How to Build Rapport with Remote Teams

Plus 7 online team-building game recommendations

The global pandemic forced the majority of knowledge workers to work remotely. Gone were bringing in breakfast bagels, hosting happy hours, intramural sports, break-room chit-chats, post-meeting consolations, and innumerable other ways we grew closer to our colleagues. Even fully-distributed organizations like ours had to abandon getting together every few months, a critical way we build rapport.

We’ve compiled a list of our best tips for building rapport among individuals and teammates. It’s a collection we plan to add to and keep up to date. If you have one to add, please write to us.

Team building matters because rapport makes you more effective and happier

Rapport, an amalgamation of trust and closeness, is a vital ingredient to team performance: -

  • Rapport allows teams to take risks because it means we feel safe
  • Rapport makes the work we do feel meaningful because we have others to share our accomplishments.
  • Rapport saves time, because the more we understand one another, the less time we have to spend in explaining ourselves

So when you’re remote, what can you do to build team rapport? It must be deliberate. Without the serendipity of catching an employee in the hallway and sensing they might need to be taken out for coffee, we’ve got to somehow engineer these moments to happen. The good news is, research shows we can. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

More than 25 years ago, psychologist Arthur Aron succeeded in making two strangers develop a sense of closeness simply by having them ask each other questions that escalated in intensity. In 1997, the question set was refined along with Aron’s wife Elaine—also a clinical psychological researched—to 36 questions, which were popularized in a Modern Love column in the New York Times. However, “we had not created the 36 questions to help you fall in love,” shared Elaine Aron in Psychology Today, rather, “[we] needed...a method to create closeness in the laboratory with strangers.” While intentional conversation works well, rapport need not only be built with words.

Researchers from Brigham Young University in the US found newly-formed work teams experienced a 20 percent increase in productivity on subsequent tasks after playing video games together for just 45 minutes. The study, published in AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, adds to a growing body of literature finding positive outcomes of team video gaming.

So what can you do on your team? Here are some of our favorite ways.

Build individual rapport to support team building

Fundamentally, teams are made of people, so team dynamics are the product of a network of personal, one-on-one relationships. To build a stronger team, leaders - whether they’re managers or not - can work on first building stronger individual relationships.

Strong teams are built on strong individual relationships.

Escalate intimacy (without being a creep) by asking questions

If you are a manager, team lead, or even a peer, it’s not always easy to find the time or the proper context to ask questions that will deepen a relationship. Imagine out of the blue being asked, “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” or, “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” Here are a few guidelines to help:

  • Use or adapt questions that are appropriate for the workplace and open 1:1 meetings with them. A question like, “What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?” can easily become, “What would constitute a ‘perfect workday’ be for you?”. If you let team members know something like this is coming, it’ll help them feel comfortable.
  • Schedule a team workshop or “Work From Home Happy Hour” and use a tool like icebreaker.video. Icebreaker invites your team members to a virtual space and automatically breaks them down into small groups to ask each other work-appropriate questions of escalating intimacy. If you don’t want another tool, we’ve got a big list of icebreaker questions for you to try out.

Surprise team members to build connection

Building rapport doesn’t need to be a heavy exercise. Just sending a brief note goes a long way, especially when everybody is busy and doesn’t see each other face-to-face.

Use Slack reminders. Suppose you have an employee who is moving into a new apartment. During a team meeting, they mention how they are going to be offline for a day while they move. Moving sucks. We all know that. Getting a little note, “thinking of you during your move, let me know if you need anything,” might go a long way. Suppose the employee is moving on July 1st. Type this into Slack:

/remind me to wish so-and-so good luck while moving on July 1

...and Slack will helpfully send you a reminder to send your note.

Send gifts and flowers. Did somebody have a baby or welcome a new pet into their life? Is it a work anniversary? Or even better, would somebody just appreciate a bouquet of flowers? Having a package show up addressed from the entire team to commemorate or celebrate an individual is a nice gesture, and with the profundity of available delivery services, easier to do than ever. With so many companies now working from home, it’s a great way to repurpose budgets previously spent on rent and snacks to tokens of affection that still serve to make people happy.

