A lot of people say team building is a waste of time and money. In some cases, they’re right. Employees who are whisked away for a weekend getaway may not be learning how to work better as a team. And of course, there’s always the risk of awkward small talk and maybe a little embarrassment. Karaoke with a coworker isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
But organizations can benefit from an occasional step away from the desk. When developed with specific goals in mind, offsites and team-building activities can have a very real impact on team performance, improving communication, collaboration, creativity, and camaraderie.
If your team argues more than they collaborate
You’ve probably had to deal with conflict in the workplace a few times in your career. Typically, this involves hearing both sides of the argument, identifying a logical solution, and communicating the next steps clearly and politely. But that’s a reactive process.
Team-building activities can help prevent conflicts before they start by giving employees the chance to collaborate (and learn from each other) in low-stakes situations.
Andre Lavoie, the CEO of HR software provider ClearCompany, says playing board games, like Clue or Risk, leads to instant collaboration. It forces individuals to think through things as a team and helps them better understand each other’s motivations and priorities to achieve a common goal.
This type of team-building activity can even lead to friendships between employees, which ultimately boosts performance. “Friendships provide us with the emotional and psychological strength to deal with whatever comes our way—whether an exciting opportunity, a challenge, or a crisis,” says Annie McKee, an adviser for Fortune 500 companies. Try pairing employees with people who have different working styles, or form cross-functional teams that include people from other departments.
If your team lacks creativity and motivation
Is your team dragging their feet? It might be because they have to do a lot of menial tasks or are missing the tools they need to succeed. Or it could be the structure of the team itself.
Leadership coach Janine Schindler says that overly controlling managers can stifle performance. “Teamwork is much more productive than having a few high-level managers dictating direction,” she writes in Forbes.
Activities that give employees the chance to flex their creative muscles without constraints (hierarchical or otherwise) could be exactly what you need to reignite their passion and productivity.
Psychiatrist Srini Pillay, the author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, is a firm believer that specific kinds of “unplanned focus” can actually make people more productive. “Like the difference between a light bulb blowing a fuse and dimming the lights to save energy, there’s a huge difference between running out of steam and putting your brain on one of its dimmer modes,” he writes.
In one instance, the light bulb is completely burned out. But in the other, you can make a conscious decision to turn the switch back on. With this in mind, it’s not hard to see how small in-office team-building activities, like art projects or meditation, can work. They allow teams to rest and momentarily disengage from their daily tasks and then get back to work more focused than before.
Alternatively, have teams develop a Google X–inspired moonshot strategy—the research facility’s seemingly impossible “radical solutions” take creative thinking to an entirely new level. Ask your team to come up with a plan that goes beyond the constraints of time, money, and tools. This gives employees an opportunity for freedom of thought and prevents naysayers or higher-ups from shooting down ideas.
If your team is hesitant to share ideas and opinions
Employees aren’t likely to communicate or contribute if they don’t feel safe at work, which requires trust. But according to a study by global consulting firm Ernst & Young, less than half of all workers have “a great deal of trust” in their employers, and one in six has “very little” or “no trust” in them at all.
So at your next team-building event, forget those trust falls and instead give employees the chance to ask you and each other questions. According to Harvard Business School professors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John, friendly conversations can increase knowledge sharing and innovation, minimize errors, and build trust—especially when you go beyond the surface level. “Asking tough questions first, even if it feels socially awkward to do so, can make your conversational partner more willing to open up,” they write.
Divide your team into groups of two and then give each pair five minutes to ask each other questions about their career goals, professional fears, and how they’d like to influence the company moving forward. You can even ask employees to share what they learned about each other (and themselves) with the larger group when time’s up.
This alone isn’t enough to build trust, of course. But it does open the floor to communication and create a sense of transparency, two things that are “very important” to employees, according to Ernst & Young’s research.
We bonded. Now what?
As with any leadership decision, managers should be transparent about the goals of team-building activities and ask employees for their feedback. A simple survey that asks questions like “Did you enjoy the activity?” and “Did this activity help you better understand your teammates or the company’s business goals?” will help you better assess the outcomes of a team-bonding event and hold you accountable for sharing results with employees.
It takes teamwork to make teams work. So keep experimenting with team-building activities, and if one kind of event doesn’t work, try again until you find one that’s just right.
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