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This is a guest post by Dee Ann Pizzica.

Increasing team engagement, building trust, and having fun with your team can be difficult in the best of circumstances, so it can become overwhelming in remote situations. Effective managers recognize that connected and collaborative teams work together better and often produce higher quality work.

Here are some ideas for quick wins in a remote setting so you can foster a culture of learning that will propel your team forward.

Lunch and learn or a tech talk

When learning is the goal, providing opportunities for staff to share their skills across the team through teaching is invaluable. 

Time commitment: 60 to 90 minutes

The content and presenters will dictate how you set this up, but unless the session is highly interactive, 90 minutes is enough time. Think of this as a track session at a conference. Three-quarters of the session should be content, and the last quarter is best reserved for questions and discussion. 

Topics could range from work-related skills to fun abilities that staff members wish to share. This is a great opportunity for someone in the company to discuss a topic they have deep knowledge about or to share something that they’ve learned recently. If staff members attend conferences, take an online course or read a great book, it benefits the entire team to encourage sharing that information. These types of talks can be held during a lunch hour or even a happy hour, to keep the session relaxed.

Bear in mind that even a short presentation will take time for the presenter to prepare. Make sure anyone giving a talk has time and support to get everything ready. Consider designating another staff member as the facilitator to assist with managing questions and discussion.

Show and tell

Well-established teams that have been working together for a long time can still benefit from learning more about each other. The goal of this activity is to help team members form personal connections. When we see each other as real people, we’re more able to assume positive intent in our interactions, and we better understand people’s contexts and ways of viewing the world. 

Time commitment: 30 to 60 minutes

Show and tell works well for small groups, so everyone feels more comfortable and has time to tell a story. You can provide a suggestion, such as:

  • The oldest object in your home
  • Something meaningful to you
  • Something that makes you laugh

You can leave it entirely open-ended and see what people bring. The beauty of this activity is that it allows everyone on the team to share an object and a story of their choosing for a few minutes. The feedback I have gotten from exercises like this is that teammates enjoy hearing stories and getting to know the quieter people on the team. 

Speed mentoring

Creating a culture of learning involves reminding the team that, regardless of title or status, everyone knows something they can teach, and everyone can learn something new. 

Time commitment: 60 minutes

Before the speed mentoring event, you’ll need to decide on at least five questions, as well as a rule for determining which person in each pair should be the mentor for that round. 

Bring the entire team together and begin with a short discussion about why learning from and teaching others is important in your organization. You can provide set talking points, or you can structure the conversation as a brainstorming session about why continuous learning is important. Keep this to about 15 minutes to allow plenty of time for the activity.

For the activity, you’ll send pairs of team members into randomized break-out rooms for five minutes to answer a predetermined question. When the time is up, everyone returns to the main room for some discussion about lessons learned and to kick off the next question. With each new question, a new set of partners is assigned, allowing each person to have dedicated time with a few different team members.

This is a great opportunity to help shine a spotlight on some lessons you might want your team to think about, so reflect carefully on discussion topics. Here are some suggestions:

  • What are your best tips for learning something new? 
  • What habits help you succeed in a remote work situation? 
  • What do you do when you have to focus to meet a deadline?
  • Can you describe a challenging situation in your career that you’ve learned from? 
  • What is something your previous manager did that you wish your current manager would try? 

Ways to determine which team member in the pair should be the mentor should be kept random and not related to skills or abilities. There are several possible criteria:

  • Who started at the company most recently?
  • Who has more unread emails in their inbox?
  • Who hasn’t gotten to be the mentor yet?

Bug bash

A bug bash is a great way to get everyone on the team immersed in testing and using your product. You can set up a bug bash in anticipation of a new release or as part of a cooldown period between major features. It’s also a great activity for the end of the year when it’s difficult to schedule major releases due to time off.

Time Commitment: two to four hours, plus prep time

There is some preparation involved in setting up a bug bash. If you decide to offer awards or prizes, determine what they are and how they will be given out. You’ll also have to recruit help for triaging and judging the bug reports that are submitted as part of the event. Give the team flexibility, but also give them some idea of what the judges are looking for: Most Valuable Bug and Best Bug Report are a couple of category ideas. 

A bug bash activity works very well for either individuals or groups, but in the interest of team-building, I’d advise predetermined small groups. Consider pairings that provide an opportunity for certain members who don’t normally work together to interact. Keep the groups small — ideally two or three people — and make them as cross-functional as possible to increase the chances that team members can benefit from a variety of skills and approaches. 

