4 non-cringeworthy team-bonding events that people actually enjoy

Here’s what 1,000 managers in The Watercooler said their employees enjoyed most as a team-building activity.

Team bonding — known to some as “forced fun” — can bring feelings of dread and resentment to many employees. And who can blame them? When thinking of team bonding, many people picture awkward trust falls or hours spent with a facilitator asking corny questions.

However, a team does need to feel connected in some way. You can’t work well together if you don’t trust each other — let alone, know each other. And getting to know each other, while that can happen organically over time, only gets harder the bigger the team gets or the more spread out your office is.

Particularly for new employees, an effective team-building activity can go a long way. It’s rare, dedicated time for folks to not talk about work, relax, and just have fun.

I asked members of The Watercooler, our online community of almost 1,000 managers in Know Your Team, what their most successful team bonding events were. Below were the top four mentioned. Feel free to tailor these ideas to fit your own team dynamics and preferences.

Work ‘n Travel

Few experiences are as memorable and unique as traveling somewhere novel. For the past couple of years, one Watercooler member’s company spends a week together as a team, working remotely and traveling. So far, they’ve been to Lisbon, Portugal, and Poland. (And they already have their destination picked out for next year!) For them, it’s been a perfect way to spend high-quality time getting to know each other, while also getting to have a common shared experience of traveling.

Team Volunteering

Contributing to the community around you, together with your team, is a fantastic, non-cliché way for everyone to feel more connected. One Watercooler member’s company volunteered at a local food bank when everyone was in town for a company meeting. They spent the day providing thousands of meals to people in need while also bonding as a company.

3+ Lunch Fridays

Possibly the most common team-bonding event that teams seem to do is to sponsor lunch outside the office on Fridays. Several managers in the Watercooler mentioned how their company will cover the cost of lunch for groups of three or more employees if they go out to eat on Fridays. This in fact incentivizes folks to get out of the office and socialize a bit with one another.

Cereal Day

It sounds odd, I know. But a Know Your Company customer and Watercooler member shared how surprised she was that a seemingly insignificant team-bonding event had such a big effect on her team’s morale. Every month, she brings in a box of everyone’s favorite cereal to one of their most intense days of the month: The strategic planning meeting. It was a small, quirky move — not any big grand gesture – and it was a big hit with her team.



P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Announcing: A Guide to Building Trust in Teams for Managers and Employees 💪

From data of 597 people and distilling 50 years worth of research, I wrote a practical guide for building trust in teams.

Dear manager or employee who wants their team to perform well,

If you Google Books “trust,” you’ll get 147,000,000 plus hits. On Amazon Books, “trust” turns up in 50,000 results. Woof.

“Building trust” within your team seems important to do. But from the barrage of resources, how exactly do you go about it?

This guide is an attempt to answer that question in a concise, practical way.

We surveyed 597 managers and employees, cited conversations from almost 1,000 managers who are a part of our Watercooler online leadership community, and distilled research and books on trust from the past 50 years.

My hope is to save you some time and energy. You don’t need to sift through the 147 million hits on Google. You don’t need to read the research on trust from the past 50 years.

In these guides, you’ll learn…

  • Three models of defining trust — and why understanding this matters
  • The 5 ways trust affects your bottom line
  • The 3 most effective ways to build trust (and the 3 least effective ways)
  • Tactics for implementing each of these three methods for building trust
  • The 7 ways to build trust as a new manager
  • Five ways for your team to get to know you better
  • The 25 best icebreaker questions
  • How to build trust while you’re working remotely

A peek at what the guides look like inside!

To get access to the Guide to Building Trust, purchase Know Your Team — our software to help you become a better leader.

Our software, Know Your Team, includes this guide, plus six other guides, tools, and an online community.

👉 Try Know Your Team today.

Enjoy the guides, and look forward to hearing from you!

Want more of our guides?

I’m writing a Guide on Sharing Info in teams.

I also wrote a Guide to One-on-One on Meetings.

And lastly, if you’re digging our guides, you might also dig this…

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew).

