Back in the late ’80s, corporate teambuilding started to gain traction as a best practice, and one could say that it got off on the right foot. The activities were geared toward improving how teams perform in the workplace, and that connection was clear to both participants and the company that invested in the program. By the 2000s, however, the concept of teambuilding had become diluted, and the word today continues to be applied to a variety of group recreational activities that lack defined learning objectives and an explicit connection to the workplace. Longtime teambuilding professionals therefore stress the distinction between true teambuilding and mere group recreation, what Greg Huber calls “team bonding.”
“How are you going to define success at the end? And what do you plan to do after this event (to support the lessons learned)? …My question is, we’re going to get something started, but how are you going to keep it alive?”
— Gregory J. Huber
Huber, president of Richmond, Virginia-based Signature Teambuilding & Challenge Discovery, has designed and delivered these programs for 25 years. For him, teambuilding involves a “facilitator or leader who’s taking the time to draw out the learning and create the conversation leading it back to work performance.” Without that element, the most that will likely result from the activity is camaraderie, which might begin to dissipate once participants are back in the office. Arguably then, suppliers who tout any camaraderie-building activity as “teambuilding” are really just capitalizing on a buzzword.
Closer to true teambuilding is the activity that builds camaraderie by requiring participants to collaborate on reaching a goal. And when a facilitator connects that mission to workplace performance, true teambuilding is achieved. A teambuilding professional since the mid ‘80s, Sharon Fisher, CEO of Orlando- and Las Vegas-based Play With a Purpose, distinguishes three levels: “The first one is about relationship-building and team bonding; it’s just about having fun together. The next level is the activity where you have to work together as a team to accomplish something, and that can range from a beach olympics to building bikes to cooking together. And the next level includes a training and learning component that helps the group relate what they just did and the insights from it to their day-to-day work, and (explains) how to continue to build the team.”
If a company is setting aside valuable time during a meeting to stage a teambuilding event, a case can be made for investing in the third level, which delivers more ROI. Attendees will certainly have fun at a ballgame together or on a group tour, but (a) they may not bond with any employees beyond their circle of acquaintances, and (b) they’re not likely to significantly improve their teamwork at the office as a result. “I tell clients that everything we’re going to do is just as fun, just as engaging,” says Huber. “And it’s carefully designed to include everyone, and you’ll get these added benefits and outcomes. They’re surprised and say, ‘I never thought about that.’ ”
One of Huber’s clients is a property management company that deployed Signature Teambuilding’s “Shifting Gears” activity at its annual managers meeting. The approximately 30 attendees engaged in a series of connected problem-solving activities at a local college gymnasium. According to the client company’s president, “In the past our teambuilding has been basically fun activities like bowling. This was different for us in that we were hoping that people would have fun, but that also there would be a learning experience. So that was our experiment, so to speak, with Signature.”
The experiment worked, as Huber ensured there was a takeaway for the managers. “He did a very good job at the transition between activities, each one building on the one before, as well as relating it both to something that you can learn about yourself for life and the work environment.” When Shifting Gears concluded, “he had us come to a room with chairs in a circle and discuss what we had learned. I was quite surprised at the number of people who elected to say something, the vulnerability. Most of it centered around appreciation for their team members and thanking individual team members.”
Real teambuilding is also distinguished by what is done prior to the event, not just during and post. The facilitator should get a sense of participant demographics, any challenges they are facing in the workplace, and desired outcomes.
“How are you going to define success at the end? And what do you plan to do after this event (to support the lessons learned)?” Huber asks his potential clients. “At an adventure park or go kart track they’re never going to ask you that, they don’t care. My question is, we’re going to get something started, but how are you going to keep it alive? If they don’t have a plan, I encourage them to create one. Also I ask, how does teamwork work in your organization? What does it look like in your company right now? For teams that are already operating at a high level, we should see that in the activity.”
As far as demographics, a group’s ages, professions, levels of seniority, etc., all can factor into the choice of activity. For example, Fisher has found that “C suite people don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers or associates,” and so activities with minimal risk for such scenarios are better choices. She also has found that millennials are “into adventure and physical challenges” whereas older professionals may prefer more sedentary, brainy activities. One such activity Play With a Purpose offers is called “Beat the Box,” where participants work in teams to attempt to stop a “bomb” countdown by cracking a code. The code must be entered in an electronic combination lock before the time has elapsed, and participants work to discover the code by solving various puzzles contained in cases, such as letters that have to be ordered correctly to reveal a message.
However, there are certainly physical challenges that are manageable by attendees who are older and/or less athletic, such as Signature’s adaptation of the traditional ropes course.
“TeamQuest, our ropes course, is designed to be as inclusive as possible,” says Huber. “It’s different from most high ropes courses because you climb up a net, and you move more horizontally than you do vertically, so little upper body strength is required. If you can climb two flights of stairs you can do this course.
“Plus, everybody can go up together as a team, unlike other courses where it’s one at a time. So no one person feels performance anxiety. They translate that to the workplace: It’s not just about me getting there, but all of us together.” Ropes courses are in fact making a comeback from their heyday in the ‘90s, Huber observes. However, he cautions that there are plenty of courses that are not facilitated, and these are better suited for family fun than for corporate groups that want a teambuilding benefit.
