotel bar. With a variety of my virtual social events, I’ve found that people stick around. It might not be the entire group, but every event I’ve had scheduled for an hour has had some folks stay on at least 30 minutes more. Attendees want to talk and unwind with their colleagues and leave the typical Zoom meetings for a bit.”
Although each group is different, she says she’s found more similarities in the virtual and in-person functions than she thought she would. “I had it in my head a certain way, and then when I started planning and implementing our social event via Zoom, it was more like an in-person social function than I would have ever thought.” As to whether in-person and virtual team building can achieve similar results, Arcangeli-Story says some groups will be more likely to embrace virtual team building than others. “However,” she adds, “with the right platform, facilitator, leadership and components to keep people engaged, you can absolutely get similar results.”
Another of her associations has held two virtual board meetings, and while they wouldn’t strictly be considered team-building events, there were components designed to give board members social time to bond and to participate in a shared activity as they would if meeting in person. It also was an opportunity to make them feel appreciated. “It gets them together like they would in person to have a drink and/or a cigar and just catch up … no major structure,” Arcangeli-Story says. “We had a cooking demo on the first meeting with one board member who loves to cook. If folks didn’t have time to cook right then, we sent them a menu they could save and make later. On the second board dinner, we had saved so much money due to no travel or F&B, that we were able to send each board member a gift package of wine, cheese and fruit. Then, at our virtual board dinner, they all had the same items, could do a ‘cheers’ and enjoy each other’s company despite long distances. Some associations don’t pay anything for active board members, and the board dinner or open bar on-site is their only appreciation. Our gift made our board members feel really appreciated for all their hard work, and still saved us money in comparison to in-person dinners.”
Like Chen, Arcangeli-Story says that one big advantage of a virtual team building event is that, “You can do a ton more for less money. You can also still hold a very successful event even with less sponsorship dollars, which are typically needed when doing it in person.” And there’s increased flexibility. “You can hold virtual events for five to 300 people and still be able to function. On-site in a meeting room or event space, you might have restrictions, such as not enough supplies or space. You can wing it a bit more with virtual team building. There are so many things you can do virtually that you might not be able to do in person due to budgetary restrictions or something the hotel or venue might not let you do. Virtually, you can do almost anything. There are cooking demos, green-thumb activities, art projects; really, there’s no shortage of ideas.”
Another upside to virtual team building according to Arcangeli-Story: “I’m finding we’re able to assist folks who are out of work due to COVID-19. For example, a band I know locally has had to stop playing in public, so we pulled them into a virtual happy hour and had a virtual tip jar. The performers played in their own homes, made some money and it cost us nothing — all while supporting our community.” To achieve success with virtual team building, Arcangeli-Story says planners should think outside the box and believe that attendees can build on relationships with one another even without an in-person event. “And,” she adds, “send physical packages to attendees. It’s awesome to get something tangible, even if just a face mask or some fruit.”
Janel Fick, owner/partner of Global Management Partners and executive director of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, acknowledges that virtual team building has been a shift for her group in terms of both the internal and external work of the company. It stands to reason that a management company that experiences and finds solutions for the same things its associations are facing can translate new skills and ideas into managing those associations. “We’ve been very successful utilizing tools such as Microsoft TEAMS and Trello boards for organizational purposes,” she says. “COVID has presented opportunities, and challenges, for associations and planners to think and execute work differently. We’re more progressive as a result and can add value to members in new, creative ways. We’re reimagining and reinventing events.”
On the positive side, Fick says, “Virtual team building has enabled us to be more flexible; however, we miss seeing each other and have to work harder at embracing a new culture. From an events perspective, we miss seeing our members and having that feeling of success after executing a face-to-face meeting.” Some changes hit close to home. “[Soon], we’ll create a hybrid model and save quite a bit of money by utilizing a smaller space,” Fick notes. “Our team is excited about the next phase of our company; some want to come back to the office and others prefer to work virtually. We’re doing more ice breakers and learning more about team members in new ways.”
One tool Fick has embraced is Clifton Strengths Finder for her entire team, and she had a consultant come in to do a two-hour training session. “Our team now focuses on strength-finder activities from the workbook, which has been very rewarding. In these trying times, it’s important to learn and focus on our team strengths,” she says. “Finding out what makes employees tick is very important. Everyone is in a different space both professionally and personally, and it’s important to respect and learn more about each other. We’re shifting from managing people to managing projects.” She advises planners and others to remember to incorporate fun into work. “We have a water cooler channel on TEAMS and encourage team members to build each other up and post positive information. We’ve held happy hours, BINGO nights and had a pet shelter join our virtual team meeting.”
Ron Shah, CEO of Bizly, a collaborative platform/operating system facilitating “gathering,” says one difference between virtual and in-person team building is that virtual events demand increased thought and planning. “Success relies on engaging team members with ways to activate different parts of their brain together. Back when you were in-person, you could throw people in a room together with food and drinks, and magic would happen. Virtually, you must spend the time to build and plan a thoughtful agenda in order to achieve a similar outcome.” The results, he says, will never be exactly the same. “Some of the most important values in team building were the side conversations and bonding moments shared among team members in periphery moments during an in-person event.”
Still, with a greater level of planning, virtual team building can yield similar results. One client’s successful virtual event involved 125 people on Zoom. “The activities were online games that the team played together, including Pictionary [using the Zoom whiteboard] and trivia. The team was split into five sub-teams, creating a feeling of camaraderie, competition and laughter. Team members were also invited to expense lunch.” Shah says lack of planning is typically the biggest setback to virtual team building. Another issue: relying too heavily on “cool” technology instead of sticking to the basics and focusing on the people and their reactions. “A simple slide show of photographs or a simple game can be really effective.” That said, he adds, “tapping into a world of ideas from relevant companies can help to drive innovation and success, and keep it fresh.”
In order for planners to create a successful team-building event, Shah says they need to consider several different things. First, he says, you have to build a thoughtfully planned agenda and schedule for the event. Second, you have to organize a smart guest list of the right participants and consider each of their needs. Third, communicating effectively with guests is critical, including any pre-reading or preparatory information, as well as getting them excited with a well-designed invitation that goes beyond a calendar invite. Like Arcangeli-Story, he says participants should also receive something physical. “Tap into multisensory resources, such as food and cocktail delivery or ‘fun kits’ that can be mailed to attendees,” he advises. “And last, send out a post-meeting survey to assess meeting efficacy.” He advises planners to look for a platform that simplifies and unifies those five steps.
Virtual team building may take more thought and time to construct, but planners and groups across the country are learning together that even if the virtual world doesn’t feel exactly the same as in-person interactions, it’s still a place where values, connections, growth, bonding, education, collaboration, appreciation and renewal can be forged, allowing teams to up their game for future successes. | AC&F |