Before the economic crash of 2008, team-building events were often passed over in favor of conferences or fun-filled parties, according to Sharon E. Sullivan, president of Sullivan Custom Planning Inc., a full-service destination management company that serves New England and is based in Providence, Rhode Island. But when event budgets took a nosedive and planners had to rethink how they organized company gatherings, that began to change.
“During the recession, meetings were harder to justify,” she says. “Corporations could justify having team-building programs.” After all, they still needed a way to help employees perform at their best — especially as sales goals and other milestones were getting harder to reach. Planners stripped away things such as fancy décor and expensive entertainment in favor of offering more meaningful content to staff.
“We’re seeing that instead of just doing your standard building bikes for the community, we’re seeing companies that really want to get out into the community.” Amanda Hill
That change is still being felt today. “Team-buildings activities about problem solving, strategy, organizational skills, building camaraderie and group decision-making have gotten so much more popular,” Sullivan says. “I think every sales meeting I’m seeing incorporates a team-building activity, either to start off the meeting with a morale booster or an ice breaker. When you start a meeting that way, it shifts the energy and shifts the intention of the meeting. Companies know that to keep their employees happy that they need to do something special, and this doesn’t break the bank.”
Tina Boris Lafferty, DMCP, managing director of COTC Events, a Hosts Global member, agrees that team building still plays an important role in modern meetings and incentive trips. “In the 20 years I have been doing this, I have seen the team-building activity really evolve from something that planners had to do to as an essential part of their programs,” she says. “Team building is no longer an opportunity to push through management agendas; it becomes a bonding experience that will last longer than the couple of days attendees spent together.”
Lafferty continues, “In a world of remote offices and less human interaction within firms, team building is a chance to ‘play’ together while incorporating face-to-face communication, philanthropic experiences through CSR programs, and allowing people to capture all the fun in their social media for everyone else to have FOMO and want to be there next time around. It helps cause the buzz that people keep talking about so that others will work hard to be a part of that special experience year after year.”
Planners provided input on the more microlevel trends they’ve seen in team building in recent years. Perhaps the biggest one is increasing interest in activities focused around corporate social responsibility (CSR). Sullivan often works with companies to plan philanthropic activities such as charity bike builds, stuffing backpacks with school supplies and gathering treats to send to military personnel. In her mind, the reason for the burgeoning interest in these types of programs is simple.
“The attendees feel good about giving back,” Sullivan says. “It also boosts morale. Companies always have an objective for team building, and we always find out what the objective is. More and more, companies just want to give back. I also think the attendees are more likely to show up and will be more enthusiastic because they want to give back as well.”
Amanda Hill, an account director for ACCESS Destination Services, a destination management company based in San Diego, California, says companies are eager to do more. “Especially this year, we’re seeing that instead of just doing your standard building bikes for the community, we’re seeing companies that really want to get out into the community,” she says. “They might go out as a group and do a beatification project with the Boys and Girls Club or cook a meal at the Ronald McDonald House. They’re making it more of an experiential team-building program instead of sitting in a ballroom.” These offsite activities also allow people to see the city and learn more about what’s happening there.
For groups that have to stay at their event facility, Hill has arranged for local community groups to come to them. In one recent instance, a group built dog houses for a humane society with assistance from a Girl Scout troop. The Girl Scouts earned a patch and the staff at the company got to know people in the community.
CSR projects are getting more creative as they grow more popular. “We have even seen groups ask people to bring their old jeans from home, then after all the jeans are collected there is a team-building event where we make shoes with the old jeans for kids in underprivileged countries,” Lafferty says.
When thinking about CSR projects, “A question we will always ask is are there organizations or genres of organizations that the company already supports or has a heart in?” Hill says. “We’ll have clients that always like to do a children’s charity, or they’re tied into a Boys and Girls Club.”
The audience for team building has also changed over time, which may be an important thing to take into consideration when organizing an activity. “Executive teams are no longer untouchable,” Lafferty says. “The CFO wants to be there creating hygiene kits for local homeless people right next to the salespeople who are doing well in his company.”
Hill used to get a lot of requests for team-building activities that were little more than a reason to get out of the hotel. “These days companies are really looking to drill down the purpose behind doing the team building,” she says. “Instead of just doing a sailing regatta or a scavenger hunt, they’re really trying to focus on a team-building program that has purpose in people’s day-to-day work. For example, we’re doing a lot of escape rooms where we bring escape rooms on-site to the hotel property. It’s fun, it’s interactive, and it’s a great way to get a team together so they can find how they communicate with each other and learn more about the process of collaboration.”
Roy Charette, managing partner and director of training for Best Corporate Events, a Palm Harbor, Florida-based company that focuses on corporate events, professional development training, team building, interactive entertainment and event technology, gives an example of how technology can extend and reinforce an activity designed to bring teams closer together. When a business requests a scavenger hunt for a meeting or incentive trip, he can design a challenge that requires people to use their smart devices. The software program can prompt people to answer questions related to the company, the work environment or lessons learned during workshops in order to earn points.