You could leave the entire event open-ended and let the team go wild exploring your product. You may find some team members are very comfortable with this method, but others may appreciate more guidance. To provide structure for teams that need it, you can offer a series of test ideas or personas you want teams to focus on. Your test team likely has several hunches about potential misbehaviors they haven’t had time to fully explore that would serve as a good starting point for a list of test ideas. 

You could also provide a query in your issue-tracking system that includes old or unverified issues. These may be issues logged by the testing team on older builds or tickets that come from customer reports. The team can learn a great deal by replicating old bug reports. Give them the mission of verifying that the bug report is still relevant as logged, improving it with clearer steps, or closing it as resolved, duplicated, or obsolete. This approach teaches your team various skills, from what makes for an effective bug report to more in-depth knowledge about the product’s behavior, and it has the added benefit of cleaning up the backlog, too.

Pitch competition

This activity is a great way to generate new feature and product improvement ideas, and it allows the team to think about their impact on the company in an entirely different way than they may be used to. 

Time commitment: two to four hours

Like the bug bash, I suggest assigning teams so that people who don’t normally get to work together have an opportunity to interact. You will also need to have a plan for prizes and evaluation criteria in advance. Some awards might include Most Valuable to the Company, Best Quick Win, or Best Presentation.

Gather the entire team together to go over the rules, prizes, and teams. Present the guiding theme or goal for the event, and clarify expectations about the timing and requirements for each presentation.

Teams will need at least two or three hours to brainstorm ideas and then to flesh out the concepts and create a presentation. Depending on the size of your team, you’ll probably want to limit the presentations to five to 10 minutes. To make it easier to evaluate and score the ideas, you might provide a pitch deck for the teams to use as a template. This will give some guidance for the questions they need to answer about their ideas.

Hackathon or an innovation day

Hackathons provide an excellent and fun opportunity for teams to innovate. This gives your development team a chance to work on ideas for products and features that you wouldn’t normally allocate time for. 

Time commitment: You can schedule this as a full day, several days, or even a Hack Week. The amount of time will determine how the event is structured and will depend on your schedule and the interest and ability of your team.

While you can set up the goals of this event to be as free as you like, you’ll see more payoff for the organization if you set a rule that the project must deliver some amount of value to the organization. 

Some of the setup options to consider as you organize hackathons are lead time and teams. 

If you are going to take precious development time to allow team members to work on their own project ideas, you want to ensure that you’re also going to get good participation. Make sure you provide the team with several weeks’ notice. This advance can be used to build up some excitement around the event, and it also allows everyone time to prepare and to wrap up other projects appropriately. Make sure that the development team stays on schedule leading up to the hackathon and doesn’t release a new build with a short testing timeline just before the event; otherwise, your testing team is going to feel obligated to be testing instead of working on some unknown innovation projects.

Leading up to the event, encourage team members to present or post some information on how they plan to gain interest and recruit additional team members to join them. Just be aware that some team members are going to feel out of their comfort zone having to generate ideas for a project. 

If you’re planning to open the event beyond your engineering team and include members of the customer support, sales, or marketing teams as well, make sure everyone knows what their options to contribute are. If that’s the case, a company-wide event is often better described as an innovation competition instead of a hackathon, so it doesn’t sound like it’s engineering-focused. Encourage the teams to dream big and reflect critically on where the organization or the product can be improved. 

Keep an eye out for your testers too, and make sure they’re getting involved. Often testers get overlooked because the project doesn’t finish with completed, testable code, so they may never get a chance to work on it. Innovation days for testers can mean creating and trying new test automation, documenting test cases in a different way, or finding new ways to create test data for projects. 

Investing in culture pays off

Any of these activities can spur growth within your teams and organization. Though some of these events may seem like distractions, the overarching goal is to cultivate an environment where team members grow and learn together. These events are fun, easy, and increase morale. The more comfortable your team is in thinking and learning together, the better solutions they will build. 

Dee Ann is a passionate and curious software tester. She has over 15 years of experience in support of small and enterprise-scale custom mobile and web applications with highly complex business logic for clients across a wide variety of industries. Dee Ann is currently working as the Director of Engineering at BRD where she collaborates with a talented team on a cryptocurrency wallet app for iOS & Android.