Calling all meeting planners: As face-to-face meetings ramp up after the COVID-19 pandemic, there returns a combination of challenges in planning a team-building event for a variety of ages, an assortment of physical capabilities, and an array of interests. While virtual/hybrid meetings will continue for a while, planners will soon need to dust off those in-person team-building ideas sitting on the shelf for months.
But, first, a reminder about what team building is and why it’s so important: “Team-building is an activity a company hosts in hopes of allowing its participants to bond on a deeper level, beyond a typical verbal exchange. It’s done in a controlled environment so that a planner doesn’t leave to chance certain participants meeting [each other],” says Cindy Y. Lo, CEO of RED VELVET.
Lindsey Hollingsworth, CSEP, former events manager for Atlassian, a business productivity software maker, adds: “In team building, one of my team’s main goals is to create cross-functional relationships that might not normally occur during typical workflows. It’s also great to get people out of their comfort zones.”
Explains event planner Kari Willis, “My definition: Bringing a group, department or company together to find commonality outside day-to-day routines,” says Willis, president and co-founder of E Factor — a company designed to give clients, consumers and guests an “experience” they won’t forget — thus the “E” in E Factor. She adds that team building creates an opportunity to bond, learn and build relationships with co-workers, buyers and partners in a casual environment outside the office.
“Team-building is the process of turning a group of individuals or employees into a cohesive and high-functioning team,” defines Ben Hoffman, CEO of cityHUNT, a team building and experiential company specializing in urban scavenger hunt themes. The exec cautions that team building doesn’t just mean getting the team together — it is a well-thought-out process based on psychology and managed with a considered approach. “The most important part is building stronger relationships while having fun,” he says.
To planning specialist Olivia Wong, “I think team building is the simplest form of bonding. You can learn so much about your co-workers when you step outside the office setting,” says Wong, manager of global accounts at HelmsBriscoe.
But team building itself is not simple. There are numerous must-consider factors for meeting planners, such as group size, age, activity level, and variety and types of activities. “While group size is important, I think it can be hard for a larger group to create a great bonding experience, not to say you can’t, but compared to having a small group of eight to 12 where it can be more intimate, a big group is tougher,” Wong says.
To help introverts, “Large groups need to be broken down into smaller sizes,” Willis says, adding that large groups can be intimidating for them. Plus, a large group tends to hinder the back-and-forth communication.
What is a good number? “Ten has proven to be a good number for us with individual teams,” Hollingsworth explains. “[Atlassian’s] offices vary in size from 30 to 1,200, so [Atlassian was] always trying to think of opportunities to scale … event concepts for those sizes and everything in between.”
Providing details of a team-building activity her company planned, Lo explains: “We had team sizes of 10 or 11. And, fun fact, because there was a total of 36 different teams, we figured names might be tricky, so we not only color-coded them, but also, tied them back to a fun, food-related emoji since the beneficiary of the endeavor was a local area food bank.”
As every setting is best suited for a specific age range and certain physical abilities, it’s key to factor these elements into the equation. “I personally would not say this should be a determining factor, but you should definitely know your audience’s physical capabilities and be mindful of their aptitudes,” Lo says.
When it comes to activity level, “You don’t need to skydive or mountain climb to gain the maximum benefits of team building,” Hoffman says. He explains that often more accessible activities produce the best results, and adds that a leisurely pace keeps employees relaxed. For example, take the unique experience of a cityHUNT client, auticon, a global IT consulting business and social enterprise that exclusively employs adults on the autism spectrum. Rebecca Beam, formerly auticon U.S. president, shares that after Hoffman created a complimentary cityHUNT experience for a team of 35, she was very pleased with the custom-designed team-building activity. The competition was via mobile devices and involved problem solving, mathematical solutions, a bit of charades and more — all as fast as possible — with the winners receiving such gifts from the “Treasure Chest” as Amazon gift cards. “Age didn’t matter. It was the perfect fit,” Beam says.
