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Online Games and "Groove in the Heart": How to Keep a Fully-Remote Research Team Connected

Use these tactics to stay in touch with your team, have some fun, and get to know your colleagues as people.

Words by Molly Malsam, Visuals by Kate Degman

When I started at my current company, I was the third researcher hired (out of 20,000 employees) with one research manager, and a handful of designers.

Since then, our team has seen rapid growth. The trio expanded to almost 50 researchers with multiple managers, approximately 40 content strategists, and about 150 designers.

While this expansion was a remarkable testimony to the power of User Experience and the company’s support of it, the combination of this explosive growth and the age of COVID’s work from home restrictions has led to serious challenges to the cohesion of our teams.

How can we effectively work together apart? How can we learn and grow from each other over video calls?

To create opportunities for our team to bond, we put together various techniques to encourage team building and collaboration. We’ve had a lot of success with our monthly research salons, social events, one-on-one meetings, and more.

While some of these ideas may be familiar, I hope you can adopt a couple to bring your team closer together while you’re farther apart.

It all started with a salon…

Before the pandemic, researchers from all over the world would join our team. We’d get introduced and I’d have a basic understanding of what they were working on, but outside of meetings with the entire User Experience team, we never crossed paths.

To try and connect, I started messaging people to learn more about what their background was, how they were handling their projects, and so on. As I met more of the team, I noticed a pattern in some of the questions and thoughts being shared and felt we should be talking about these things together.

I suggested to my manager that I would like to start a monthly discussion group or “a salon”—not the hair kind, but rather the conversation space—and so the “UXR Salon” was born.

For two years, the UXR salon has been wildly successful—as measured by the number of researchers in attendance, the regular stream of researchers volunteering to share on a topic or lead a discussion, and positive reviews from attendees.

During the early stages of the COVID crisis, it was a major source of enjoyment and pleasure for me personally just being able to see all my colleagues and knowing we were in the same boat.

In terms of structuring these meetings, team members use a signup form to reserve time to speak. When it comes to topics, we talk about anything and everything related to research. A researcher may share a study they did that was unusual in some sense or that used a less common methodology.

Other times we talk about a topic like, “How do you manage your research roadmap?”, “Using median vs. mean,” or general topics like research ethics. We’ve also had people present summaries of learnings from seminars they went to, moderate Jeopardy games on various research topics, UX trivia (with gift cards as prizes), and debates with researchers arguing different sides of some point.

A favorite addition I made last year was ending our Salons with a private dance party, where I play a song and its video on YouTube, and everyone turns their cameras off and dances in their office if they so choose to do so. Pro tip: try the official video for Deee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” for some fun viewing and dancing to try to emulate.

…and then there was COVID

Once we collectively realized our office wasn’t going to send us back to work anytime soon, a few extroverts on our team formed what we affectionately call the PPC—Party Planning Committee (a nod to my fellow Office fans).

A team of four took it upon themselves to create a plan of engagement to celebrate fellow researchers’ milestones and accomplishments, and coordinate fun and engaging activities that help us connect with each other.

This excellent team of researchers put together virtual piñatas, scavenger hunts, a walkathon, and online board games.

Thanks to them we’ve also had our fair share of holiday-themed gatherings, baby showers, and introductory meetings for new employees. They also announce birthdays and work anniversaries in our Teams channel.

In one particularly fun event, we learned how to cook crepes from one of our talented researchers and got to follow along in real-time and share our creations (I highly recommend trying this—crepes are actually really easy to make!).

Coffee chats

Although these group gatherings provided a venue for face-to-face time with other researchers, individual conversations and relationships still only happened organically, or if multiple researchers happened to be working on the same project.

Also, as the team grew, we found that a core group of researchers knew each other quite well—enough to be comfortable with the relationships they had—while new researchers were a bit outside of that tighter-knit circle.

This led to the birth of coffee chats, designed to get people talking with just one other researcher at a time. With a survey, we gave people the opportunity to opt-in and also identify individuals that they already knew well enough to ensure that the pairings would lead to the freshest relationships.

From there, we would pair researchers together every three months, resulting in three new conversations. It took a little time to ensure that everyone was paired with someone new and that they did not omit, but it wasn’t terribly difficult.

Once everyone has a chance to connect with each other is likely when we will stop, or perhaps decide to start all over again based on—you guessed it, user feedback.

Educational opportunities

Another need we’ve identified, and finally, have the bandwidth to focus on, is identifying and providing more educational opportunities for our fellow researchers. We have such a great variety of backgrounds and experiences in our research team that we have plenty of internal expertise to share, in addition to the plethora of external opportunities.

We are in the nascent stages of planning for this initiative but plan to start with getting a baseline understanding of where the needs and opportunities are and go from there. We intend to eat our own dog food by making sure we understand the needs, and test and iterate to ensure that the solutions work for our users.

Some ideas include mentoring relationships, short videos on key topics, case studies for different methods, workshops for training purposes, and creating a curriculum for different levels of expertise.

This initiative, like most that we do within our team, is not just driven and made up of managers, but includes researchers that have the passion for sharing knowledge and improving others’ skill sets. Simply including researchers from various projects in itself helps with team building and cohesion.

Additional connection opportunities

Everything listed happens on top of the standard team meetings that our team members are involved in such as regular meetings with research managers, UX research team meetings, and full UX department meetings. In these forums, we provide space for people to share what other practitioners are doing to promote collaboration and knowledge sharing.

For the past few years, the UX Research team has organized a quarterly showcase to which we invite all our product and development partners to circulate our research findings and methods to a wider audience.

These well-attended meetings typically focus on a theme that will bring findings of a similar nature across projects and products to help improve the overall understanding of our users in the company. Researchers are able to propose topics for these share-outs.

Having recently moved into research management, I surveyed my team to see how they wanted to spend our group meeting time. We landed on a format that I find really helps cement some of the things that are important to me: understanding our co-workers on a personal level, having the opportunity to “be known” to others as more than just our work self, having fun and laughing, and helping sharpen each other with input and feedback.

Most of us want to have more than just a job, but also a place where people matter, relationships matter, and teams grow and learn from each other rather than competing against one another. I’m delighted and proud to be part of such a community and I know it doesn’t just happen—it takes planning, intentionality, and dedication.

But don’t just take my word for it, we asked some of our newer team members about their experience so far:

“I’ve been continually impressed by everyone’s willingness to share their expertise and think through problems together. There’s a culture of collaboration that makes it easy to reach out to another researcher to learn more about who they are and their work because people are genuinely interested in how they can help.”

“From day one, the UX Research team does a phenomenal job making sure each team member, regardless of location, feels connected to and supported by the broader team. I believe it’s because the team doesn’t rely on chance or serendipity for connection and collaboration to happen. With consistent intention, the team removes blockers and creates opportunities for folks to work closely together all while appreciating one another as individuals, remotely or not.”

Molly is a User Experience Research Manager in the financial services industry. She has a master’s degree in communication and has over 20 years of experience in the UX field. She loves learning more about how people think and behave, and off-work enjoys skiing, reading, and eating almost anything, but first and foremost ice cream.

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