Once a week our remote dev team plays a board game—Carcassonne to be specific. We’ve been doing this instead of the usual standup for a few months now—and it’s been super fun. Where did that come from?

It’s no secret that, if you work in a remote team, you have to grapple with the human side of being apart. Because what’s great for focusing comes at a cost, too—you’re missing out on eating together, laughing together, sharing time and memories, all of which are part of the human experience. But, hey, it’s work. Why would those even matter?

It’s true: Colleagues (usually) are not family and we don’t have to be friends. But when I feel misunderstood or when I’m stressed, then chances are much higher that I cut you some slack if we’re on good terms, if I understand you as a human.

That’s why being geographically distributed isn’t great for a team: it robs us of some of the simple, effortless opportunities to learn to understand each other.

There are things you can do to improve on that. The most obvious: regular company retreats together. Company retreats come as a cost—even a highly profitable company such as Buffer can’t do it too frequently.

The next best thing: whenever two of you are geographically near each other, make the extra effort and meet. We try to consciously, with something which at a time we called ice cream truck meetings. If you’re a big company like Gitlab you might even have the capacity to chip in some money. (They call it Visiting Grants—I love the idea, we’ll figure something out, too.)

There are more things to try, but what we currently do with (perceived) great success—or at least great fun—is playing boardgames online. Here’s how it works:

Every week on Mondays the dev team gathers on BoardGameArena.com. I’ve a paid account, so I can make sure we play privately. (It’s $5 per month—that should be worth it to you.)

We then open a game of Carcassonne, and play a round. Carcassonne is a turn-based board game. Here is how it looks:

What our Remote Team plays: A board of Carcassonne

The beauty of turn-based games is that they’re slow moving. and while one person thinks and places a tile, everyone else can talk to each other.

A round takes us about 45 minutes. We spend the time congratulating each other on ingenious moves, commenting on the particularly embarrassing ones, trying to confuse the one currently placing a tile, and talk about life and the world. (Afterwards we do talk for a few minutes about work and who needs what, but as a self-respecting distributed team we mostly handle this asynchronously.)

For talking, we use an audio-only group call on Slack. It’s good to note that BoardGameArena has audio and video chat functionality using WebRTC built in. If you’re only two or three it may well suffice, no need for extra tech. Our experience has been that it’s a bit flaky at times—like many WebRTC solutions: sometimes one person cannot hear a specific other person in the group while everyone else hears them just fine. (That makes for very confusing, very fun conversations until the mystery is revealed.)

We play a round of Carcassonne even when deadlines approach—no, let me correct myself—we do this particularly when deadlines approach. One such deadline—a big project launch—just happened, and we made it a point to play a game the Monday before, because at those times it’s even more important than usual that we work well together—and being overly tense doesn’t help us do that.

Currently, it’s Carcassonne but soon we’ll switch to other games so it doesn’t get boring. Are you in a remote team? What do you do for team building? How do you stay in touch? I’d love to hear it—leave a comment or shoot me a message to muratk@engagespark.com.