How virtual coffees help build strong online teams

Derk-Jan de Grood is an Agile coach at Squerist. He accompanies organizations on their Agile journey.

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In a world where physical proximity isn’t always feasible, virtual coffees become a bridge to forge the meaningful connections that are so valuable for teams that need to perform and deliver. Derk-Jan de Grood, author of “The waves of Agile,” teamed up with 12 other Agile coaches to write a book about their virtual coffee experiences.

Working in virtual teams seems the norm these days. Such teams can consist of members from multiple organizations, including international companies. They may comprise employees, contractors, freelancers or partners who work remotely from different locations, even across different time zones. Using digital channels such as e-mail, video conferencing, instant messaging and online project management platforms, they collaborate on ideation, perform tasks together, share information and make decisions.

On one hand, we seem to manage just fine in these online settings. We’ve transitioned to hybrid working rather seamlessly. On the other hand, I hear team members complain that they’re less involved and miss the personal connection. In my previous article, I wrote about the importance of creating powerful teams where members trust each other, can address issues and feel safe to make mistakes. There’s ample scientific evidence telling us how important it is to create a friendly and safe team environment that gets people engaged and working well together. But how do you do that in a setting where people communicate through a wire and may never have physically met each other, where people are having back-to-back meetings that leave little space for personal interaction?

Uncomplicated formats

When the whole world went into lockdown during the COVID years, I worked at a company where I was part of a group of Agile coaches. Like every team, we, too, were struggling to keep connected. Inspired by Lisette Sutherland’s book, “Work together,” one of my teammates picked up the idea of organizing “virtual coffees” – short lightweight sessions where we exchanged ideas, stories and experiences. In one of the first sessions we did, we were asked to grab our favorite coffee mug and show it to each other. While holding it in front of the camera, we told each other where we got it and what it meant to us. The stories were surprisingly moving and gave us an insight into each other’s lives. Over the month that followed, we tried out many alternative formats.

We came up with some uncomplicated formats that allow teammates to get to know each other a bit better. For example, participants are asked to show a picture of their first car and are challenged to tell about an experience they had with or in this car. In another format, they share moments that they’re excited about. This may be a little event like going to the pub on Friday night or something big like the degree you’re studying for. Learning what your colleagues are looking forward to tells you a lot about them.

We’ve also designed some formats to make new team members feel welcome without them being overwhelmed by all the new faces while remembering something personal about everyone. Conversely, there are appropriate waving-goodbye templates for when a colleague is leaving the team. One of my favorites is making a playlist with songs associated with the person leaving. What song did you choose? What does it say about the person saying goodbye and, of course, about you?

For more mature teams, we experimented with a series of formats that go deeper. One of these asks the participants to make a bucket list. Team members are encouraged to share their passions and tell at least three things they want to do in life as a trigger for an interesting dialogue.

Additionally, the “fun energizers” can be used to lighten up team meetings. In one of these formats, participants are asked to choose a picture as a virtual background in their conference tool. It can be a scene from their favorite movie, their next holiday destination or the house where they grew up. The picture accompanied by the most surprising, touching, creative explanation is then selected to serve as the team background for the rest of the meeting.

Comprehensive guide

For us, the virtual coffees grew to be valuable team moments. They offered an opportunity to share experiences, stories and ideas, bond over common interests, discuss projects or even explore personal aspirations. The relaxed setting encouraged open dialogue and inspired fresh perspectives. Above all, it lowered the threshold to contact and help each other, which is much easier when team members feel they know each other.

Since then, most of the coaches have left the company, but the group has kept in touch, exchanging ideas and experiences. Looking back at the time we had together, the virtual coffees stood out. We decided to collect the different formats we used and describe them in a book: “The virtual coffee experience, 52 formats for meaningful connections in teams.”

The book is a comprehensive guide to enhance your virtual coffee experiences. By embracing the 52 formats, you can overcome the limitations of physical distance and forge meaningful connections with people worldwide. You’re encouraged to delve deeper into conversations, fostering personal growth and empathy through a better understanding of yourself and others. So grab a virtual cup of coffee and embark on an adventure of connection and discovery.

“The virtual coffee experience, 52 formats for meaningful connections in teams” has been written by Annemarie Koelewijn-den Heijer, Annette Heijink, Arno Delhij, Bob Kastje, Catharina Adriaans, Derk-Jan de Grood, Elgert Verhoef, Fried Broekhof, Marcel de Groot, Mariëlle Roozemond, Paul van Wijk, Ronald Schouten and Syed Ameenuddin Niaz. For more information and to order, see

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