Small, but effective: 6 commonly overlooked actions to increase employee engagement

From icebreakers to arguments, here are some of most frequently missed things we forget to do as leaders to encourage our team to be more engaged.

Meaningful work, open communication, a sense of direction… In our heads, we seem to know a lot of what helps maintain employee engagement. However, in practice, keeping our team engaged can be a challenge. We notice teammates zoning out during meetings, missing deadlines, or not bringing up new ideas as often as they used to. How do we course-correct when we notice our employees’ engagement level and energy starting to slip?

Our research — collected from 15,000+ employees in over 25 countries — reveal a few small things that can make a big impact on your team morale. Here are six of the most frequently overlooked actions we can take as leaders to improve employee engagement:

  1. Say what you’re struggling with. We often believe being an effective leader means being stoic and unflappable. However, you can be steady as a leader, while still inviting honesty from others around you. The best way to do this is to go first: If you want to know what others are having a hard time with, share what you’re having a hard time with first.
  2. Ask about cereal. Don’t be afraid to have fun. Great leaders bring levity — not just workload — to their team. Pose a light-hearted question or share a little-known fact about yourself with the team. Believe it or not, even something as seemingly innocuous as breakfast cereal can have a positive impact on your team’s morale.
  3. Argue. It can feel counterproductive, but once you move past the initial discomfort, you’ll soon realize that arguing is a sign that you (and your employees) care. Not only that, but you’ll be presented with more options from which you can make even better decisions as a leader. Don’t shy away from disagreements: Lean into them.
  4. Do a double-take when someone says, “It’s fine,” to you. This one phrase that signals your employee might be disengaged — so if you hear it, perk up your ears. You need to dig more, and get to root of understand if things are truly fine, or if it’s an answer they are defaulting too, because there’s more below the surface.
  5. Remember, you’re the boss. This means that a seemingly casual comment from you might be interpreted as a strict mandate from you team. This means that when you show up to a meeting, people aren’t going to feel as comfortable sharing “real talk” for how things in the company are actually going. The more you’re aware that there’s a power dynamic that exists, the more you can understand the best ways to support and interact with your team.
  6. Don’t skip one-on-one meetings! Yes, they are time-consuming. Yes, you seem to be scheduled at the most inconvenient times (when you’re crazy busy, naturally). Yet, one-on-ones are potentially your most powerful tool as a leader for unearthing potential problems and issues your team my be facing. If you’re unsure where to start, here are some tips to help you make the most of your one-on-ones.

Breaking the (remote) ice: 5 tips for icebreakers in distributed teams

Our most popular recommendations for team-bonding, regardless of the distance separating your remote employees.

Believe me when I tell you that I adore running a remote company. It’s enabled me to hire and work with folks I could’ve never have hired locally. It’s helped me work with fewer distractions and greater focus. It’s given me more flexibility to see my family and spend time on side-hobbies that bring me joy… I could go on 🙂

But, I’ll admit: Being geographically disparate can also be isolating. As a remote company ourselves at Know Your Team, we don’t pretend that there are zero difficulties to running a remote team. There are quite a few — and one of the biggest is making team members feel welcome and connected to the company when they live on the other side of the country.

Think about the last time you started a new job. Do you recall feeling overwhelmed or disconnected from your coworkers? Now imagine that you’re facing all the same pressures and uncertainty but from a few hundred (or thousand) miles away.

For all the upsides to remote work, those benefits can be hampered by the loneliness that some folks can feel if they don’t get to interact with other team members on a regular basis.

Here are some tips for creating great icebreakers to help build a better sense of connection within your remote teams:

Ditch the dull general questions in exchange for specific questions.

How many times have you been asked, “What do you like to do on weekends?” or “What are your hobbies?” Eye roll. So many times. The questions feel rote, so the answers become rote. Just as when you’re seeking out meaningful feedback about the company, you’ll want to ask meaningful social questions to get meaningful social responses, too. Unsure where to start? Check out the 25 specific best icebreaker questions to ask.

Get folks face-to-face when you can.

Where were you the last time you participated in an icebreaker activity? It probably wasn’t from your home office. Just like in-office icebreakers, remote teams’ icebreaker conversations should happen via video chat, or (ideally) in person at a company retreat. One of our remote clients, Balsamiq, is known for their all-team retreats that focus getting everyone, face-to-face together to have a good time.

