Playing for trust

This post is based on content from’s self-paced course for remote teams and team-leaders. The course is delivered in bite-sized chunks by Intao’s digital mentor.

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Playing at work to build connection and cohesion

In most jobs, making progress with your work involves deadlines, dependencies on other people and demands concentrated effort from you.  These conditions limit freedom, distort relationships and edge out awareness of other people.

When we play, we pursue an activity purely for the enjoyment of it.  We have no other objective.  When playing, there is freedom.  We can relate to others without the pressure of needing them to behave a certain way.  Difficult tasks no longer sap our concentration.  We can give proper attention to our playmates.

In the supportive and open space created by that attention, we can express our true selves, take risks, fail in safety, and laugh at failure.  When a group becomes comfortable playing games, they discover hidden strengths and surprising weaknesses.  They ask for and receive help, free of fear of failure or shame.

The result is a team with members that are connected and have learnt about each other.  Relationships become strong, and trust becomes deeper.  Team-mates take this into their everyday work, boosting creativity and collaboration, and buoying up camaraderie and satisfaction.

Design play into your team's schedule

Games can be chosen and tailored to fit into any length of time.  A word-association game takes a few seconds per person.  A strategic board-game might take hours.

Carving out time in a schedule specifically for play can be difficult.  Depending on your work culture, it might also be hard to justify dedicated playtime to supervisors and managers.  What's more, when working remotely, there are fewer shared moments when engaging in play seems like a natural possibility.  For both these reasons, linking the playful activities to existing 'serious' activities can be a pragmatic move.

A prime time for play to be doubly useful is when there is a natural break in focus or a change of context.  For example, a meeting to plan for the future is more effective if participants leave thoughts and feelings about what's happening 'now' behind them.  Playing a quick game energizes participants and creates head-space for a new, shared context to be created for the work ahead.

Tailor the games to the team

Different types of play suit different types of team.  For example, a team that is newly formed should start with games that are easy and do not cause players emotional discomfort.  In contrast, a team that has been together for a while and wants to deepen trust should choose a game that challenges them to expand their comfort zone, by playing on the edges of it.

The skill level and need for preparation or equipment is another way in which games differ.  Some games, such as word games, require no preparation, or just pen and paper.  Other games are more elaborate or need practice to play well.  Teams must choose carefully to ensure that the benefit of the game is not lost in the tedium of setting it up or the difficulty of playing it.

The equipment needed for a game deserves special mention in a remote working context.  For example, picking names out of a hat or adding to a shared drawing are a challenge.  But the challenge can become an opportunity: finding ways to play a range of games using your team's collaboration tools can increase skill and dexterity, putting you at an advantage in day-to-day collaboration tasks.

Try these games for starters

The internet is full of ideas for ice-breakers, word games and other possibilities.  Here's a cross-section of games with different profiles with respect to difficulty, intimacy and length.


Make the longest chain of nonsense sounds without hesitation.  Find instructions here.

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Intimacy: low
  • Length: short
  • Remotely: Instead of indicating the next player by pointing, call their name.
The Oddest Thing

Split the group into pairs.  For 2-5 minutes, each pair talks to find the oddest thing that they have in common, then reports that to the group.

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Intimacy: moderate
  • Length: medium
  • Remotely: Managing the breaking up into pairs and reconvening the whole group can be tricky.  Getting good at this will allow you to run large collaboration activities virtually.
Google Maps Tour

Get to know one team-mate better by having them take you on a virtual tour of their neighbourhood in Google Maps.  Use the 3D satellite view for maximum effect!

  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Intimacy: moderate
  • Length: short
  • Remotely: helps you practice your screensharing skills and get to know the limits of your internet connection's bandwidth and latency.
Line Up

Arrange yourselves in order according to some category like height, number of siblings, length of service or anything you choose.

  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Intimacy: depends on the categories chosen
  • Length: moderate
  • Remotely: you'll need a tool in which you can arrange pictures of yourselves along a scale.  Try something like Miro or Mural.

Try it out!

All that's between you and greater connection with your team mates is giving it a try!  So what are you waiting for?  Start the conversation with your team as soon as you can!

What's the structure of a day for your team?  The structure of a week?  When do you get together?  Perhaps you already have a good idea, in which case whip out your calendar!

1. Identify times and existing activities where the team can get together

Do you have one or more regular team activities already in the calendar where you could add 10 minutes for some energising capers?

Do you have 'core hours' where you know the whole team will usually be available?  Perhaps 10 minutes at the start of those hours will be a welcome way to connect and create a chance to enter a period of deep work immediately after?

2. Prioritise activities

Got more than one possibility? Great!  Which could use livening up?  Which is most convenient for adding a new activity at the start?  Which would benefit most from participants coming with a fresh perspective?

3. Identify the right level of difficulty and intimacy for your situation

As you and your team-mates begin to let down your guard, but before you're entirely comfortable, there's a risk of someone suddenly rushing back to the safety of their tried and tested patterns.  The shock can sometimes cause difficulty for everyone, and trigger a cascade that reverses progress and everyone's guards are back up.  Not only that but any fears that 'this will never work' are confirmed!

Aiming to make gradual progress reduces the risk, so picking activities that are just a little bit more taxing, and just a little bit more open than the current norm is a wise way to start.

A chat amongst the group about what they're comfortable with is a great option, as that discussion itself will open up communications and give people a chance to learn about each other's preferences and opinions.

4. Pick an activity with your team-mates

It's time to take the plunge!  Identify which activity and get it scheduled. Don't forget to plan any preparation that's needed!

Here are a couple of resources that will give some ideas:

5. Agree with your team-mates to put your chosen activity top of the list

You've seen what happens: things that aren't 'real work' get pushed back 'until next time' - which never comes!  The preparation doesn't get done because of something more urgent.  The conditions aren't right because reason, reason, reason.

This is important.  It is your real work.  It is a priority.  Make sure the team commits.

What if you faltered at step 1?

If your team works apart and is not regularly spending time together, there is a huge risk that you'll suffer when the team comes under stress later on.  Find time for the team to be together, even once a fortnight or once a month.

Good Luck!

Visit on LinkedIn and let us know how you get on in your team!

This post is based on content from’s self-paced course for remote teams and team-leaders. The course is delivered in bite-sized chunks by Intao’s digital mentor.

Click here to find out more.

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