by Margaret Schneider
OK, so working from home isn’t just one big party. But if you’re “unexpectedly locked out of the office,” you might already be missing the sense of joy and connection that company and team happy hours can establish. The fun doesn’t have to stop, nor do you have to miss out on that face time, just because you’re remote. As a certified scrum master and the director of Alley’s editorial training program, I have found that you can build unexpectedly deep connections with the use of games and regular remote Zoom happy hours.
One of the ways we’ve created such a strong remote team at Alley is by creating opportunities for camaraderie and connection among team members with remote get-togethers. These have included a weekly happy hour every Friday on Zoom, random donut buddies calls arranged by a Slack bot, Alley Film Club, Alley Book Club, remote Halloween parties, holiday gift exchanges on Zoom, and more. Here are a few ways we’ve made these gatherings fun for everyone.
1. Join Multiplayer Online Party Games
For some, the phrase “party games” might immediately evoke drinking games, especially when we’re talking about happy hour. But no one has to drink to enjoy playing games together. Some teams at Alley even use a quick round of a game to break the ice before longer scrum practices.
Some of our favorite finds have been online multiplayer party games the whole team can enjoy at once, such as Jackbox Games. With Jackbox, everyone’s phone or web browser, connected to Jackbox.tv, becomes a controller or input device for the game. Meanwhile, one person can share the admin view of the game with a Zoom screen share, so everyone can see the board.
Two of our favorite games on Jackbox are Drawful 2, a drawing game with some similarities to Pictionary, and Quiplash, a somewhat Mad Libs-inspired guessing game. Just follow the instructions on the Jackbox site to get started. Note: Depending on how many people are on your Zoom call and their tolerance for the in-game sounds, you might want to experiment with not sharing sound from the game, if you’re screen-sharing the admin view. Also, you can add to the fun by streaming your session on Twitch -though be aware that if you do so, you might get some gate-crashers joining in, since the code to join the game is on the screen.
2. Host Online Drawing or Word Games
Games such as Pictionary or Charades are other great candidates for remote parties. At Alley, we frequently host sketch sessions as part of our design discovery process, during which folks draw (“work alone together”) for a set period of time, then take photos of the work using their phones. These images are then uploaded to a shared Google Slides deck, one per page, for dot-voting and discussion. The same methods can work for playing drawing games!
Any drawing game like Pictionary can be played using a shared Google Slides deck in this way to more easily see and save the images-or perhaps better yet, by drawing directly in a Google Drawings doc. Alternately, depending on how good team members’ cameras and connections are, people can just hold physical drawings up to the camera. Or you can use Zoom’s annotation tools with a shared whiteboard as a canvas.
For a more fast-paced group drawing and guessing game, reminiscent of the sadly defunct Yahoo! Graffiti, you can start a private game room for your team to play Skribbl.io. This is another Pictionary-like game, in which one player at a time draws, while others guess what’s being drawn. The game has automatic scoring and a chat window alongside for jokes. It sounds simple, but the game can allow colleagues to flex their creativity and sense of humor. The game alone is a lot of fun, or you can join Zoom together while playing for running commentary.
3. Record GIFs and Videos Together
As many folks newer to Zoom are now discovering, the software also includes a green-screen feature called virtual background. We’ve definitely gotten goofy on happy hours and used this to record our own animated GIFs and videos. You can do this by recording the Zoom to MP4 video or using screen-capture software such as Giphy Capture to get results in GIF form. It’s a bit like taking Instagram selfies with friends in front of weird backgrounds, only in video/virtual form.
Note: If Zoom suggests that your processor isn’t fast enough for virtual background, you can still check the box for “I have a green screen” in Zoom settings, and you’ll be able to use the feature anyway. (This can yield more amusing results than if the processing were better!)
When I needed to record a lightning talk for one of Alley’s annual all-staff retreats, I used Zoom’s annotation functionality while screen-sharing with colleagues to draw together and record our drawing session’s progress. I was inspired by VHS videos my brother and I used to record with the Video Painter as kids. I took the results and stitched together a collaboratively drawn music video. (Perhaps of note: The song in that video was recorded via remote collaboration as well!)
For even more fun, try installing Snap Camera. The free software lets you use Snapchat filters on your Zoom video. This can easily keep an entire group entertained during happy hour, as everyone tries out the filters. Important note: Most of the filters are just pretty or silly, but a few aren’t 100 percent safe for work. Be careful which ones you enable! Also, once you install Snap Camera, note that videoconferencing software such as Zoom or Google Hangouts may at times treat video from the app as the default. So if you use Snap Camera, double-check your software settings to be sure you’re using the correct video source and have turned off any filters before you enter more professional meetings.