Schedule in the time for socialization.

Nothing happens unless you carve out the time to do it. That’s something Paul Farnell, co-founder of Litmus (another one of our customers), emphasize. He’s said that you have to “make time for socialization.” At Litmus, he describes how “a few times a year, we have company get-togethers and smaller teams meet in-person more often. Week to week, we get Coworker Coffees, drink beers on Skype, and play video games online. And we invite local employees to the office every Thursday.” Schedule in time for folks to break the ice — or else it just won’t happen.

Assign a buddy, and switch it up.

Another way to keep icebreakers feeling fresh, especially in a remote team, is to switch up who is getting to interact with who on your team. At Help Scout, another client of ours, they organize 15–30 minute coffee breaks between randomly assigned team members called Fikas. By assigning someone a buddy for a period of time, you take the hard work (and sometimes awkwardness) of leaving it up to the employees to figure out who they should get to know better. And, switching up the assignments keeps the getting-to-know-you process from becoming stale.

Keep it light.

Icebreakers are supposed to be fun — so don’t overthink them, or be too intent on “this needs to build trust in my team.” A overly forced icebreaker is never fun. Rather, reflect on your team’s personalities and interest, and consider how you might give people a reason to laugh, joke, and feel a bit more connected with one another. The best leaders know that injecting some levity in an otherwise intense work week can make a big difference. A light question such as, “What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?” yields surprising levels of engagement.

While team icebreakers can seem like a “nice to have,” in a remote team they are “must-haves.” Since your team isn’t interacting face-to-face every week, the miscommunication, trust issues, and poor team dynamics that can bubble up are only exacerbated if you’re not findings ways for your team to connect regularly. So give one or two of these tips a try, and remember how beneficial team-building icebreakers can be for a remote team.


The 25 best icebreaker questions for team-building at work

Our most popular get-to-know-you questions for work, based on four years of data.

If you winced at the word, “icebreaker,” I don’t blame you. Get-to-know-you questions and games tend to feel cheesy. We’ve all been victim to a terribly trite icebreaker with coworkers that made us roll our eyes. I know I have.

However reluctantly, you may have realized that you need to break the ice at work. A new employee just joined your team, and you want to make sure they feel welcome. Or, you need to find a way to warm up a conference call between remote team members, and ask some get-to-know you questions for team-building.

After all, it’s always hard to work well with folks you don’t have a rapport with (not to mention, it’s less fun). Trust is the oil of the machine in the team. The more you have of it, the more things run smoothly. And the key to building trust within your team is to ask questions that help everyone get to know each other.

Given this, at Know Your Team, we put a lot of thought (over four years worth of research and fine-tuning!) into crafting get-to-know-you questions that would be as non-cheesy as possible, and elicit meaningful and memorable responses from the team. I get emails all the time from managers who’ll tell me, “Wow, Claire, I had no idea this question would get such a reaction from our team.”

Among the hundreds of get-to-know-you questions our software has, I wanted to share with you the top twenty-five…

#1: What was your first job?

By far, this question has prompted the most interesting responses for the companies we work with. Employees are always find it hilarious to learn that their boss’ first job was as a pool boy, or find it fascinating that a coworker’s first job was working in her mom’s doctor’s office. While it’s an unassuming question, the responses stand out.

#2: Have you ever met anyone famous?

This question is a fun one, as it taps into the people that your coworkers admire. Folks bond over a mutual love for Jude Law, or have a laugh when a manager shares her story about meeting LeBron James at a gas station.

#3: What are you reading right now?

People are always looking for something new to read— and so swapping book recommendations are a great way for people to know each other. Learning what others are reading also provides insights into coworkers’ interests. David Heinemeier Hansson, CTO of Basecamp, shared his answer to this question here.

#4: If you could pick up a new skill in an instant what would it be?

With this question, you’ll learn how your coworkers want to grow or what they aspire to do. For instance, you might learn that a coworker would love to be able to pick up Italian instantly, or that your boss has always wanted to get good at woodworking.

