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Playing for keeps

10 February 2021
Quote by JUMOnaut, Jonathan Page saying

Jonathan Page is JUMO’s Technical Lead for Systems Development. His team works remotely from South Africa, Kenya, Portugal and Germany. With the vast geographical distances between them, and current social distancing measures in place, they don’t have the option to get together as a team in person. Here’s what they do instead.

‘You will spend half of your waking life with the team you work with so trust and mutual support are critical. Your team’s effectiveness has a very real impact on you personally, your team overall, and even your company. But in a COVID-19 (and probably post COVID-19) world, even once physically close teams are finding themselves more and more distant.

To combat this, we have a fortnightly get together Zoom meeting scheduled for some downtime together and a chat.

I don’t know if you have ever tried to have an online social meeting with no agenda, but it does not work! IRL when you meet up with people, you can check the menu, have a drink, etcetera, which supplies a distraction to consume breaks in the conversation. But when you are all sitting staring at each other on a screen, trying to think of something to say, the breaks in conversation become awkward silences.

So, I needed to find a way to have something we could be doing together that would act as that conversation catalyst, something to turn the awkward silences into collaborative socialisation.

Now being geeks, the natural direction to go was computer games. So I tried out a few to see what worked and what didn’t.

The first game I tried was Teeworlds, a little side-scrolling combat game where the first person to reach twenty points wins. Teeworlds was a massive improvement over the awkward silences, but there were two problems. Firstly, it’s skills-based, so those who are into gaming were good, and the others became cannon fodder. The second and more egregious problem was that conversation stopped altogether. Everyone’s focus was on the game, and the only snippets of conversation were brief exclamations around what had happened in the game.

Next, I tried some board/card games. A lot of the classic board and card games have digital versions. Virtual board, virtual dice, virtual pieces etc. This worked very well, we play these games. and this is my recommendation for most people. We can have conversations that flow naturally, and the game ticks over at its own pace.

Recently, we have been playing Human Fall Flat. Human Fall Flat is a co-operative puzzle platformer. The team acts as a group to solve puzzles and get everyone across the map. This has worked extremely well. Sometimes we have general conversations, often we talk about the objective, and we all work together to solve each stage.

Boiling it down, whether it is a computer game or a digital board game, there seem to be two things to aim for when choosing your social activity. Either the game should be turn-based, allowing the distraction of the game to facilitate the gaps in conversations. Or the game should be co-operative, which encourages team building and group problem-solving.

This doesn’t just have to apply to games, you can adapt it to whatever you like, but games have worked for our team to allow for remote team building.

Just ensure you find something to be the centre of the online social gathering, without completely overshadowing it. In a remote first work world, building and maintaining strong team relationships with colleagues is even more essential than ever before. What tricks or tips have you learnt along the way?’

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