Build team rapport intentionally through rituals

Sprinkle team building habits into your everyday

Say hellos and goodbyes in virtual space like you would in physical space

In an office, you’ll instinctively say hello to someone when you first see them for the day. With a virtual team, that act of ‘seeing’ doesn’t happen - you may not ‘see’ someone for days on end!

Saying hello and goodbye is the simplest and easily the highest return tip on our list: establish an etiquette around checking in and checking out of work each day by announcing when your workday is beginning and when your workday ends on your team’s chat tool.

Start each day with a virtual 'hello' to your team to build relationships.

Starting each day with a greeting helps others know when you’re available and helps build a sense of presence and “bustle” within the company. A sweet way to make this practice even more powerful is to use the moment to announce the 1–2 things you intend to accomplish that day, and if you’re blocked or need anything from your teammates. At Parabol, this is part of our weekly check-in meeting cadence, giving each team member a chance to share their current state. 

Whether it’s an update or just a hello, it’s helpful to have a channel in your chat tool dedicated to your team to make these announcements, or if your company is on the smaller size (fewer than 20 folks, say) a company-wide channel to make these announcements.

Stopping each day with a “check-out” message helps to punctuate the workday. Without a clear checkout, it’s fairly easy to feel like work never ends—and it becomes more difficult to have a sense of accomplishment or feel like its ever ok to step away, especially for remote teams. Sending a short note like, “I’m off today folks, see you tomorrow!” helps your colleagues know what to expect from you and it’s immensely helpful when your team is stretched across time zones.

Let your team know you're ending your day by saying 'goodbye'.

Break the Ice with a Check-In Round

While working from home, there are no chance encounters to get to know one another casually. We aren’t robots. We bring emotions with us to meetings. Providing a moment at the head of meetings to ask each other an icebreaker question helps us understand what state each teammate is in. You might discover that a teammate is distracted by family matters, or that they’re overwhelmed by their workload -- sharing that context builds rapport and helps the meeting run more smoothly.

If you’re struggling for a default question to ask, our favorite check-in is,

Work aside, what has your attention today? What might be keeping you from being fully present?

If you’d like an extended list, we have a great collection of icebreaker questions as well as the does and don’ts of great icebreaker questions.

Orchestrating an Icebreaker round is simple. The meeting leader simply asks each meeting participant the same question and gives them the space to respond. We recommend guiding the team along so you can give each person their own time to have the floor all to themselves and keep the meeting on track.

If the icebreaker reliably takes 5 minutes at the head of each meeting, folks may look forward to this rapport-building habit rather than seeing it as taking away from the “business” of the meeting.

Schedule weekly moments for team-building like you would for all other essential activities

Gather for a virtual Fika when you can’t walk to your regular coffee spot

Fika is a style of coffee break practiced in Sweden that emphasizes socializing as much as caffeination. Multiple studies have correlated the practice of Fika with increased worker happiness and productivity. Our own research confirmed that taking coffee breaks with coworkers correlated with a sense of being able to bring your full, candid self to work — even more closely than with other planned social activities.

Our team has a standing, optional, once-per-week Zoom gathering we call Fika to have completely unstructured chit-chat. Bringing a beverage is encouraged.

As your company grows, you can make a practice like Fika scale in the following ways:

  • Use breakout rooms: when topics develop, people can break off into small groups to continue the discussion
  • Have a rolling start: schedule Fika to stretch over 2 hours and invite folks to come as they wish
  • Set Fika at the department or team level: by limiting attendance, you can keep intimacy high

We also have a Slack channel for Fika, so we can keep the discussion going outside of our designated slot.

Build rapport by sharing moments from you life in a dedicated channel.