#5: Who’s someone you really admire?

Understanding who someone looks up to reveals a significant amount about a person’s influences, preferences, and outlook on life. This is a great question to ask to help get a sense of what and who a person values.

#6: Seen any good movies lately you’d recommend?

Perhaps you’ve asked this question before — but don’t overlook it. Movies are a great shared conversation topic. It never fails to be one that people like to answer and like to see other people’s answer to. Often times, people will end up going to see them movies that are recommended and talking about it over lunch, etc.

#7: Got any favorite quotes?

Personally, I’m a sucker for a good quote. I think it can provide a fascinating look into a person’s point-of-view. Asking about a person’s favorite quote is a great way to break the ice and get to know them better.

#8: Been pleasantly surprised by anything lately?

While this question may seem vague, the answers to this question are often a delight and intriguing to read. Someone might share an excellent customer service experience that surpassed their expectations, or share a funny story about them liking squash soup despite their initial reservations. This is especially a great question to ask to a group of folks who might know each other a little better already.

#9: What was your favorite band 10 years ago?

This question always elicits a chuckle or two. You’ll find out that you shared a embarrassing favorite band from years ago, and also find the generational difference between coworkers humorous as well.

#10: What’s your earliest memory?

This is typically something that’s not shared even between close friends — so asking about it creates a special connection between folks. Hearing about an intimate, early part of someone’s life says a lot about who they are.

#11: Been anywhere recently for the first time?

Sharing a new, novel experience is a wonderful way to create a sense of connection between people. You’ll learn about a new restaurant, a fun out-of-the-city getaway, or a never-heard-about bookstore you might find interesting.

#12: What’s your favorite family tradition?

Cooking Korean dumplings together around the holidays is one of mine. When you ask this question, you get an inside look into your coworkers family’s heritage and the things that bring their family together.

#13: Who had the most influence on you growing up?

A mother, a sports hero, a grandparent, an elementary school teacher… This question is touching to hear the answer to. You’ll gain a sense of respect about who has shaped your coworkers.

#14: What was the first thing you bought with your own money?

Maybe it was a goldfish as a pet or a pair of Air Jordans. This is another great question that fosters a sense of nostalgia and provides insights into people’s interests of the past and what they valued when they were younger.

#15: What’s something you want to do in the next year that you’ve never done before?

I love asking this question instead of the stale, “Do you have any goals this year?” Rather, this is a great aspirational question that exposes people’s dreams and hopes they’d love to pursue.

#16: Seen anything lately that made you smile?

The answers from this question are often unexpectedly lovely. You’ll find yourself nodding your head as a coworker talks about his kids, or about a beautiful tree she saw on her walk recently.

#17: What’s your favorite place you’ve ever visited?

Responses to this are varied and fun — you’ll find that some folks have the same “favorite place” in Spain that they’ve visited, or a place that happens to be just 20 minutes from where you live.

#18: Have you had your 15 minutes of fame yet?

This is a cheeky question that turns up a variety of answers and interpretations. You might be impressed about how a coworker was in the newspaper one time or get a good laugh about how they were on the evening news.

#19: What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard?

I’m a big fan of this question, as you’re essentially asking a person about what wisdom they personally find most valuable. The best advice I’ve ever received, myself? “Trust yourself.”

#20: How do you like your eggs?

Our customers who ask this question are always shocked by how popular the answers to it are. They discover that colleagues are immensely passionate about scrambled eggs or are sunny-side-up diehards.

#21: Do you have a favorite charity you wish more people knew about?

This is a fantastic question to ask. One company I know took it as a way to make a small donation to each charity mentioned.

#22: Got any phobias you’d like to break?

Spiders, heights, the ocean… Sharing fears is always a great way to feel closer to someone.

#23: Have you returned anything you’ve purchased recently? Why?

Ask this question and you’ll unearth some interesting observations on why people buy things — and what they find unsatisfactory.

#24: Do you collect anything?

Skip the boring question, “What are your hobbies?” and ask this instead. You might find that someone is unexpectedly avid butterfly collector (my uncle does this), or enjoys finding a new postcard every time she travels (my mom does this). Regardless, it’s a more unique way to learn about a person’s interest.