In addition, the camera on an iPad or Android tablet can be used to capture images of the team finding scavenger hunt items or participating in experiences. “Those all become available to the group at the end of the program,” Charette says. “When they go to dinner, they realized there’s a screen and all those fun photos and videos they took during the day are playing while they’re having cocktails.”
Team building as a true “team-building” activity makes a lot of sense in the modern environment, he says. “When you’re growing up, in terms of your education, you’re always competing in terms of your grades, your college you went to and vying for your first job. Then all of a sudden you get into a work environment and you’re asked to collaborate. You’ve been competing your whole life, so that’s what you default to. Activities like these are about getting away from ‘Let’s have a competition’ to ‘Let’s have a winning team and we’ll all hit the pub afterward.’”
Whenever possible, Charette looks for activities that may start out seeming competitive but gradually move into being more collaborative. These exercises introduce people to the importance of acknowledging people’s ideas, rewarding them for tasks well done and positioning each other for success. Groups often end up mentoring and coaching each other or developing a lesson plan so they can teach other teams something. They’re engaging in the moment, he says, but when people are asked to reflect on how they can apply these same ideas in the office every day, they become a powerful way of providing tangible lessons.
Meeting participants want more personalized, interactive experiences in all aspects of their lives. So it probably comes as no surprise that companies are also looking for more customized, creative team-building activities.
“We did a photo hunt in Little Havana that included rolling cigars, playing dominoes, learning the local catch phrases, salsa dancing and making mojitos. This allows the participants to really get a taste of the local flavor, while bonding with each other throughout the process,” Lafferty says.
Sullivan adds, “We get a lot of inquiries for a scavenger hunt, but … they want something very creative.”
When she was working with a group at the Hotel Viking in Newport, Rhode Island, she put together a pirate scavenger hunt. Participants used a treasure map to find people dressed as pirates who provided them with further clues. In Boston, she’s arranged similar hunts but with historical figures instead of pirates.
Another really popular activity is what Sullivan calls The Incredible Race, a take on the TV show “The Amazing Race.” Similar to a scavenger hunt, teams must race around the city to find clues that will lead them to the hunt’s proverbial finish line. Sullivan has also done spy hunts and asked teams to solve a mystery as part of their activity.
Culinary programs are also big today, Sullivan says. With some groups, she’s had participants divide into teams and cook different dishes. A team of judges tries all of the finished dishes and awards winners.
With other groups, she’s set up a “moveable feast.” For this, people switch tables every time they change courses. “This is program for companies where the people don’t all know each other and it’s the first time they’re coming together. They all get to sit at each table, so they get to know everybody. We’ll do a little team-building activity, they’ll eat and then they’ll move to the next table.”
For one of her groups, Lafferty created a signature cocktail activity. Each team worked with an expert mixologist to create a mixed drink based on the gathering’s theme. The winning drink was the featured cocktail at a gathering one night.
One thing that’s proving less popular today is ropes courses and similar physical activities, Charette says. Increasingly, not all members of any given team are physically fit enough to complete these challenges. “That’s the last thing you want, is for a team-building event to eliminate people who aren’t able to even go bowling or do paintball,” he says. “Nowadays there are so many incredible team-building programs that are done primarily indoors that allow everyone to be involved — activities that are more cerebral while also being fun.”
One of the most important considerations for planning a team-building activity is understanding your audience. “Not everyone wants to be active and outside or likes to perform in front of others,” Lafferty says. “Make sure there are parts of the team building that will allow everyone to shine. Maybe you are not the one that will get up and do the physical activity, but you may be the one that will create the team name and sign or write the song that will be performed. All are so very important to the big picture, yet it allows everyone to be part of the experience.”
Another important thing to consider when planning a team-building activity is length, Sullivan says. “It can’t be so long that you lose people. An average program is an hour and a half to two hours. Anything over that and people get bored.”
Sullivan’s first step in planning team-building activities is to find out the group’s demographics, including age, and what the company wants to get out of the program. From there, she can start thinking about designing an exercise that will help planners meet their goals. “There are some programs that do not work if you have mistrust,” she cautions. “If you have people who don’t particularly like each other or trust each other or are highly competitive, we can help you steer your activities in the right direction to something that will work with these group dynamics.”
Hill also stays focused on understanding a company’s objectives when she plans team-building activities. “For a lot of planners, team building is a checkbox, something they have to accomplish with the meeting,” Hill says. “But it will mean more and people will remember that experience more if they are 100% bought in.
“I think the best thing that a planner can do is really come to what the purpose is behind the team-building program before they decide what they’re going to do. Is the purpose to have their team collaborate? Or is it that they really want to go out and give back to the community? When we get to the end of our program, what are the two things you want your guests to talk about? Is it a sense of community spirit? Is it that they gave back to something? Is it that they have better camaraderie with people they spend their lives with at work?” Figure out to help people achieve these lasting feelings and memories, and team building will move far beyond a reluctant checkbox on their list too. C&I