American University believes that it is essential for teams to come together regularly to connect in person, build community, enjoy opportunities for the social and spontaneous aspects of work, strengthen our teams, and collaborate. We believe intentional work to build community is critical in a hybrid work environment.
The department heads should set aside time specifically for team and community building in whatever way that works best for the group. Taking steps to build community across departments is also critical, so units may look to partner with other departments on whom they rely to accomplish work and seek to build community together.
Understanding Community Building Needs
- Set aside time specifically for strengthening the team and building community. The amount of time and the activities should be tailored to your team’s personality and needs.
- Involve your team and work together to find the approach that best achieves the end goals of team cohesion, collaboration, positive regard, appreciation, and recognition for each other, and advances the team's work
- Schedule activities based on the work cycle of the unit. For example, quick, community-oriented activities during fall rush allow the team to check-in and support each other during busy periods.
- Each community-building activity can be different or the same.
- Consider the culture and personality of your team when planning. For example, if your team is primarily made up of extroverts, select activities that also engage the introverts.
How to plan for community-building activities
In a department meeting, consider using the following approach to discuss how your team would use their time and generate ideas that work for them. The group’s discussion identifies areas to address and should result in concrete ideas.
- Build working relationships
- Support new staff joining the department
- Celebrate milestones and accomplishments
- Assess and plan areas for improvement
- Brainstorm new idea and approaches
- Explore new ways of doing things
- Stress reduction sessions and exercise
- Support wellness and self-care
- Have fun together
- Learn about trends in field
- Share professional development information
- Learn more about another department in the university
It's important to take some time to discuss community with your team
- Break the team into small groups
- Explore the CORE framework – Community, Originate, Rejuvenate, Energize – and discuss how it benefits the department (15-20 min)
- Which themes resonate with the groups?
- What are 3-4 activities they would recommend to support the theme? Ask them to be specific in terms of activity, amount of time, and who might lead
- Debrief in the larger group by discussing the themes people were drawn to and their ideas for activities (15 - 20 minutes)
- Have a note-taker capture the conversation notes and send them out to the department once collected. The department head should add their thoughts on when and how implementation will begin
Community Use team-building activities, ice breakers, and other tools to get to know each other and what they do. This could include Myers-Briggs and similar methodologies. Highlight the work of people and teams, and acknowledge and appreciate each other. Remember, everyone has their preference on how they like to be recognized, so you should know your team to recognize them meaningfully. Celebrate life events and successes. Ask your team for suggestions to celebrate team and individual achievements or life events such as birthdays, births, engagements, etc. Make it fun and accessible. Spend time together doing fun activities such as board game breaks or virtual dance parties. Experiment with special days such as "virtual pet day" for a change of pace and give staff something to look forward to. Other ideas such as a recipe swap, an AU spirit day, or a casual dress day may engage and excite your team and foster a sense of community. Go for a walk outside as a group or take a campus tour. Organize a group lunch where staff can also join in-person and virtually. Or create a Connection Café where each team member’s name is dropped in a hat on a card, and everyone draws a card. Then individuals arrange for coffee or lunch with the person on their card. This activity encourages the team to get to know one another outside of the office and fosters connection. Wear name tags in the office to help new staff learn the team and recognize each other under the masks.
Originate Hold sessions to provide an overview of team-specific processes, the work portfolio, and department issues. Tap into problem-solving capabilities and build the team's strength by providing opportunities to solve problems and offer solutions collectively. These sessions can be planned or ad-hoc as unexpected issues arise. Utilize the annual planning process to revisit and cascade AU's vision, mission, and strategic goals and personalize them to the unit. Explain the value and importance of each element and solicit feedback about what is right, wrong, or missing. Adjust based on the team’s input. Assessing the alignment at least twice a year becomes an inclusive process and helps team members connect to the university. Brainstorm ways teams and individuals can work together and collaborate better. Periodically hold a “stop-start-continue” meeting to review your team's activities. Identify activities your team should start doing, current activities they should stop doing, and activities they should continue.
