What does your work environment look like in 2022? Many of us have come to terms with this new world of remote work. We're embracing the flexibility and less time spent commuting to and from the office. But one thing is for sure, nothing beats those moments of real connection between you and co-workers.
In our latest Insider Interview, we had the opportunity to speak with Datis Mohsenipour, Director of Marketing & Partnerships, at Outback Team Building. In this interview we touch on topics like: transitioning from in-person to remote work, the mental health of employees, and how essential team building is in the workplace – now, more than ever.
Based on your experience working with remote teams – what is a unique challenge for those teams?
There are 2 really prevalent challenges I’ve come across. The first challenge for a lot of folks is: how to maintain culture in a non-office environment when you don’t have those organic opportunities for impromptu conversations or the ability to go for lunch with your colleagues. How do you keep that alive and substitute it in a virtual environment? As a team building company this is something I hear often from our customers – they don’t have that social engagement that naturally comes from being in an office – so they now have to account for that.
Another one is – managing the transition [from in office to remote]. What I've noticed is that a lot of people are struggling with work/life balance. Now that those lines are blurred, it’s difficult to create separation. For example: You may forget to take lunch because your colleagues aren’t leaving to get lunch – those little things you don’t necessarily account for when you’re working in the office. Those lines become difficult to manage. And burnout is something that’s really easy to fall victim to if you’re not diligent about separating that work and business life when you’re at home.
Yes, definitely. It’s easy to forget to “clock out”. What would your best advice be for a leader taking on a hybrid team or a newly remote team?
When it comes to a leader, obviously you’re responsible for a team too. So, if your team is feeling that pressure, that pressure is going to fall on you – creating struggle in the team environment.
Be very diligent as a leader and encourage your team to focus on their well-being, to take breaks when needed, and take vacation time!
And the same applies to the leaders themselves – remember, you’re human! Yes you may have a lot on your plate – but just powering through work isn’t a long term solution. What’s helped me is creating routines. Have a “start of day” routine, a lunch routine, and a “sign off” routine. For me this signals to my brain – it’s over, time to stop working. Don’t be tempted to push out any more tasks. Look at what you’ve accomplished, reschedule pending tasks for another time, clean up your desk and power off the computer. That’s helped me with the work/life integration, as I like to call it.
Has Outback Team Building & Training always been a remote company?
We’re actually headquartered just outside of Vancouver. Before the pandemic, working remotely was sort of an earned perk – so if you met certain achievement goals, you could work from home X amount of days per week. My team and I were working 3-4 days a week from home, and then would have 1-2 days in the office. But now we’ve ripped off the band-aid and are fully remote. We still have the office that people can go into should they need a change of scenery and COVID protocols are followed.
How has that hybrid model changed the work culture for your team?
In terms of the transition to remote work it’s been really well received. I think everybody feels more productive. Our internal Net Promoter Score (NPS) has gone up significantly. I think people are just really embracing flexibility. That’s one of our external brand promises, but also one we focus on internally – being flexible. And it has really helped morale and positivity. And we’ve witnessed more productivity as we’ve moved into that remote first environment.
Obviously there have been hiccups as far as managing daily work flow, and communication has dropped at times, but we learn, adapt, and take those things into consideration. Of course there are tools that can help supplement those flows, but there’s no replacing the organic experience of being together in an office.
That’s a great reminder of why team building is so important. To intentionally build up communication, collaboration, and trust. Without these core values, all of the other “mechanical” processes fall apart.
Totally, team building is something that is very difficult to quantify the benefits of. To put a metric beside the results of team building is pretty difficult. That being said, we collect feedback after each and every single one of our team building events. One of the most common themes we see in our feedback is that folks got to know their colleagues on a more personal level, teams were sharing laughs about their event for weeks (even months) after the event, and that they felt more cohesive as a team
At the end of the day, team building is about getting to know your colleagues on a personal level. Let’s be real – when you like somebody you work with, you’re more likely to be helpful to them and work better with them! Really at its core, that’s what team building does, it gives you those opportunities to get to know one another.
What would you recommend managers do to increase team engagement outside of team building?
I’m a big advocate for having a “non work related” chat (in Slack or whatever platform you use) so people can continue those engagements and conversations that they may have discovered about somebody during a team building activity or meeting. Creating a space for those friendly conversations, so it’s not all work 24/7.
It doesn’t have to be a big deal. I recently spoke with someone who will carve out 30 minutes once a week, just to have an open chat session with some ice breaker questions, and he’s seen productivity and morale increase as a result of it since he’s carved out that time. And that’s just a free flowing “hang out”.
How often do you recommend scheduling team building activities?
I recommend larger planned events once a quarter. Whether it’s a company wide virtual team building activity, or something in-person. With that said, we’ve noticed a couple of key trends since the pandemic.
- Teams are feeling more disconnected and craving social interactions
- Teams can afford more team building activities seeing as virtual team building is a fraction of the cost of in-person events. Things like transportation, room and board, etc. aren’t a factor in a virtual environment.
Given these two factors, we’re seeing a lot more teams doing monthly team building activities. In the pre-pandemic world, it didn’t make sense for us to offer Halloween team building activities, for instance. But now, demand has gone through the roof and October (which was historically an average month for sales) is our second busiest month.
One last thing I’d like to add on this topic. While I highly encourage working with a team building company like ours to help bridge the social gap between your team in a remote environment, there are smaller DIY things you can do on a more regular basis to boost social connections in your team. Things like a brief 15 minute team-wide game of Pictionary over Zoom, scheduled 1-on-1 coffee-break chats with colleagues, etc.
