Building Strong Relationships in a Virtual Team Offsite

team offsite tips

In today’s work environment, people are going from video meeting to video meeting all day.  These meeting are almost always transactional and heavily focused on the task of the day.  Maybe at the start of the meeting we will connect about how things are going, mentioning our Zoom fatigue or how hard it is to juggle work and life.  However, we miss the chance to really connect that would happen at the water cooler or during impromptu coffees or walks.

Missing are the team meals and activities at offsites, where much of the relationship building happened.  We hunger for connection with our colleagues and the underdeveloped relationships make it hard to see each other as human.  Without that sense of humanity, it is easier for us to assume negative intent and drift into conflict

What is less commonly known is that you can build strong relationships during virtual team offsites. We recently got the following feedback after designing and facilitating a one-day virtual offsite for a cross-functional team at a $150 billion high-tech company:

  • “We achieved a level of connection in this offsite that does not happen in our typical meetings.”
  • “It was amazing to get to know everyone and connect in a way that was unexpected through video.”
  • “I felt enriched by the openness. This was by far the most personal digital offsite I have been a part of, and I value the ability to know one another.”

So how did we do it and how can you do so?  In this blog post, we’ll outline the X ways to design relationship building into your team offsites.

Set the Right Intention.

Undoubtedly you will have lots to cover during your digital offsite.  Setting the right intention is crucial.  What is the right intention?  To build strong relationships resulting in trust and teamwork that supports our work.  Getting the intention right provides the justification for taking the time to do the relationship building work.

Provide Questions in Advance. 

It may seem antithetical to put structure around relationship building but this is the key to making it work.  The questions are prompts that allow individuals to self-disclose.  People who are naturally good relationship builders will share such information in one-on-ones with people, but rarely do we do this sort of self-disclosure in a team setting. We like to provide the questions in advance so individuals can ruminate, and it helps everyone join in the right headspace.

Build Enough Time.

Relationship building needs to be bounded in time.  Without temporal boundaries, the relationship building segment will blow up your entire meeting design. It is important to divide the total allotted time by the number of individuals to get a sense of how long each turn is.  In corporate offsites, people will not go particularly deep, nor should they, but you still need to make sure that people have enough time to get through the questions.

Be Strict on Time. 

Set context about how many minutes each individual will have per turn.  We recommend ringing a bell with one minute to go, so individuals can self-manage to and end on time.  If someone goes over the allotted time, we respectfully chat them to finish up.  We’ve only had one person blow through our stop sign and even then did not go too far over.

Identify Superpowers. 

This is great question to ask early in the session.  Most people like to talk about their strengths and doing so helps team members better understand where the team is strong.  It also serves as a bit of a warm-up for slightly more risky self-disclosure.

Share About Who Matters Most. 

Talking about who matters most breaks the wall between professional and personal in a safe way.  People often bring passionate and joy into the conversation when they talk about who or what matters most.  This is another safe relationship building prompt.

Talk about Struggles. 

Talking about professional and personal challenges starts to wade into more vulnerable waters.  People often reveal the unexpected as they talk about their personal challenges. We often find that others’ challenges are similar to our challenges.  Oftentimes talking about professional challenges surfaces structural, interpersonal, or culture challenges that the team needs to eventually address.

Ask Why Did You Choose to Come Here. 

One of the ways to build relationships is to find common ground.  Asking each person why they came to the company is a good way to do that.  It reveals people’s motivations and aspirations in a way that builds connections.

Discuss High Point and Low Point. 

Another great question is “what has been your high point” and “what has been your low point” since joining the company or team. This is another opportunity for each individual to be known.  Talking about the low point invites risk taking and often surfaces important information for the team to discuss about its culture and team dynamics.

Building in Response Time. 

If you have time, building in a one-minute buffer between each turn taker can create open space for individuals to acknowledge each other and build connection.  People tend to shift into what we call the language of “Care” and respond from the heart. These are some of the most important moments of relationship building.  That said, you can achieve your relationship building objectives without the response time and in the offsite we mentioned above we did not build in the response time.

Encourage Participant to Pin the Speaker’s Video.