4. Play More Traditional Games Together
When our Scrum teams vote together to estimate stories, at times we’ve used Scrum Inc.’s planning poker cards to show our vote. In addition, we frequently use Zoom chat and Zoom’s nonverbal feedback functionality, such as raise hand, to gather questions during team meetings and webinars. With nonverbal feedback, you can look at the participant list or the icon on each person’s video in the grid to see who has feedback or input and take turns.
Similarly, in Zoom, you can play any game that requires people to raise their hands or show cards or otherwise buzz in. This can be as easy as having people physically raise their hands or card on video. Or if there are too many people to see everyone on one small screen, especially if everyone’s temporarily on a laptop, use the nonverbal feedback functionality to play.
This extends to games that bridge work and play, such as techniques from LEGO Serious Play. At Alley, several Adult Fans of LEGO have led these efforts; we’ve found that using LEGOs to conceptualize and communicate, or even to occupy our hands during remote sessions, can help team members stretch their creativity.
5. Host a Film Club, Book Club, or DJ Room
We’ve hosted Alley Film Club and Alley Book Club sessions to watch and discuss movies and books together as a group. This type of session is an entertaining way to foster meetings of minds across a wholly remote workforce and give us chances to learn together. For instance, the entire company read Jeff and J.J. Sutherland’s Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, then came together in a set of Alley Learn Stuff sessions to discuss it.
Alley Film Club took a cue from MetaFilter’s Mystery Science Theater Club, which regularly hosts marathons of the show, along with running chat commentary, during the holidays. The club uses a channel on CyTube to sync video and chat. Your team can start its own channel or watch an existing one together, with everyone pulling up the channel URL separately on their computers, then joining Zoom together to chat, as when playing other games above. The CyTube servers keep the video synchronized for everyone.
The film club has also had everyone sync up a video to watch separately together. You may have done this with long-distance friends via chat a time or two, syncing up a movie to watch and comment on, MST3K-style. If the movie or show you want to watch together is on Netflix, you’re now in luck: The recently introduced Netflix Party has a Google Chrome extension that allows users to join a room where you can watch a video together, synced up in real time, and comment via chat.
During meetings or happy hours, one person can also share audio from a window via Zoom, to provide a soundtrack to the proceedings. Only one person can share at a time, but if someone shares their web browser, with audio in one tab and whatever the group is working on or playing in another tab, this can work really well! We’ve also enjoyed shared virtual DJ rooms on Fridays, using services such as Plug.dj to queue up music videos and songs.
6. Just Chill
When everyone is remote, “Don’t drink alone-drink alone together!” can be a welcome rallying call. It’s safer and more fun to have a drink or a donut together than alone. You don’t have to put together a complex agenda or a program of events to have a lot of fun with a critical mass of people on a call. Just being together is often enough.
At Alley, we’ve done remote happy hours for years, and you can truly get to feel close to folks that way. Encourage people to bring pets, kids, significant others, etc. on the call. We’ve even unboxed gifts together at the holidays, or simply opened up everyday purchases. We’ve also had team members host Alley Learn Stuff sessions that were essentially a mini cooking show, with multiple camera angles, a whole menu of dishes being prepared-the works. Most things you might see someone do in a slice-of-life Twitch stream can be done together on a Zoom call to strengthen team members’ bonds. The more the merrier, and the more unexpected things occur in the vicinity of people on the call (cats on keyboards, etc.), the more fun it can be.
For groups who might need a prompt to give your casual time together a little more structure, check out game designer Holly Gramazio’s “How to Play” series for ideas. You don’t need any formal pieces or rules to play a verbal or mental game together. This, too, can be a way to spark your team’s imagination.
Basic conference chilling rules apply to parties too: Say hello when you join, and greet new folks when they do. Everyone should mute as much as possible when not speaking or sharing their audio. Use headphones whenever possible and check audio and video settings before joining to help fight echo or feedback loops. Turn on your video! It’s a lot more fun to be able to see people in their home environment and learn a little bit about how your coworkers live their lives. And of course, make sure to chill.
We hope these tips can help make your remote gatherings a bit more fun right now and foster true connection among your team members. If your team is temporarily working from home and setting up a remote happy hour, we’re happy to answer questions, provide guidance, and assist as we are able.
Originally published at https://alley.co on April 1, 2020.