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Don't Wing It with Team-Building Activities

Shorter, intensive events can promote mutual support among team members

A group of people standing together in a coffee shop.

Employers are taking new approaches to team-building activities designed to instill a sense of common purpose among employees, by making these experiences shorter and more intently focused on building relationships.

Team-building events are moving away from programs such as rock climbing, white-water rafting and cave exploring, "which can be physically demanding and high-stress. That type of thing worked for some but not for others," said David Lengyel, managing director of Phoenix-based Venture Up, which conducts team-building activities. "Clients were coming back and saying, 'We have 200 people, not 12, and four hours, not four days," he said.

A Business Purpose

"I'm a big believer in fun," Anne Thornley-Brown, president of Toronto-based Executive Oasis International, said. "A company where nobody ever laughs, plays or has a good time would be a dreary place, and I certainly wouldn't want to work there."

She warned, however, against HR putting time, money and effort into "activities that are strictly recreational and trying to pass them off as team-building."

Among the elements Thornley-Brown said are needed for a successful team-building event are:

  • Clear business goals and objectives, such as encouraging innovative thinking and finding better ways to resolve conflicts, or preparing for a move or merger.
  • Information on participants' learning styles and expectations for the event, as well as an understanding of their physical capabilities so that everyone can participate in a meaningful way.
  • A willingness to invest time and money. "More companies are saying, 'We want two-hour team-building,' " Thornley-Brown said. But "two hours isn't enough, although there are activities you can complete in a half-day format."
     (There are exceptions: Lengyel said a well-organized two- to four-hour team-building activity often fits into a longer event such as a strategic retreat, "so we're reinforcing discussions about showing initiative and finding creative solutions, for instance, or setting the stage for what they'll address later that day or the next morning.")
  • A good match in the activity, the site and the size of the group. Teams in a competition generally should be kept to six to eight people. An event such as a map-reading challenge in a forest park might work for a group of 20 that can be split into smaller teams. But holding the same challenge for a group of 100 would likely lead to groups continually bumping into each other.
  • A site visit ahead of time to eliminate surprises, such as the discovery that anchor points on zip-line courses are at a fine height for children, but not for adults who haven't been up in a tree for decades.

Thornley-Brown offers additional pointers in her e-book Team Building, Innovation, and ROI: An Executive's Guide to Boosting the Bottom Line.

Changing Teams

After World War II and through the late 20th century, company-sponsored softball and bowling teams were common. Those kinds of leagues have seen sharp declines in the past 20 years and the downward trend is continuing. Only 14 percent of employers responding to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2017 Employee Benefits survey said they offered company-sponsored sports teams, down from 27 percent in 2008.

Companies are now using intensive team-building events to recreate the camaraderie that a bowling team felt after a colleague rolled a strike. The aim is the same: "to create shared experiences that will encourage collaboration back at work," Lengyel explained.

Everybody Participates

Though the popularity of physically intense activities such as rope courses and climbing walls has waned, some physical activity is still a part of many team-building events. Ross Garner, program assistant at the Peak Adventures Challenge Center in Sacramento, Calif, said that everyone who comes to a team-building activity at the center must participate in some manner.

"If somebody does not have the ability to complete a physical task, they can be the 'director' who is charged with helping others to complete the objective," Garner said. For example, in a competition in which blindfolded participants make their way through an obstacle course, the director gives instructions to guide them.

Thornley-Brown has coordinated horseback riding events and takes a similarly inclusive approach. "For people who are afraid to get on a horse, you can involve them in tacking and grooming and cheering people on," she said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining High-Performance Work Teams]

Take-Away Lessons

Whatever activities one might choose for team-building, an assessment that ties the event back to business goals is necessary if the time spent is to be worthwhile.

After the activity ends but while still onsite, ask participants to comment on what they did or something they saw, Garner recommended. If it's a climbing competition, for instance, "it's not just the climbing that sticks with people, it's the encouragement climbers received from the rest of the team."

A method Thornley-Brown uses to encourage communication as an activity concludes is to re-configure teams and then have the participants share their insights with one another. "Each new team includes one person from each original team, which means everybody gets to listen and everybody gets to present," she said.

'Secret Agent' Spy Game Builds Team Trust

Look beyond "your archaic amateur scavenger hunt," said Chad Michael, founder and lead facilitator at AdVenture Games Team Building in San Diego. "The current generation needs to be challenged and fully engaged in order to teach basic principles of problem-solving and team work."

"One way is to kidnap your boss," he said. A mock kidnapping, of course, followed by an espionage-filled rescue of the missing executive by a team of co-workers that can help foster a more cohesive, committed and supportive workplace.

Michael launched the company in 2005 and his games have been played by Cigna, Coca-Cola, Dell, Facebook, Google, Home Depot, Walmart and others.

AdVenture Games' flagship program, the "SpyGame," is described in this video (click on photo below).


"Not only is it incredibly fun, it showcases how having a common goal builds better, strong teams," Michael said. "And, most important, your team will see how trust is the cornerstone for effective communications."

Greg Goth is a freelance health and technology writer based in Oakville, Conn.


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