After months of being away from our offices due to COVID-19 shutdowns, our staff were feeling the weight of the shutdown.
For our annual all-staff meeting and team building event, I wanted to recognize the difficulties of the year, highlight our successes despite them, and make our team feel good about the work they did.
And, of course, have a little fun!
Here's our story of how we pulled off our introvert-friendly, virtual all-hands and team-building event!
How we used to do in-person all-hands and team building events
Before we get into how we pulled off our virtual event, it helps to start with some context into how we organized these kinds of events in the past.
Our in-person events always try to accomplish a few things: recognize employees who have reached employment milestones, honor those who exemplified our core values, and give our staff time to be with each other and connect.
Events were always important for creating connections between employees. Some of our teams rarely interact outside of Slack messages and ticket responses, so helping employees get to know each other as people—not just a handle or name on a ticket—is always a very important goal of these events.
These events traditionally followed a consistent format: a buffet-style lunch while watching presentations.
Some of the presentations included:
- the VP of IT’s introduction and celebration of our year’s successes,
- a come-up-for-your-certificate-when-your-name-is-read segment for recognizing employee anniversaries, and
- a presentation recapping our values, reading of nominees’ names, and awarding certificates to the award winners.
Then, we break up into teams to go bowling for the rest of the afternoon.
The format helped to accomplish the basic objectives: helping our staff get to see each other and recognizing people who sometimes get lost in the shuffle. For an employee celebration event, most people liked it and appreciated being away from the office for the afternoon.
But after six or seven years of doing it the same way, it’s fair to say our team was looking for something new.
And as a department of introverts, some people never liked the format. Hated it, even.
On surveys, employees said that being called up in front of everyone was uncomfortable for them and they hated being “forced” to interact with colleagues over a physical activity during a mandatory work event.
And as the event planner, I was ready to mix it up too!
How we moved our annual all-staff and team-building event online
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, our event had to be fully virtual but still accomplish the same north-star objectives: recognize employees and get people talking to coworkers they don’t normally see—hopefully in a fun way.
There were three big challenges that we had to overcome:
- With the new format, I knew our biggest challenge was going to be switching between presenters and making sure everyone’s video, audio, and screen sharing were working without killing the energy of the event.
- We also knew it wasn’t going to be feasible to ask employees to turn their cameras on to be recognized (I can’t even imagine what a mess that would have been). And with the feedback from the previous year that this format made employees uncomfortable, we had to find a way to recognize them without running into technical difficulties or making them feel awkward.
- We also wanted to limit our time to about an hour and a half—far shorter than our usual half-day event.
The New Plan
Avoiding Technology Issues
To tackle the first challenge of technology we had to limit the number of presenters and audio/visual switching. So instead, we pre-made videos that could be played on-demand, avoiding potential technical difficulties and helping us keep the energy up.
This approach also helped us address the concern with introverts not wanting to be singled out at the event and gave them more autonomy over how they were represented.
Highlighting Team Accomplishments
Instead of having our VP of IT read bullet points from a script, I made an accomplishments video that focused on three things:
- recognizing the mental and emotional toll of working through the pandemic,
- visually telling the story of the past year, highlighting all the hard work that happened (often quietly, behind the scenes), and
- showcasing what all that work was for (something that was easy to slide out of view with everyone being remote).
The video focused on accomplishments, campus changes, and most of all, showing the students, faculty, and staff who were successful because of our efforts, culminating in commencement—something they could not have done without our staff’s hard work.
Milestone and Value Award Presentations
Instead of having employees come on camera to be recognized, we asked that staff submit photos ahead of time for the presentation we built in Canva.
I was pleasantly surprised at how many people on our team actually submitted pictures for the presentation sections. This gave them control over how they were represented and the final product looked much more human and interesting than if we had used official employee photos, or worse, screen after screen of “no photo available”.
For our value award presentation, we felt it was important for our employees to see and hear from our department leadership, so we had our associate directors read scripts live over the presentations.
Balancing the event with some live presenters helped keep the experience personable and interesting.
How we pulled off a virtual team building event
Finally, we had our team-building exercise—arguably one of the harder things to translate from in-person to online with the same participation and success.
So instead of bowling, we organized a virtual escape room. We didn’t tell the staff that, though. We wanted to build some intrigue and surprise them.