Do you feel that there is a stigma with virtual team building activities? Is it possible to achieve that same “feel” and engagement that one would expect from an in person activity?
Folks definitely have their trepidations when booking a virtual team building activity for the first time. Thankfully, our customers have been pleasantly surprised. A lot of the feedback that we get has expressed that directly. We’ve actually seen our Customer NPS, which normally sits around 80, continue at a high value with virtual activities, it hasn’t dropped off at all. It's actually steadily increasing!
Our event hosts, whether in person or online are still doing the same things – their focus is still to engage and bring everybody together and create that buzz throughout the team. And thankfully between Zoom, MS Teams, and breakout rooms – we are able to create that same experience online. It’s definitely different but the same value is there. While the environment is different, the technology allows our event hosts to deliver that same fun, high-energy, and engaging experience.
Originally, we restructured 4 of our existing in-person events to a virtual format. Since then, we’ve converted a couple more and added a whole bunch of virtual-only activities to the arsenal. Now we offer 19 activities with more on the way! Like our in-person activities, many of them are also available in a self-hosted format which allows teams that are on a tighter budget to run the activity themselves. For folks that choose to run the event themselves, we provide an in-depth instruction guide and telephone support before and during the activity.
Wow! So much positive growth! It seems that people can take some advice from Outback as far as rolling with the punches and shifting a business model during rough times.
Yeah, when the pandemic was first rolling out, I had my rose tinted glasses on. But then things started getting pretty bad. The majority of our business was in person. We basically hung on by a thread for that first bit.
I was still optimistic because I thought it was logical that people would need team building during this time. It didn’t happen overnight. It took about 3-4 months to see a sizable uptick in our virtual activities – once companies could see that they could push through it as well. We’re at the highest demand we’ve ever seen. I think in 2019 we had the highest level of demand in the organization. Despite seeing record lows for a large portion of 2020, the later half of the year almost matched 2019, given that virtual increase, and has been rocketing up ever since!
I know we’re not changing the world, but it’s cool to see the feedback rolling in. And see that we are helping boost the morale of teams where it was low; because of the pandemic, layoffs, and that lack of daily social interaction. It makes me feel good about what we’re doing, because it’s needed.
Yes, employee well-being is super important. After all, they’re the heart of a successful company, right?
100%. I think that’s so undervalued. But it’s coming to the forefront which I’m really excited about, but as a leader – you are responsible for the performance of your team. And your team isn’t going to perform if they’re disengaged. Disengaged employees are 60% more likely to make mistakes than engaged employees.
There are a million factors that go into employee engagement but those social connections are definitely a part of it. Knowing that your company is carving out time to do a team building activity is such a little thing that makes a difference. Feeling valued, being recognized, and having engagements with colleagues. That’s all important.
We mentioned that it's hard to accurately measure the impact of "team building" specifically, but what metric would you assign to measure employee engagement?
I’m a big fan of NPS – it’s straight to the point. And when you collect NPS anonymously, it gives a safe environment for everybody to give constructive feedback. And for you, as leaders of the organization, to act on that feedback. So I think NPS is a really good measure, as long as you’re doing it truthfully. Meaning, don’t ask leading questions (questions on a scale of 1-10 are great).
Another good one is turnover. Make sure you’re doing exit interviews to get a sense of what is causing that – and if there is a root issue with engagement you need to address.
Other things you can do to work around those metrics are: collecting NPS surveys, collecting anonymous feedback, having 1:1 conversations with team members at the end of every month. I like to ask:
- How are you feeling?
- Are you enjoying the work you're doing?
- Do you have all the tools you need to do your work?
- Am I doing anything that’s preventing you from enjoying your job?
These questions on a personal level make people feel valued, heard, and can uncover a lot of preventable issues; keeping employees from getting to the point of turning over.
Finally, what is your greatest piece of advice for a leader struggling to create connections amongst team members?
For one, especially for new members in a remote environment, that can be really tricky. Somebody onboarding into a fully remote team – they’ll probably feel a little isolated at first. So you need to take that into consideration and map out a lot of moments for them to get to know the team.
My recommendation in an onboarding setting where possible is, have pre-scheduled meetings with people from different departments. Just quick 15 minute conversations so they can start creating those personal connections and learn about their colleagues and feel a part of the team. Because in a remote environment, unless you create those moments, they’re not going to happen.
Another is to give icebreaker questions. We have a list of 300 icebreaker questions that you could refer to. But having those organic conversations whether during onboarding or not, makes somebody feel welcome. And as a leader, don’t be in the dark. At the very least, have 2 or 3 conversations a week when someone is just joining a team – so they feel supported.
I read that 40% of employees feel isolated at work, that was pre-pandemic! Imagine how much that has gone up since social distancing and working remotely. So now, more than ever we need to account for those in-person moments like water cooler talk and the opportunity to go for lunch.
Thats a wrap
If you weren't sure of the added benefits of team building before this interview, I hope you see the value in it now.
Check out Outback Team Building for an extensive overview of all they have to offer. Choose from hosted in-person activities across the US, or a variety of virtual activities to enjoy with your team – the team at Outback will help you choose an activity suitable to your needs.
As always, Weekdone Team Compass is here for your remote team management needs. Status reporting, weekly planning, 1:1 weekly reviews, and customizable feedback templates help you manage your team from a distance.