We like to encourage each person to pin the speaker’s video when they start their turn.  While we normally advocate using the gallery view so you can see everyone, pinning the speaker creates intimacy where individuals can really focus on the speaker and maintain eye contact, which is what we would do if we were in person.

Give People a Choice

We like to provide three questions per round of relationship building, and we encourage people to self-manage their time and answer one, two, or three questions.  This allows some to pick one question and go deeper or be briefer in answering all three questions.  Giving them a choice allows them to feel in control, which creates a sense of safety.

Include Everyone. 

We are often asked whether we recommend using breakouts for relationship building.  While we encourage breakout rooms generally, for relationship building we recommend keeping the team intact.  Doing so creates intimacy because each participant experiences the share of each person.

Use Multiple Rounds.  

We often use more than one round of relationship building because it reduces the time for each person to speak.  If you are the last person in a ten-person team with a ten-minute round, it can be 90 minutes before you speak.  Breaking us the session into two rounds, sometimes with a break between is more manageable in terms of attention span.

Encourage Vulnerability.

Encourage people at the start to be vulnerable.  Explain that vulnerability is a cornerstone of relationship building. Also

Minimize Distractions. 

It is obvious when you are texted or checking emails during video meetings.  In order to achieve the relationship building goals, it is crucial that people engage.  This means attentive listening when others are speaking. It also means preparing in advance, so they are not blocked from listening because they are worried about what they are going to say.

We are confident that if you apply these tips you can achieve your virtual team offsite objective of building strong relationships.  It takes a bit of courage and some discipline but doing so will result in something your people did not believe was possible.

Seven Keys to Designing a Great Virtual Offsite

Offsites are important moments for teams to come together to do meaningful work and to build cohesion.  They are also a big investment, where a typical one day offsite for a typical team consumes 80 person hours.  Unfortunately, many virtual team offsites do not go well.  Participants are left feeling frustrated and disengaged.  Team leaders feel concerned that not enough progress happened.  What is the science of making a great virtual offsite?  In this blog post we will share our lessons learned.

Rigorous preparation is essential

Since people get fatigued at a faster rate in virtual meetings, it is of the utmost important to use every precious moment wisely.  Taking time in the meeting to talk through slides is not a good use of time.  Instead, develop materials to inject into the meeting sufficient content to seed a good discussion.  Doing a round of interviews with a defined set of questions is an efficient way of surfacing the different views on a topic.  Doing so allows you to focus on a discussion instead of everyone vying to get their opinion heard.  In order for this strategy to work, it is essential for each team member to review the pre-work materials.

Distribute an agenda in advance 

In these long-form virtual meetings, it is difficult for participants to maintain their attention and focus.  Circulating in advance an agenda helps participants show up for the right meeting and know where things will head over the segments. 

Delineate the Purpose of Each Segment

Specifying the purpose for each segment is important.  Identifying whether the segment is for discussion, decisions, or information helps participants know what is expected of them and how and if any decisions will be made.  We recommend listing “for discussion”, “for decision” or “for information” in the agenda.

List the Framing Questions

Listing the framing questions can also make a big impact.  The framing questions on a “for decision” topic helps drive the discussion to the decisions that need to be made.  The framing questions on a “for discussion” topic helps focus the dialogue and helps participants intervene if the conversation gets off track.

Use Breakout Rooms

Using breakout rooms is perhaps the key to designing outstanding virtual offsites.  Small group discussion is essential for engagement and efficiently surfacing diverse points of view.  We like pairs during the opening and closing segments to get maximum participation.  For meatier segments, we like groups of three and four with share-outs as a whole group.  While external facilitators use breakouts all the time, it is less commonly used by team leaders for virtual offsites.

It is important for the facilitator, whether an external facilitator or someone on the team playing the role, know the capabilities and limitations of the video conference software.  For example, Zoom’s random assignment feature is only random for the first grouping.  Using random assignment for subsequent breakout sessions uses the same room assignments, which is seldom desirable.  Instead, keep a spreadsheet of the breakout rounds and use it to assign your breakout rooms.

Most video conferencing software have a breakout room functionality.  Each works a bit differently.