Demographics may suggest that an element of competition should be included in the teambuilding activity; sales reps tend to thrive in a competitive environment, for example. But millennial salespeople may not be so keen on that aspect. “The emerging professionals are not into competition, not nearly as much,” Fisher observes. “If you do an independent survey, which we do when we’re talking to millennial planners, basically they say, ‘No, we’re into collaboration. We want to do something where we work together to accomplish a goal.’ ”
In fact, it is arguable that competition should not be the primary focus of teambuilding, whether or not millennials are involved. “When we get the request for competition, ‘we want a winner and a loser,’ we’re probably not the right fit for them, because we’re focusing more on collaboration,” says Huber. “That is not to say that competition isn’t a healthy attribute of a team. But when competition fails to serve you and you can no longer see opportunities for collaboration, then you have a problem. Plus, competition is so inherent in every organization that they don’t need any help with that; they have plenty of it.”
Workplace challenges also will inform the choice of activity, and whether to teambuild in the first place. Oftentimes, companies undergoing mergers and acquisitions must integrate new teams. Other times, a company will want to explore the potential — perhaps the leadership potential — of certain employees, and a teambuilding scenario can bring latent skills to light. “The leader at work isn’t the leader here, which allows other people to show strengths that sometimes are diminished at work because of their position,” Huber explains. “So then you see the way they naturally behave, which gives the opportunity to evaluate behavior. They may see capabilities they’ve never seen before.”
Facilitating change management is another motivation for teambuilding. Signature’s WaterWorx activity is geared toward that goal, setting the scene as follows: “Your team has two options: complain about the circumstances, or refocus their strategy to meet the goals.” The learning outcomes are equally well defined: letting go of old ways of doing things, embracing change and using it to one’s advantage, and communicating in high-pressure situations.
At Newport News-based Ferguson Enterprises, a change management platform was recently added to the training department’s Performance Adventure program, which provides experiential learning to Ferguson associates.
“We continually evaluate what is happening inside and outside of the business and design our offerings to best support our associates,” says Mark McNitt, director of training. “Currently, our organization is changing the way we service our customers, with some new processes that are a big departure from how we have conducted business over the past 60 years. The more informed our associates and leaders are about how to manage change, the more likely they are to excel personally and professionally.”
The change management platform emphasizes collaboration in the face of challenges, and includes the use of roleplays and skits, which McNitt describes as “a great way to enhance learning and increase retention,” not to mention teamwork. The change management program, along with another new one on stress management, were rolled out in September.
“While it’s too early to gauge results, our accountability mechanism and action plans will help to ensure positive behavior changes, and we expect improved cohesiveness thanks to the new training programs,” says McNitt. “The response to the new programs has been overwhelmingly positive.”
The combination of teambuilding and learning work-related content can be powerful in terms of ROI, and is perhaps less recognized than the combination of teambuilding and diversion, which is quite common. “One of the things that’s getting very popular right now is flip learning, and basically the concept is that you give people all the education and learning that they need prior to the meeting, and then at the meeting you use that time to work together and figure out how to apply the learning,” Fisher explains. “So we did a teambuilding event for a company that makes contact lenses and they were introducing a new product, so they sent all the product specs to the sales reps before the conference. At the conference we had created four different interactive games that they played in teams that reinforced everything they were supposed to have learned prior. So it tested to make sure they understood it, and it brought to light who doesn’t know their stuff.”
She adds, “We’re starting to see this blend of learning and teambuilding all the time now; clients want to get more out of their teambuilding.”
Maximizing the bang for the buck on these activities is especially important for companies that have limited time to spare at meetings. “When I started doing this 24 years ago, everybody had three or four hours (for teambuilding) during the course of the meeting,” says Fisher. “And they were willing to spend the time to cut loose and just do something fun and build those relationships. Well now it’s very short; if we do a teambuilding event of an hour and a half, that’s pretty unusual, and what our clients really now want is to do a team event at a coffee break. Or they want to immerse it into the learning at the session.”
For example, Grapevine, Texas-based GameStop incorporates teambuilding components into the general session for its National Sales Meeting. First, the seating is colored coded for each team using chair back covers; teams with the highest performance ranking are seated at the front as an incentive.
“This extra effort in our general sessions ensures that teams are able to sit together and show their team spirit,” says Judy Payne, CMP, director, meetings and travel. “The teams often vie for the title of ‘most energy,’ and it really keeps our sessions alive.” Second, attendees opt-in to the general session by their region/team; GameStop has 30 regions across the country, each with about 200 stores. The teams then participate in contests at the session by texting answers to trivia questions. “We show the results real-time to encourage team participation and fun (hence the activity’s name, Text-to-Screen),” says Payne. “And whichever team gets the most correct answers, wins.”
While Text-to-Screen does not reach Fisher’s “third level” of teambuilding, where the activity is correlated to workplace performance via a facilitator, it has the advantage of time efficiency: The activity is self-explanatory, and attendees participate directly from their seats at the general session. Thus, when meeting schedules do not allow for true teambuilding, there are still ways to evoke some team spirit. C&IT