How pranks can help engage your remote staffers

A bit of tomfoolery—as long as it’s harmless and good-natured—can help unite your virtual team and liven up an otherwise tedious workday.

I love to pull a good, but harmless, office prank.

When we had an office, one of my most favorite things to do was to take a screen grab of someone’s desktop and then replace their desktop with that image.

It looks exactly the same, but when you click on a folder or an application, nothing happens.

After all, it is just an image, so it’s not clickable.

I did this to every new employee for two years. It became a rite of passage. That’s how you knew you were in and how the rest of the team knew you were in. If I didn’t prank you, it was probably because you hadn’t done anything to earn my respect.

The bigger the prank, the more I respected you.

(Eventually I was repaid when they wrapped my entire office in tin foil. I mean, the entire office contents: mouse, pens, books, chairs, nail file, lotion, headphones, everything.)

Knowing a person well enough to prank them

It’s a lot harder to do that with a virtual team.

When Lindsay Bell was our content director, it became a running joke that she was fired nearly every week.

One time, I pretended to have hired a friend to help “turn the ship around.”

He came to our staff meeting and announced he was going to move everyone to Baltimore for a few months. He said he knew I liked this virtual thing, but he didn’t know how he could turn the ship around if we weren’t all together in person.

Of course, everyone was in on it except Lindsay—and she freaked.

She went through every emotion and tried to remain professional while expressing her great displeasure about leaving the comfort of her home, her family, her dog and her routine.

I knew that would be her reaction, which is why we played up that angle.

It makes me laugh to this day.

A ghost in the machine is a great office prank

When we were in an office, I could pull a prank at least once a week—remove one wheel from someone’s office chair, replace someone’s hard boiled eggs with raw ones, create an all-employee meeting and not invite a particular person.

Doing it when we’re all virtual means I have to be incredibly creative.

Last week, I invited a friend to pop into our staff meeting. I asked him to log in and then walk away from his computer.

Laura Petrolino was the only one not in on it, and she got really angry with her computer when she was the only one who saw him.

She kept insisting there was a stranger amongst our midst, and we all claimed we didn’t see him.

It could not have been timed better, either, because she was having trouble with her computer, and, earlier in the staff meeting, her video wasn’t working. So she assumed there was a ghost in the machine and she was just seeing things.

She even sent me a screen grab of what she saw, which I doctored and sent back to her to “prove” I didn’t see him on the screen.

We let her go an entire hour before coming clean.

Office pranks become part of your culture

There have been a handful of colleagues who do not appreciate being pranked, nor do they like being teased. It’s part of our culture, though; it’s who we are.

I grew up with brothers, so it doesn’t occur to me that someone might be angry or offended by a harmless office prank.

(Although, I will admit every time I tell my mom about an office prank we just pulled off, she lectures me about how that’s not nice. I subsequently ignore her.)

I’m not going to stop doing it, so it’s part of our interview process.

It also is one of the ways I’ve been able to engage a virtual team. You’d be amazed at what happens when you tell everyone the plan and they all get to sneak around and get ready with you.

It’s also really funny to watch the team on video chat as they avoid eye contact and stifle laughs.

Perhaps your team isn’t into pranks, but there are ways to involve an entire team in something so they feel part of something bigger than their individual jobs—and it doesn’t have to all be work-related.

How do you engage a team—virtual or not—in something bigger than themselves?

A version of this article originally appeared on Spin Sucks.

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