Rejuvenate Host non-work-related demos (cooking, wellness). Host webinars from experts on mental health issues (e.g., BHS). Begin meetings with an ice breaker activity. Support self-care activities such as virtual coffee breaks, stretch breaks, yoga, and meditation. Schedule time to disengage, for example, a day or a period when the team agrees to disconnect and have uninterrupted chat-email-zoom-meeting-free time to focus. This allows the team to regroup and recharge for higher energy and more collaboration. Dedicate time once a month, or at a frequency that makes sense for your team, to clean and organize personal and shared spaces, both physically and digitally. Let the team suggest how to arrange, decorate, and personalize their spaces to reflect the team's personality. Also, you may want to change the seating arrangements occasionally.
Energize Join webinars on best practices and trends in the field. Invite university leaders to talk about the work of their schools/departments to learn about their priorities and how your unit can support them. Bring staff together around topic-based themes, inviting those who work or are interested in learning more about the subject. This is a development opportunity and a chance to collaborate and learn from each other. Host learning lunches with two or more partner groups to learn more about what each team is working on and tackle a new topic. This helps to build community, foster learning, and improve transparency. Try to make it short and sweet – a value-added experience. Provide cross-training to foster an appreciation for each other's role and create redundancies for the operation. This also allows the team to learn new skills. Hold Thank Goodness It's Friday meetings. This is a time to share and discuss the week's news, events, and issues within the department or university. Consistency is the key. Host a book club. Pick a work-related book or article to read collectively and discuss at least once a month as part of a standing meeting. Capture key takeaways and identify any actions to be taken as a team or by individuals.
Put a little fun in your community building and use one of the following activities. Find what works best for your team.
- Two Truths and a Lie. A classic get-to-know-you icebreaker where each person says two truths and one lie. The goal is to figure out which statement is the lie.
- Online Team Building Bingo. This fun and familiar game is a quick, easy, and free way to get started with virtual team building. You start with a bingo board that has a number of action items or accomplishments on it. For example, when someone says, "Sorry, I was on mute!" you can mark that spot off on your board.
- Guess the Emoji Board. With more people using emojis, Guess the Emoji Board is a quick and entertaining game you can play virtually. Add the game to an existing virtual meeting instead of making it the main event. Here is how to play "Guess the Emoji Board":
- Create a list of players and distribute the list to each player.
- Each person has up to five minutes to guess the five most used emojis by each person on the list.
- Reveal the answers and award points for accuracy or getting the emojis in the correct order.
- Call of the Champions. One way to make virtual calls fun is to assign roles during meetings. If someone has a specific job to do, they are often more engaged. Here are some roles you can assign:
- Cheerleader: Responsible for keeping spirits high during the meeting. This person enthusiastically cheers on the speaker and other team members, and lead others to do the same.
- Mover and Shaker: This role is like a virtual meeting traffic cop. When conversations get in the weeds or otherwise aren't moving along, then this person's job is to get everyone back on track.
- Devil's Advocate: This role allows for healthy discussion of all aspects of an issue or situation, by intentionally enabling someone to take another side.
- Photographer: Throughout your call, there will be opportunities for photos and snapshots of your team. Remote teams need photos too! Give someone the role of group photographer and they can snap a few shots to share by chat or email later.
- Scribe: For some people, the scribe is the least fun role at the meeting, and for others it is the dream job. The scribe is in charge of taking notes.
- Virtual Dance Party. One of the quickest and easiest virtual team building activities is a virtual dance party. You can either host your virtual dance as a standalone event or add it as a quick one-minute session during a meeting. Dancing can help cure awkward silences, keep energy high, and inject fun and team building into your team calls. Here is a virtual dance party playlist on Spotify
- Arm's Reach Show and Tell. To facilitate this show and tell, you can set a 1-minute timer for participants to find "something within arm's reach that is meaningful to them. Each member then has one minute to share about their object, including information like where they got it, and why they keep it
- Exciting Sponge. A quick and easy storytelling game, each team member grabs a random object in arm's length and creates a story about it, or they can default to describing a generic sponge. The goal is to exaggerate the truth about what makes that object amazing. For example, if someone picked up an alarm clock, they could say "this is a relic from the past and someday Indian Jones 2.0, AI edition, will travel back in time and snatch it up for a museum collection." The more absurd the better