Demo work to make it come alive to coworkers

Remote workers don’t have the luxury of roaming the halls and peeking over shoulders to learn what’s going on. Sharing this sort of information is an intentional act. Showcasing great work (or work that has the potential to be great work) is vital to the success of any organization. How practically can an organization accomplish this? We suggest breaking down the problem into two parts: 

  1. Gathering the work that’s a good point to be shared and
  2. Having a separate moment to highlight work and celebrate success

We gather work each Thursday by asking each team to elevate recently accomplished work as a series of bullet points. These bullet lists, rich with links to internal documents, trickle upwards in the organization. If work could benefit from being shown to others, it’s marked as such.

On Friday, we reserve a sliver of calendar time to share work with the broader team. These sessions are recorded so they can be shared with folks who are unable to attend. Incidentally, this process is how we collect stories to share externally in Parabol’s Friday Ship blog series.

Not only do these habits make teams aware of each other’s work and help keep information flowing between teams, but these practices also help strengthen emotional connections between colleagues and reinforce that their contributions are meaningful.

Engineer serendipity with the help of robots

There are a plethora of “bots” that can be added to popular chat platforms to regularly pair up team members who don’t know each other well to spread trust and collaboration across an organization. Some of the products we like in this space:

  • Donut: a Slack app for connecting random colleagues, or creating a lottery system for pairing up senior staff with junior members using a lottery system
  • LEAD: works with Slack, Microsoft Teams, or plain old email to pair employees up for virtual catch-ups

Take time for special games and activities to bring your team to the next level

Beyond the things you do every day or every week, occasionally, you’ll need to ‘increase the bandwidth’ – make extra special time for extra special things. In the same way you’d go out for a happy hour with teammates, remote team building activities like online games let you relax and enjoy one another’s company in a casual atmosphere.

These are some of the games we think work well for a wide variety of teams.

1. Codenames


Codenames is a simple word game that helps teams bond.

Found online at www.horsepaste.com, this free online version of the popular board game Codenames is great for 4–8 players. Players try to correctly identify their team’s codenames before the other, as spymasters give single words clue words and the number of cards that the clue pertains to (e.g. “animals 2” might indicate “kangaroo” and “phoenix”).

The fun of codenames lies in seeing how your teammates’ minds work – what associations do they make among words, and do you make the same ones? You also get the joy of working together to solve one another’s clues, a type of collaboration that’s probably pretty different from your everyday.

Note that the online version is without instructions. Here’s a 3-minute video on the rules: 

 

2. Dominion OnlineThe deck-building game Dominion is our nerdiest recommendation.

Nerd alert 🤓🚨! Dominion is a medieval-themed card game with a great multiplayer online adaptation found at dominion.games.

Dominion doesn’t require players to purchase their own packs of cards, it isn’t a “collectible card game.” Rather it’s more like a set of monopoly where each version of the game comes with its complete set of cards. Players are encouraged to make their own strategy by purchasing cards with in-game currency. It’s casual and challenging, relatively easy to learn and difficult to master.

With Dominion, you can see the kinds of strategies your teammates gravitate to - are they playing offensively or defensively? Are they aiming for quick victories, or playing a long game? It’s a view into how they strategize.

Here’s a 3-minute explainer on the rules:

 

3. Jackbox Games

Jackbox games let players focus on the fun with no strong competition - a lovely way to bond with your team.

Jackbox Games, a Chicago-based gaming studio were early pioneers in CD-ROM-based (remember CD-ROMs?) casual trivial video game titles in the 1990s. In the mid-2010s the company was revived from near extinction by offering party games playable over conferencing systems like Zoom or game streaming services like Twitch. During the health crisis, celebrity streams Jackbox games raised more than $500,000 for COVID-19-related charities.

Jackbox titles are paid, but you only need one copy for your team. Our team’s favorite games are Quiplash—where participants come up with the funniest answers to quirky prompts—and Drawful 2—a sort of turn on Pictionary where one artist draws a picture from an off-kilter prompt and others try to guess what prompt resulted in the picture.

While there are ‘winners’ in Jackbox games, these games take your team on a journey together that’s not very goal-oriented and don’t require you to understand strategy. The social nature of Jackbox makes them the easiest introductory games on our list.

Pro-tip: when playing with colleagues, you may flip on the “safe for work” setting.

