Being the manager of a fully remote team definitely does come with some challenges.
The work part of the equation isn't all that hard, especially when it comes to building software. With some light cajoling, software engineers are pretty good at delivering value in a virtual environment.
But that's only one half of the equation. The other part of the manager role, the creation and maintenance of a collective sense of team, is significantly harder.
The obvious solution to that?
What's The Greatest Western Thrill Of All?
Every iota of social engagement and relationship building in a remote team takes effort. It's one of the prices we pay for not having to commute and getting to work in our pyjamas.
Without a shared physical space, it's easy to forget that you're working with actual people. In turn, that can lead to all sorts of unpleasant side effects, like emotional disconnection and loneliness.
Humans are social creatures after all, so work can't just be about work.
One of the ways to deal with that is to engage in some social games.
Ideally you want something with a low barrier to entry, but it also needs to be engaging enough for people to sink their teeth into. Not too engaging though, because while part of the point of playing a game together is to play the game, the other, potentially more important part is to just connect.
Traditional video games are good, but they often have a high barrier to entry. I've had a lot of luck with using Mario Kart to get to know people in a corporate environment, but not everyone has a Nintendo Switch at home.
That's not to say I haven't had success with playing those sorts of games in a remote environment, more that it only works for a subset of people in a group. Those who are already gamers or appropriately motivated to connect.
I Hardly Ever Bluff
Enter online, browser-based games.
Specifically, online Poker.
Almost everyone is familiar with the concept of Poker, thanks to its representation in media. They might not understand the rules, but from my point of view, it has a pretty low barrier to entry. This is especially true when the platform that you're playing on helps reduce that barrier even further.
As far as games go, it's complex, without being overwhelming. There is enough meat on the bones that people can't just tune out entirely, but not so much that everyone has to have full, 100% focus in order to participate.
It's also the sort of game that naturally leads to conversation. There is a cadence to the way that things play out that leaves gaps that are easily filled with human interaction. This ranges from talking about the game itself, friendly heckling or just random talk, but it's all good. Anything that gets people talking in a remote social event is a good thing in my books.
Finally, it's an easy game to add stakes to. I'm not referring to betting for money though, because that can open up all sorts of nasty complications. I'm talking about treating a game of poker as one in which there is a distinct winner, i.e. the person with the most "money" at the end.
This is where I add a cake into the equation, so participants feel like they have something worth competing for.
Other than bragging rights.
And I Never Ever Cheat
That's not to say that playing poker with a remote group is perfect. Far from it.
Even though it is easy enough to learn, poker has a pretty high skill ceiling, which is not really what you want from a casual social game. Sure, there is plenty of luck, but a good poker player will absolutely annihilate everyone else. That's demotivating for the normal participants and uninteresting for the skilled participant.
Luckily, I've never had this happen, but I did see something similar with Mario Kart where a few participants quickly outstripped the skill level of everyone else. The engagement in that small group increased dramatically thanks to the magic of competition, but it did mean that quite a few people self-selected out because they didn't feel like they could compete.
Another thing that I've noticed about poker, especially in the way we play it in the team, is that once you're out of "money", it can be very easy to disengage. It's not surprising really, because once you no longer have any skin in the game it's a lot easier to get distracted by other things. Like work.
Poker isn't always the most interesting game to observe, but it does have its charms, especially when you know the people involved. A well-played hand can be a very entertaining thing to see and there is room for people to continue to chat while others play, or to commentate on the game itself.
The last thing I want to note is that while we might not play for actual money, poker still does encourage a gambling mindset. This can be problematic for some people, because it can inspire all sorts of neuroses, like obsession and addictive urges.
It's less of an issue in a casual game for fun where there is very little on the line, but still something to think about all the same.
How Did You Know I Was Bluffing?
I've never actually played a game of poker in reality, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the virtual games, so I assume the in-person version would be just as good. Possibly even better because there is more opportunity to observe people and see if you can deduce what they are holding or thinking.
As a manager of a fully remote team, I'm always on the lookout for these sorts of things because creating social cohesion in a group of people is just plain harder when you aren't all physically co-located.
Though in fairness, it's not trivial if everyone happens to be in an office either. Just a little bit easier.
I highly recommend giving online poker a go. You might learn something new about the people that you are responsible for.
Like how well they can lie directly to your face.