We know a lot about online team building here at Zapier. We've been a 100% distributed company for nearly a decade, and we have a lot of fun. Not like we're-all-hermits-and-we-don't-know-what-fun-actually-means fun—real fun.
At Zapier, we have a Slack channel called #wg-zapier-social ("wg" stands for "working group"), where we come up with ways to hang out virtually. So if you're looking for remote team activities, here are some tips from the experts.
Related: You can build culture on your remote team with automation. Zapier lets all your apps talk to each other, so you can help maintain and strengthen connections on your team without any extra work.
Set up a social calendar
The spontaneity of a co-located office provides lots of hidden opportunities for watercooler chat. You can go for drinks on Thursday after work with your team. You can grab a few walk-and-talk coffee meetings throughout the week. Hardly a day goes by when you don't have lunch with one of your work friends.
For remote team activities, you have to be more intentional about it.
Zapier does this with a shared calendar called the Zapier Social Calendar (clever), which employees can add to their default view in Google Calendar. The idea is that this allows everyone in the company to broadcast and be aware of the various remote social activities that are going on. Anyone can add an event, and anyone can attend.
Here's how people add events.
Create the event on your personal calendar.
Invite Zapier Social Calendar as a guest.
There is no step 3.
We also have a Slack channel called #feed-zapier-social, which ports all of those activities into Slack. That way everyone can stay up-to-date on new and upcoming events. And a little fomo never hurt anyone.
This also helps prevent the issues of people being too shy or, you know, considerate to spam everyone about hanging out. It's sanctioned socializing, and it gives you the permission to lurk, spin something up yourself, or just start playing a violin and see if anybody else wants to listen.
This isn't anarchy, folks. Follow some rules.
It's best to have a few simple guidelines, so everyone can feel comfortable adding events. Here are ours.
You can add any social activity if you would like to see it happen. These can be speculative. Put something on the calendar even if you merely think other folks might be interested. If you're thinking, "This could be fun, but I'm not sure if anyone else would want to do it," this calendar is for you. Live your best life.
People must be able to participate in the activity remotely. If it's on the calendar, and if you're awake, you should be able to join. For your local, in-person meetups, we ask people to schedule private events or use other calendars. Zoom calls, conference calls, mixed remote-local meetups, or activities that take place online (e.g., video games) are totally fine.
If you're planning to attend an activity, RSVP for it by editing the event and adding yourself as a guest. We do it this way because Google Calendar does not support RSVPs to shared calendar invites.
If some time passes and you can't reach your minimum number of RSVPs, feel free to delete the event. We ask that folks try to keep minimums as low as possible. Canceling is ok, but someone else may have been looking forward to hanging out.
If you put it on the calendar, you are committing to show up for it, or to find someone else who can attend in your place. People need to trust that if it's on the calendar, it's going to happen. Recurring events are fair game, but if attendance is running low, please delete them.
Feel free to advertise any activities in Slack or elsewhere. It'll show up in #feed-zapier-social, but go ahead and spam whoever you want.
We are a global company, and "it's always happy hour somewhere." Don't invest a lot of energy into negotiating the perfect time slot. The goal is to have a calendar full of fun stuff to do. Prioritize low friction over perfect attendance.
Can't attend an activity? Default to action: host a duplicate! Clone a great looking event into your timezone. Clone a fun activity that you couldn't attend due to a scheduling conflict. Something tells us your team can handle four board game nights per week.
Ideas for remote team activities
Here are some ideas for social activities that translate well to a remote setting.
Video games. Factorio and Counter-Strike and whatever else the kids are playing these days. Call into a shared Zoom if there's no built-in voice chat.
Board games. A lot of board games are available online, for free. Card games, too. Digital games can remember the position of the pieces, so you can come back and finish your marathon Risk game next week!
Remote coffee run. Call into a Zoom meeting on your Bluetooth headset while you and your coworkers go for a simultaneous walk-and-talk.
Meals. Ok, not everybody wants to eat on camera—but some of you do. Some of you, not some of us.
Movie night. Ever been to a movie theater? Everyone starts at exactly the same time, the movie doesn't stop, then everyone hangs out and talks about it afterward. Novel idea, right?
Remote conference. Ever been to a conference? Everyone watches the presentation at exactly the same time, the presentation doesn't stop, then everyone hangs out and talks about it afterward. Pick a thought-provoking filmed conference talk and pretend it's PyCon every week.
Skill sharing. Some folks know how to pick locks, or paint a watercolor, or ruminate on obscure music theory. Your team has a lot of talented folks, and a lot of people who want to learn what you've got to teach. (Hint: if you are intermediate, you can still teach a beginner.)
Drinks. High tea?
Book club. If for some reason you read instead of watching TV and movies. .
Actual remote team activities
Those were just ideas. How about some actual activities we've hosted at Zapier? These include online games for remote teams and other activities that we've made work from afar.
Open Social. No agenda, just come and chat.
Kids of Zapier Social. A chance for all of the mini-Zapiens to hang out. Also for meeting the families of coworkers.
Zappy Hour. A weekly event where people come and hang out to celebrate the end of a long week.
Munch & Learn. 3–5-minute presentations from Zapier employees—on any topic.
Zapier International Hangout. For people who tend to be sleeping during lots of the other activities.
Handcraft Hangout. The host, Ashley, says: "If you make things with your hands, this hangout is for you. Bring your knitting, woodworking, macrame, needlepoint, sewing, soap making, sculpting, decoupage, whatever you do."
Board Game Hangout. We give Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes a try in a remote environment.
It may seem counterintuitive, but remote work can actually improve your social life because it forces you to be intentional about hanging out and making friends. We get better at the things we practice. So practice. And have fun.