How to help build a team in times of remote work

I recently wrote about what a PO does. I focused on the –  in my view – three most important responsibilities: Defining the product, Understanding users, and Stakeholder management. I left out an almost equally important aspect: leadership. A topic that is so fuzzy but (maybe for that reason) talked about so much. To make it less fuzzy I will focus on one part of leadership that is of heightened significance in times of remote work: facilitating team building.

In general, it seems most people agree that remote work is a net positive but it also poses some challenges. Very underrated are the effects of remote work on company culture. The challenges to building a real team are probably more obvious. Nevertheless, I feel they are worth addressing.


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What is team building anyway?

For me, team building means fostering an environment where team members feel comfortable, are motivated, communicate constructively, help each other out, and in general just have fun working together. 

I am a firm believer that this is the only way to achieve sustained, long-term productivity from a team. Sure, a “team” that doesn’t have those qualities can build something great and outperform other teams in the short-term (sometimes by a lot). However, in the long-term the real teams will always prevail in terms of output, and for sure in terms of emotional wellbeing.

Prerequisites for creating a real team is having a vision and mission that the team can unite behind. The team needs to know where the journey is going, why we are building what we are building. I will not focus on this now, because vision, mission, and goals are only tangentially affected by remote work. You need to have it anyway.

There is, however, a second, very important part to building a team that is much more affected by remote work, getting to know the team members. In case the team is 100% working in person in an office this happens almost organically. People go to lunch together, grab a coffee or simply bump into each other. Without a doubt, at some point they will talk about things outside of work. 

As with culture, the more remote you are as a team, the more deliberate you need to be about team building, since it won’t happen organically (as much). However, there are small and large things you can do to facilitate team-building. I will focus on three topics.

  • Schedule regular team office days
  • In person workshops
  • Improve remote sessions

Let’s start with the most obvious. 

Schedule regular team office days

Ta-da! The most straightforward thing to do would be to meet regularly, in person.

In case the team is located in the same city or smaller region, I suggest having a regular rhythm when to meet and work together in person in some sort of office setting. Depending on the individual circumstances, this could be once a week, bi-weekly, or once a month. 

It probably makes sense to schedule planning sessions, reviews, creative workshops, or similar meetings on those days. In my experience they seem to be more productive in person. Just make sure to leave some time for grabbing a coffee, getting lunch together, or simply just talking about non-work topics.

Personally, I feel office days are also great for mental wellbeing. Just getting out of the house and working from a different place, breaking the regular rut, is a refreshing stimulation for the brain.

In person workshops

In addition to the above – and for sure if the team is fully (and globally) distributed – it’s best to regularly meet in person for a few days up to a full week. 

In general, I suggest giving the workshops some sort of goal and structure. At the same time, it’s imperative to create a schedule that leaves room for casual conversations or plenty of buffer if any of the agenda points take longer than expected.

Depending on the total length of the workshop it is also valid to have a day or two without anything scheduled to just work. A tight agenda is mentally exhausting and oftentimes the most interesting things come up in these unstructured times.

For the part that is structured, a few things almost always work for me.

Ice breaker

Especially if the team doesn’t know each other so well, it is always helpful to use some sort of ice breaker where the people also share some personal information. There are plenty of techniques out there. Stand up if and two lies and a truth were two that we had a lot of fun with. 

These methods are usually fun but also a great way to get to know something about the team members. Even if the team has lots of experience with each other, some unexpected and interesting conversations may come of these types of exercises.

Retrospective

A retrospective is never a bad idea. It’s just different if you are in the same room compared to using an online tool. I feel the discussions are often deeper. Instead of the day to day, it makes sense to focus this in person retrospective on the more high level topics. Team identity, goals, norms, and values come to mind. Again, there are many methods to choose from.

The most important thing – as with any retrospective – is to actually do something with the results. If they are ignored the team will quickly lose interest the next time one is scheduled.

Build something

This might not work for all industries and teams. However, if at all possible I highly recommend building something. If that’s not possible, the next best thing is to at least come up with possible solutions to a challenge. 

It is an extremely fulfilling exercise for the team to identify a problem, come up with solutions, and actually build a working (prototype) solution.

A design sprint can be very interesting if you have an entire week available. But you don’t necessarily need this full week. You could also conduct a one or two day hackathon. Use whatever time you have and be pragmatic. Building something together is always a great experience. 

In the last workshop we did, we actually only had two hours and used those to run a design thinking exercise. We had to limit ourselves to the first three phases of the Double Diamond but we still came up with some interesting solutions. And most importantly, we had fun doing so.

Evening activities

Fun is the keyword here. There are people who say that you cannot really be successful as a team until you get drunk together. I am not sure if that is totally correct but the sentiment probably is. 

Thus, you definitely want to schedule evening activities during your workshop. Besides food and drinks, we had a lot of fun recently in an escape room (where you also have to work together). 

One word of caution here. Workshops can be extremely fulfilling and very fun, but they are also mentally exhausting. You are with the same people all the time and never really have time to relax and calm down.

Therefore, depending on the length of the workshop it makes sense to not plan something every evening. I also suggest leaving enough time (several hours) between the end of the structured part of the workshop and the evening activities to wind down.

Improve remote sessions

Besides meeting in person, you can also enhance remote meetings to facilitate team building.

Remote team building sessions

First if all, you can actually have remote team building sessions. Many of the team building exercises can now be done within a Zoom meeting. Many of the people and companies you can book to facilitate these team building sessions by now have remote offerings as well. I believe they are less effective compared to having them in person but they are surely better than nothing.

Be unproductive 

I will keep this short since I wrote an entire post about it. It’s an illusion that we can be productive 100% of our working time. If that’s the case, we might as well use a few minutes in a meeting to talk about the weekend before getting into the “important topics”. 

Schedule remote coffee breaks

I very well remember the beginning of the pandemic, when we were still learning how to do this 100% remote thing. It felt like every day we would have a remote lunch, coffee break, after work beer or something similar. They didn’t really work, particularly in large groups and if done too frequently. 

What has worked for us has been a weekly coffee break (where most of the time nobody actually drinks coffee but that’s beside the point). Once a week we have a dedicated place to meet and we explicitly do not talk about work related topics.

This weekly rhythm worked for us but other teams had it daily and some have a virtual lunch once a week. You have to experiment a bit and see what makes the most sense for the team.

Remote after work activities

What has also been very fun are remote leisure activities after work. I have seen virtual board game nights and jointly playing video games. These activities seem to live and die with a few motivated individuals that organize them.

They might not be for everyone. I, for example, didn’t join the board games because they tend to take pretty long and I have a small child. I need all the sleep I can get.

However, I have joined the video game sessions and those were really fun. They give an opportunity to meet and talk to people in a non-work context which is one of the keys to team building.

To summarize

Remote work is great but it brings some challenges in regards to team building. It is possible to have a high performing team that enjoys working together, even if this team never meets. After all many companies are and have been working this way. However, the more remote the team is, the harder it is to end up with a real team.

Thus, my main suggestion is to regularly meet in person, if this is at all possible. In fact, after our recent workshop, we decided to meet once a quarter and as often as our schedules permit, to spend an entire week building something. I will let you know what we come up with.

Photo by Merakist on Unsplash