#25: What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?

This question continually (and surprisingly) blows people away with the response when they ask it. One customer of ours had such an enthusiastic response on this from her staff, she created a Cereal Day for her team.

I’ve used these questions to get to know a new employee, kick-off group meetings for boards I sit on, and even in one-on-one coffee meetings when I’m meeting someone for the first time. Give ’em a shot. Think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

How cereal improves employee engagement

As unlikely as it sounds, breakfast cereal can be the ultimate team-builder and way to boost your team’s morale.

The executive director of a prominent nonprofit called iMentor Chicago reached out to me the other week. Her name is Halleemah Nash.

“A question I asked my team a few months ago really caught me off guard,” Nash shared with me.

“I thought it was honestly kind of a silly question — something I’d never answer myself, personally. But I thought, ‘Oh what the heck, let’s ask it and see what happens.’”

The question was:

“What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?”

She asked this question to her staff, expecting nothing much to come of it.

The opposite happened. Almost every single person on her staff responded — enthusiastically, humorously. It got the whole office talking, laughing, joking with one another.

Nash took notice. She saw the collegiality it spurred, and wanted to encourage that positive spirit even more.

Once a month, she decided to plan a “Cereal Day,” when she’d bring in everyone’s favorite cereal. She had “Cereal Day” take place on the day of her team’s monthly strategic planning meeting — no doubt a tough, intense day for the staff.

Her staff absolutely loved it. Nash was stunned. “Who knew that cereal would get people pumped for a strategic planning conversation,” she wrote to me candidly in an email.

While it’s endearing to think that breakfast cereal is “the thing” that flips a switch for a team’s employee engagement, there’s something deeper going on here. Nash’s “Cereal Day” works as a means to boost her team’s morale for specific reasons.

Here’s what we can all learn from it as leaders:

Great leaders bring levity to a team, not just the load of work.

Let’s be real: Work feels serious a majority of the time. Everyone’s busy, there are deadlines flying around, a thousand decisions to be made — it’s easy to get your head stuck in the weeds of work. We all need a break, at some point.

Nash understands this, and so intentionally chose her strategic planning meeting day as the day to hold “Cereal Day,” as a result. She knew how in moments of stress or intensity, people do better work when they can step away, have a laugh, and just lighten up a bit.

As a leader, yes, it’s your job to press the gas pedal to make sure folks are focused. But you also want to give people permission to be people — to have fun, be silly, be expressive. Don’t get frustrated if you notice your team members cracking jokes during a meeting. Don’t be bitter when an employee takes an extra long lunch with a co-worker. Take it as a sign that they might need that levity. Like Nash, if there is a particularly tense time of year, use it as an opportunity to bring lightness to that meeting or season.

Great leaders find a way to connect everyone, not just some.

“Cereal Day” was effective at bringing together Nash’s team because, frankly, it’s unlike a lot of other team-bonding events: It involved everyone. Think about it.

At a happy hour, typically the same folks congregate and talk to one another. During a one-on-one coffee conversation, you only get to know that one particular person. It’s rare to have moments in the company where everyone gets to interact with everyone else — but that’s what “Cereal Day” did. Nash’s “Cereal Day” is the antidote to the silos that pop up in organizations.

Take an honest look at your own company’s current team-bonding events and see if they’re a common touch point for everyone, or just for some. You may be accidentally reinforcing the silos in your company you’re working so hard to dissolve. You may have to get creative — or even better, ask your employees about their personal tastes and interests — so you can tailor company outings, events, and activities to be a shared, common touch point for everyone.

Even if it’s about breakfast cereal — the fact that it’s something everyone can participate is what matters.

Whether you try to engage your employees as a leader with cereal or not, that’s totally up to you. But “Cereal Day” is an important reminder for us as leaders that employee engagement isn’t just about the big, grand gestures of extending vacation time or big pay raises.

True employee engagement is about caring enough to ask even the seemingly small, trivial questions to your team — and paying close attention to the answers.

This article was originally published for Inc.com.