In a normal year, we give staff a small token of appreciation, like a branded USB drive. We wanted to maintain that element of our event but needed something budget-friendly that could be shipped out.
We decided to use the opportunity to build a little intrigue and make the event even more interactive by making the item part of the event.
We sent staff the super-secret mystery item—a coffee mug with a line of blank spaces on it. So mysterious!
Creating the escape room game
The premise of the escape room game was that we’d been hacked and our team had to solve clues to stop the hackers.
First, I had to create the escape room clues. I tried to integrate as much cross-team knowledge and systems as possible so that each person on a team could shine as an expert for any given clue.
Then, I created the game itself.
The “room” was primarily constructed in Google Presentations, where I uploaded different views of spaces and clues, and created hotspots that could be clicked on.
I also used Sheets to create the clues (a data spreadsheet and crossword puzzle) and integrated our website AI chatbot, Slack workflows, and our help desk ticketing system to host clues for an added layer of difficulty.
When employees started to put the pieces together and solve the clues, answers could then be tested in Google Forms using answer validation. If they got the clue right, the submission screen would give them another clue to follow or send them back to the room to find more clues.
Lastly, I created a presentation introducing the game that set the scene and provided the game instructions and links.
Warning: Don’t forget to test!
I can’t stress this enough: Invite a small group of people to test the game with you.
My first edition of the game was way, wayyyyy too long for the time we had allotted. Some clues weren’t clear enough, and there were bugs in the Google Forms that ended up in wrong answers.
And if you change anything, have someone new run through it with you again, because your familiarity and expectations of how things should be will cause you to miss things.
You can even recruit your testers as moderators to help during the exercise. In my experience, people love having the “inside scoop” and being able to help.
Playing the Game
After our award presentations, we used the Webex breakout session option to auto-assign users to breakout rooms. Then we used the broadcast feature to share the link to the introductory presentation.
Once in the breakout rooms, the teams had to elect a leader to screen share and then click through to find clues. We didn’t set any other requirements for being on camera, or really participating at all, and let teams find their own dynamic.
We also gave users a Slack channel they could use to ask questions or get support if they had any technical questions. And we had moderators in Webex that could pop into the rooms and see how things were going, but we found no one really needed any help.
To finish the game, the teams collected letters from solved clue screens. A final clue instructed them to unscramble the word, write the answer on their coffee mug, take a team screenshot together, and send it to an email address.
We used Webex announcements to let users know how long they had left to help give a real escape room-like feeling (and to be respectful of people’s time).
When the time was up, we closed the breakout rooms and brought everyone back together for one last video announcing the solution.
People loved the experience.
We got lots of positive feedback from coworkers. We had requests for links so folks could play with their kids at home and I even had people from other departments contacting me to ask about it.
What I didn’t hear was complaining—and I point-blank asked our biggest critics about it. I always hear some complaining about bowling, but people had nothing but love for the escape room!
I even had a committee member tell me that his team loved the game “and they never love anything.”
What we learned
Here are my key takeaways (especially when you’re organizing for a group of introverted people):
- In the day and age of Zoom fatigue and workplace burnout, it is okay to let people engage at their own comfort level. Aside from leadership (sorry, C-suite, it’s part of the job description), don’t force employees to be on camera and don’t force them to interact. It is still very valuable for them just to be in a breakout room hearing their coworkers' voices and having the chance to be in the room. The extroverts will lead—and the introverts will feel involved without feeling uncomfortable.
- Give opportunities for greatness. I really thought through the clues so this game wasn’t just a boilerplate escape room experience. I used our internal tools and integrated expert knowledge into the clues so that people had moments to shine with their institutional and professional knowledge.
- Consider making events totally optional. In my opinion, having the known-negative nellies not present made it easier for everyone who was there to be more positive and invested in the experience.
- Just pushing out information has value. Send out wrap-ups after the meeting for people who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) attend. People will absorb it. They will see and appreciate that someone cared about the team.
Trying new things is hard, but it really makes you evaluate your objectives and tactics.
If you’re trying to organize a virtual all-hands or team-building event, my advice to you is to break free from your beaten path, because glory awaits in new things!
Author’s Note: This post originally appeared in Comms-unity, Bananatag’s community for internal communication professionals. If you’d like to join the thousands of communicators who are sharing inspiration, advice, and more, click here to apply.