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Remotely Fun: Team Building Across Time Zones

Michael Meeks
Dec 15 - 6 min read

For all intents and purposes, my team is 50% remote and 50% co-located. This is fine for most day to day things. We have remote friendly meetings, collaborate using various digital tools, and we even occasionally leave a video meeting running on a monitor near our desks so remote folks can strike up a conversation more or less as if they were sitting there.

We encourage chit-chat during more of our meetings and ask way more icebreaker questions than you would expect for a team that has been together for almost a year. It helps us stay connected and keep our working relationships friendly.

However, we have had a hard time finding ways to just have fun together. We can’t simply mosey over to the mall for lunch, play a board game together during lunch, hit up Top Golf, go to the lake, throw some pots, catch a soccer game, or even share a donut.

That got me thinking. Surely there must be a way for a group of people to have some decent, cheap, casual fun together even when they are 3 time zones apart. We live in the 21st century, for crying out loud!

Our team recently had a virtual coffee chat. That went okay. It was a little hard to have a coherent conversation with 10 people on the line, but it was casual, approachable, reasonably fun and gave us an excuse to spend time together apart from talking about work. It was a clear win. I would highly recommend it.

But it wasn’t really a good stand-in for the more involved outings we sometimes do with our co-located colleagues.

So I put on my thinking cap and did a little brainstorming.

The first thing that came to my mind was an online game of some sort. Then I have to admit the anchoring effect set in and I totally failed to be a good brainstormer and couldn’t think of anything else. This is a good reason not to do brainstorming alone, but that’s another story.

Anyway, I had this great idea: let’s all hop on a video call and play an online video game together! I put an event on the calendar and invited the whole team. Now I was committed. Time to make it happen.

I probably just lost some of you. A video game? Really? I know. I know. Not everyone likes video games. I happen to be someone who doesn’t like video games. Bear with me.

I knew I needed a very specific type of game. Here are the criteria I laid out:

  1. It had to be free.
  2. It had to be super easy to set up, preferably not requiring any download or set up at all.
  3. It had to be really easy to play.
  4. It had to involve as close to no initial skill and preferably not a lot of luck (no one would have a good time if only the “gamers” in the group could win, and heavily luck based games are fun for about 30 seconds unless you are gambling).
  5. Preferably it would be played in short rounds.
  6. It would be nice if every player were engaged continuously (turn-based games are great, but we have all played with someone who takes forever… and that sort of thing does not exactly inspire team spirit).

With those criteria in mind, I began my search. Not being a video or online game person, I didn’t have much to go on. I did a lot of searches starting with “online games for remote teams” to “online party games” and “free online cooperative games” with many variations and dead ends along the way. I found some really cool stuff, but nothing that quite fit my criteria. As a side note, airconsole.com provides some pretty interesting options for co-located participants.

I got some help from remote friends to try a few out, but no dice. Eventually, I found one (bonk.io) that seemed like it might do. I had an event on everyone’s calendar that was quickly approaching, and I just needed something that wouldn’t be terrible. I had spent as much time as I was willing to on finding the game, so I didn’t really test it out. YOLO, right?

King of the Hill? Yes, please.

The team started asking questions. What are we doing? How is this going to work? I could tell that they were curious and willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, but it was also clear that they weren’t really convinced. And frankly, neither was I. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be terrible. Worst case scenario, we would spend 5 minutes either trying to get the game to work or play for 10 minutes, lose interest, and settle in for another virtual chat with at least something to joke about. What was there to lose?

With that stellar level of confidence well-disguised behind enthusiastic optimism, we kicked off our first ever virtual arcade.

Bonk.io is a super simple game. So simple that I suppose the creator didn’t think any instructions would be necessary. Since none of us had ever played, including me — I didn’t test it, remember — we just jumped in and started trying things out. And it worked. In fact, that might have been the best part.

We tried different game modes, different settings, playing with teams and then free-for-all. We tried out different boards, each one with a new surprise that we had to discover and then figure out how to overcome or leverage.

Surprise! You just blew up…

We played. We experimented. We hit some snags, lag in particular. We learned. We won. We lost. We failed. We succeeded. We joked. We laughed. We had a good time. In short, we had a great team outing.

We did all of this from 6 different locations in 3 separate states spanning the entire continental US. And we did it all for free.

I went into the event really thinking that we would get maybe 15 minutes of play out of the game before we lost interest and switched to a coffee chat style hangout session. I was planning on that, actually. Instead, we ended up playing for the entire hour that I had blocked off. And we were laughing pretty much the whole time. I counted the whole thing as a roaring success.

However, I didn’t want to just move on and assume that everyone else enjoyed it as much as I did. I did the responsible thing and sent out a survey. Apparently, my team also thought it was great. They gave the event a 4.8 of 5 rating overall and unanimously said they would do something similar again. The open feedback included the following remarks:

  • “Super fun!”
  • “Thanks for setting up these types of events.”
  • “I had low expectations coming in. My expectations were surpassed.”

The feedback about bonk.io in particular was less stellar, but still pretty good. There is no perfect solution or game, but this one got the job done. I would recommend it to others as a place to start and I would use it again, though maybe not with the same group.

Bonk? Remotely fun.

As I just said, there is no perfect solution. But if you work with remote teammates, I would definitely encourage you to think outside the box and try to come up with something fun for your whole team to do together. Well, as together as people scattered all over the country or world can be, anyway. If you can’t think of anything better, try a virtual arcade and maybe you will be just as surprised as I was.


Follow us on Instagram at @SalesforceEng to see what other fun our engineering teams get up to!

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