Team building has the potential to go very wrong — think ropes courses for those with a fear of heights, public speaking activities for introverts or a happy hour where some attendees get a little too happy. That’s why the term “team building,” even though it has the noble goal of encouraging positive relationships in the workplace, frequently elicits groans or eyerolls.
Done right, though, team building can be an effective reward and a means of creating a cohesive and positive workplace culture, which is especially important now that remote work is more common than ever. So how can it be done better?
Whether they’re designing a team-building event on their own or using a team-building company, here’s what industry experts said planners should keep in mind to create better team-building experiences.
What Doesn’t Work
When it comes to team building, what doesn’t work provides insight into what will. One reason staff may be hesitant or downright hostile to the idea of team building is that the activities are frequently run of the mill, cheesy or boring. Ice breakers, trust falls and personality quizzes are perceived as cliché and a waste of valuable time to workers, so if there’s a team-building activity, it’s best to commit to making it truly impactful.
“People think of trust falls or sitting around a campfire and learning basic things about people,” said Seth Felix, an event producer with The Go Game, a San Francisco-based team-building event company that produces and facilitates custom team-building games for groups. “But they don’t have to be boring.”
Something else that doesn’t work is making attendees participate in something they don’t like … or worse, something they fear.
“Team building is often times where something has been forced, like a ropes course,” said Lisa Jennings, chief experience officer at Wildly Different, a team building company based in Orlando. “I have seen people crying up on ropes courses. Or, the CEO might love golf, therefore we’re all forced to a golf outing.”
If someone is deathly afraid of heights, a ropes course is traumatic, not groundbreaking. It’s important to remember the difference between being nudged out of one’s comfort zone and being put into their danger zone.
The final mistake that produces a lackluster team-building event is a lack of originality. While the team may enjoy something like bowling, happy hour or gathering around a campfire, there’s the potential to go above and beyond and enjoy better results.
“When people say, ‘we do team building all the time,’ and it’s bowling or happy hours, I ask, ‘What did you gain from that experience? What did you really learn about your team?’” said Felix.
Things to Know
When crafting a team-building experience, the most important thing to have is a thorough knowledge of the team and the objectives for the event. Team building exists for all sorts of reasons. It can be a small segment of an annual company meeting, or it can be the whole event. It can be a reward for a job well done, part of onboarding for a new employee or even part of company training. The event will change depending on its purpose.
“We check in with the group and see what their needs are,” said Nicole Banek, senior sales manager at Tanque Verde Ranch, a resort in Arizona known for its extensive range of team-building activities. “They may have meetings they need to do as well, so we tailor [activities] around their schedule.”
Prepare to find out a lot about the team, too.
“If you’re ever tasked with organizing a team-building event, do your research,” said Jennings. “Ask what’s been done before, what wasn’t successful, why wasn’t it, what type of people will be attending.”
Jennings said this can include questions about the group’s personalities, ages and other key demographics. Omitting these questions may lead to mixed results. For example, if a group includes members visiting from other countries, a game that requires a mastery of the English language may not be suitable.
Don’t skip over questions about the logistics of the event, either. Like any event, it’s important to note how long it should be, if the location is fixed or flexible and what the budget is.
Hallmarks of a Good Team Builder
Because there are often many different personality types, interests and strengths within a group, good team-building activities should be inclusive.
“The way to make them appeal to a vast audience is to incorporate different types of activities that are going to help everybody stand out as the star,” Felix said.
This can look like an activity that incorporates a variety of clues into a table-top escape game or scavenger hunt.
“You might be great at solving one clue because you’re a math person. But then someone else might solve another clue that takes out-of-the-box thinking and creatively approaching the problem,” Jennings said. “It’s trying to find those events that will have something for everybody.”
Another way to make the team-building activity stand out is ensuring it’s creative and fun. Tanque Verde Ranch offers a wide selection of out-of-the-box activities like a salsa/margarita challenge, where groups compete to make the best-tasting salsas and margaritas in a time crunch. They also offer team penning, where the group works together on horseback to corral cattle.
“The great thing we have out here at the ranch is that the activities will get people out of their comfort zone, which is scary at first, but people get something out of that,” said Banek.
That’s why games are popular team-building activities. One of The Go Game’s most popular team-building activities is the Adventure Scavenger Hunt, which is a custom scavenger hunt throughout the group’s city that encourages teams to engage in some friendly competition. There are also escape rooms, game shows and other puzzle games.
Finally, leave the group with something to remember.
“Do a recap at the end,” said Felix. “We do a fun finale where we show photos and videos they create during the game, and they get to experience it again.”
Trends in Team Building
Virtual team building has gained significant ground in the past decade but particularly since the pandemic. Now, with more people than ever working remotely some or all the time, team building has never been more important.
“A lot of people are working remotely and don’t get to connect as human beings,” said Jennings. “They do still have that desire to do something fun with their team.”
This can include an entirely virtual team-building activity or game with virtual components, such as the virtual aspects of the mobile scavenger hunts designed by The Go Game.
In some ways, a virtual team building event is even easier to arrange than a physical team building event because no one has to worry about logistics like venues or catering. Virtual games can be as simple as logging on, working in breakout sessions with your team to solve a fun puzzle, tallying up the score and recapping at the end.
Another trending team building activity is charitable events. At Wildly Different, these events are extremely popular.
“It has that double advantage of people are having fun and working together but also working toward a common good,” Jennings said.
This can include something like assembling snack packs for children experiencing food insecurity or assembling care packages for families in need. This opportunity to engage with the community and give back resonates with many teams and brings them together in the process.