Today, virtual teams are very common and finding ways to build stronger team bonds has become even more challenging versus direct face to face interaction.
One recent team I worked with as an Agile coach started originally working part time from the office (two days a week) and part time from home. Those two days in the office were major events that included plenty of key meetings and workshops to collaborate, address challenges and of course increase our esprit de corps, the “pride of working together”.
However, COVID-19 changed that and the team dramatically changed as we moved into a different phase of delivery, moving from playing Agile to being Agile. More than half the team joined after lock down and never met the rest of the team in person. This posed for a new challenge with building relationships that go beyond just doing your job to the best of your ability.
Our solution was simple, yet effective: have regular happy hours as a standard “virtual Agile” ceremony. Our frequency was once every two weeks on a Thursday afternoon (usually a fairly quiet time for the team with our sprints starting on a Wednesday), but can naturally have more or at a different time based on your team situation.
Some basic guidelines that we had with the happy hour:
Maximize Fun and Building Relationships
Everyone should come into the happy hour expecting to have FUN. For many, that meant stopping work, cracking open a beverage of choice and even moving to a different spot or outside away from their work area.
Keep Work Discussions to a Minimum
We have plenty of serious work discussions already. This meeting is collectively intended to be completely different, allowing everyone relax and enjoy each other. During our early happy hours, whenever someone started talking seriously about work, other team members would steer away from that. After a few meetings, that no longer occurred.
Attendance is Optional
It’s simple: join only if you want to. Its unreasonable to demand fun from team members by forcing them to come. If they aren’t happy being there, that can impact the rest of the team negatively, sabotaging the purpose of the meeting.
For those that did not come, they followed our Team Working Agreement to post on our primary communication tool (Microsoft Teams) that they would not be able to attend in advance.
No Set Agenda
There are plenty of virtual games and activities you can facilitate during the virtual happy hour. Just Google them. In general, we preferred keeping it open ended and ‘go with the flow’ of conversation, although we had story telling on specific topics (like craziest time with client visits) and even had a ‘virtual DJ’ during one Happy Hour, playing music by request going from Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey” to Johnny Cash’s, “Ragged Old Flag” around Independence Day.
Negativity took a back seat during these virtual happy hours. We had a client stakeholder that had brought negativity in the past and had a rule not to bring up that person’s name or anything about that person during the happy hours to avoid it becoming a venting session. Although venting can be beneficial, that was not the purpose of this happy hour, otherwise we’d call it a ‘venting hour’.
My weather-vane for the effectiveness was simple: how many team members joined and how long did they stay on?
Out of a team of nine people (Project Manager/Business Analyst, UI/UX Designer, Business Analyst, one architect, three developers and two automation engineers/testers) nearly all would come. If less started showing up, then we would determine whether the meeting should change or be completely dropped. However, its been going on for over three months and shows no signs of fading.
I’ve now “worked myself out of a job” and proud to watch them continue to grow and improve on their own without my direct help. They still have biweekly happy hours and I plan to go to one scheduled today!
As a bonus, the picture at the top is of my team when we combined our happy hour with a surprise persona party, dressing up as personas from our product!