Allocate Time for Relationship Building

Geographically dispersed teams know that the casual interactions or bonding that happens over dinner or drinks means that virtual team meeting time is needed to build relationships.  It is essential to take time for relationship building during virtual offsites.  Since you cannot rely on the traditional ways of building cohesion such as fun events and meals, you have to rely instead on connecting conversations.  This is an unnatural act in most organizations, especially in high tech or life sciences.  Structured self-disclosure activities are ways to help colleagues know each other and sharing about troubles and challenges creates common ground and invites support.

Provide Ample Breaks

This is one of the hardest things to do.  Offsite designers like to pack the agenda to get the most out of the virtual offsite time.  Unfortunately, packing too much in creates offsite fatigue and makes it harder to achieve segment objectives.

A better approach is to treat the breaks as constraints and design the agenda around them.  You should build in at least one hour for a lunch break.  We often see offsites that skip the lunch break, expecting people to eat while in session.  Whereas in-person offsites are typically catered, virtual offsites are not.  People need time to prepare and eat their lunch. 

It is important to build in a mid-morning and mid-afternoon break.  These breaks should be 15-20 minutes long.  Short breaks of 5-10 minutes are insufficient.

Screens are fatiguing and these breaks help people reset and rejoin refreshed and engaged.

If you need assistance with the design and facilitation of a virtual team offsite, please email us at .

Locking In Value After a Virtual Team Offsite

Have you ever had an outstanding offsite experience where you made great progress as a team and then afterwards nothing happened and the gains were not sustained?  Every time we deliver a virtual team offsite, we are asked what should be done afterwards to ensure that the progress continues.  There are clear actions we can recommend so you can get the most out of the time invested at the offsite.  In this blog post, we will look at some time-based milestones to reinforce the learning.

Review Action Items and Commitments in the Next Meeting. 

A good team offsite ends with work on action items and next steps.  Parking lot items should be documented.  You should assign accountable individuals for each action item.  The next meeting after the offsite is the optimal moment to review the action items and assignments.  Reviewing the action items is the bridge between the offsite and normal team meetings and reminds the team that decisions made and lessons learned at the offsite are expected to be applied in normal team meetings.

Review Team Behavioral Norms Monthly. 

A good team effectiveness offsite will include work on a team charter, which will include team behavioral norms. These behavioral norms often take the form of values or standards that team members are jointly responsible for enforcing.  We recommend reviewing these norms monthly to keep them fresh and alive in people’s minds.  This can take the form of a five-minute segment of a where.  Share the norms using screen sharing and ask the team how well they are living the norms and which norm they need to improve upon.

Review Individual Commitments Monthly.

Most offsites should result in a clear developmental commitment for each individual.  Offsites that do not are likely missing an opportunity to improve the team’s effectiveness, whether that was an explicit offsite goal or not.  It is important to review these individual commitments periodically or individuals will forget about them.  We recommend that you do this monthly.  This can be a brief five-minute pair exercise at the start of a meeting with the simple prompt about what progress have you made against your offsite development area.

Refresh Team Assessment Survey Quarterly. 

It is important to measure progress of your efforts to improve your team’s effectiveness.  Measurement starts with establishing a baseline, which we recommend occur at the team offsite.  At most of our team effectiveness offsites, we administer a 30-question survey called the Assessing in Action’s Team Effectiveness Profile (  Two other credible team effectiveness surveys are the Team Diagnostics Survey ( and one from The Table Group (  What is nice about the Team Effectiveness Profile survey, which takes less than five minutes per team member to complete, is that it can be administered periodically to see how the team is progressing.  We recommend that the team take the survey quarterly and take 30-60 minutes to debrief the results and make new team and individual commitments for improvement.

Reassess the Team’s Effectiveness Every 12-18 Months. 

In preparation for team offsites, we typically interview each team member about a series of questions about team effectiveness and other topics pertinent to the offsite.  These serve as a sound foundation for the offsite and helps get the most out of the time.  Interviews are non-trivial investments in the team’s health, so we recommend that these be spaced out.  We recommend conducting interviews every 12-18 months as a deeper look into the team’s health.