4. Paper Telephone 

Bring offline games into your virtual team building by playing telephone with your favorite tools.

Paper Telephone is a game that only requires a virtual whiteboard. It’s identical to the game of telephone, where a whispered phrase changes as it is passed and repeated by participants, except done with drawings.

  1. Each player starts by drawing anything they wish, this drawing is then “passed” to the next player
  2. The player describes what they see with words, this prompt is passed to the next player
  3. A new drawing is produced from this prompt
  4. And play continues as hilarity ensues...especially when the final drawing is compared to the first!

Like all forms of telephone, the joy is in seeing how people interpret something, and how subtle shifts end up in big discrepancies. In this one, you also get to enjoy your coworkers’ digital drawing skills.

Try it out with our public Miro template!

5. Playingcards.io

Similar to Tabletop Simulator, below, playingcards.io is an ad-supported service allowing you to play several classic board games (like checkers or backgammon) or any 52-card-based card game online with several players simultaneously.

While the service shows cards moving around in realtime, note that there isn’t any logic or rules built-in. And, if you want to set up the tabletop to play something like Texas Holdem, you’ll need to customize the play area to create space for cards to be flipped over and such. Chips and the like, need to be accounted for separately (a Google sheet works well!)

Because this relies on existing games, this can be an easier starting place for teams who are less comfortable with online gaming or who want a more familiar starting place.

6. Skribblio

Skribblio is an ad-supported web app where players play a sort of mashup between Pictionary and hangman. Players take turns drawing to a prompt while a timer ticks down. All players must guess the word before the timer expires. The faster a correct answer is given, the more points are scored.

Similar to Jackbox above, the social nature and low stakes make this a good starting place.

7. Tabletop Simulator

Tabletop Simulator replicates, down to the 3d physics, the experience of playing a board game together. Several classic games are included, and a rich library of independent and mainstream titles are available.

Again, this can be an easy place to start because you’re already familiar with the games, just enjoying them in a new virtual space.

7. Werewolf

Werewolf is a game of lies and deceit that works well over a video conference link. It requires no apps, purchases, nor serious preparation. Participants are divided by a moderator into several groups:

  • (1) the village doctor – they can prevent somebody from being killed, including themselves
  • (1) the village seer – they can be told by the moderator if somebody is a werewolf or not
  • (2) werewolves – they are trying to take over the village
  • ...everybody else is a villager – they are trying to defend the village

The moderator assigns roles. Roles are secret. This is best done over a private message.

The moderate announces it is night time. Everybody closes their eyes. Then the moderator...

  • ...asks the werewolf to wake up and decide who to kill – they must choose only one person
  • ...asks the doctor to wake and decide who to protect
  • ...asks the seer who they’d like to find out is a werewolf or not

These interactions should be done with private messages.

Then, the moderator announces that daytime has come and everybody can wake up. Then, the villagers must vote on who to “kill.” Their aim is to kill all the werewolves. This should be done as an open debate.

The villagers win if all werewolves are killed. The werewolves win if it is no longer possible for a majority vote of villagers to kill a werewolf.

Start building rapport with your team one-one-one and all-together

As teams navigate the shift to remote work and consider settling into it for a longer period, we will need to adjust our in-person tools for building connection to a new online reality.

On an individual level, we can start by asking one another questions and surprising each other with kind notes.

For teams, we can deepen our rapport through daily, weekly and occasional rituals:

  • Say hello and goodbye in virtual space
  • Break the ice with a check-in round
  • Schedule a Swedish coffee break to chit chat
  • Share work with one another
  • Utilize robots to connect coworkers
  • Find time to play games together

Build strong relationships remotely - your virtual team can be just as close as your co-located team.

We hope these ideas help you and your team get closer together. And if you have a suggestion for something to add, or want to share what’s worked for you, drop us a line.

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Jordan Husney

Jordan Husney spent 20+ years helping technology serve people. His passion for collaboration, agile development, and remote teams led him to start Parabol, a free online retrospective tool.