The beauty of a cityHUNT experience is that the custom “hunts” are carefully curated by specially trained producers. Hoffman’s assessment: “This isn’t your typical scavenger hunt or really a scavenger hunt at all. At cityHUNT, we find that teams can grow and bond anywhere with the right activities,” says Hoffman of his specialty company, whose client list includes such high-profile corporations as Google, Facebook, Starbucks, Apple and Coca-Cola. By incorporating a mix of clues and challenges, including location, team building and pop culture, this specialist’s events allow the “hunters” to experience the city like a local and have fun minus the stuffy history tours.
Another top aspect to consider is that the activity must work for everyone. “Inclusivity [was] definitely a priority [at Atlassian],” Hollingsworth says. One such challenge was to make an Olympics-themed, team-building activity more active than a previous event where attendees were seated at tables for 90 minutes of gameplay. In the attempt to include all skill levels, RED VELVET designed competitive stations, but did not require anyone to physically race to complete a challenge. Among the clever stations were a banana-split building competition, canned goods sculpting and blind food tasting. “Don’t try to force an activity,” Lo says. “Rather, make it a safe environment for everyone to participate, and not feel dumb or embarrassed.”
Willis breaks team building into two categories: One is activity-oriented get-togethers, and the other is team-building meetings. Among her suggestions of activity-oriented events are beach days, ropes courses, cooking classes, scavenger hunts, and fitness and wellness activities. Conversely, less-active options include icebreakers, break-out sessions and brain exercises.
In the more-active arena, Kathy Spencer, venue and events logistics director with Prosci Inc. — a company that specializes in change management solutions — selected Glow Ball, or after-dark golf — as a team-building activity prior to the pandemic for one of her group’s 12-13 executive leadership training programs conducted annually in Temecula, California. “The goal of each of Prosci’s venue activities is to provide participants attending our three-day, world class, change management training with a fun and experiential event. Additional objectives are to help participants break down barriers, encourage communication, boost collaboration and more — all while reducing stress and anxiety.” Spencer deems Glow Ball a good choice for areas with temperate climates such as Temecula. “It adds a twist to the conventional social activity of golf. It is fun, intriguing, encourages teamwork, builds interpersonal relationships and is memorable.” Supplementary bonuses for this planner: Giving her participants some fresh air and a bit of exercise.
“Neuroscience supports the idea that changing habits is greatly assisted by changing atmosphere,” Hoffman says. By allowing employees to get out of the office and engage in activities that are outside their normal sphere, they are prone to seeing their co-workers in a different light. And when this happens, they are more likely to bond on an interpersonal level.
“If the team starts out with negative energy, you’ll want to figure out a way to break the ice and get everyone on a positive stride before the team building officially starts,” Lo says. “My personal recommendation is to encourage the team to turn on their sense of wonder.”
The idea is not to focus on the activity. “The biggest mistake planners make with team building is to actually focus on team building,” says Bryan Mattimore, co-founder and chief idea guy at Growth Engine Innovation Agency. Understanding how confusing this statement might be, he expounds that team building should be an effect or outcome of working on a great project, not the goal itself. The end result is that “team building should be seen as a means to an end, not the end in itself.”
In the business of planning between 40 and 60 meetings a year for predominately Fortune 500 clients, Mattimore is no stranger to team building. Having employed a successful song-writing strategy for clients, these songs are typically written about one of these three goals: 1) a team’s brand 2) a new product to be launched or 3) the annual sales goal of the company’s division.
Another important tip? “Use the element of laughter,” suggests Dara Hall, CMP, CMM, executive vice president of Event Source Professionals (ESP) Inc. Prior to the pandemic, ESP helped a highly competitive sales force of an international soft drink manufacturer focus on its product and demographics while building camaraderie among team members by using a troupe of talented improvisational actors who were integrated into the event as the main entertainment. She explains: “Once their set concluded, the actors became ‘coaches’ to the sales force who were divided into teams. Each team was given a product and demographics, and was then asked to write and perform a commercial for the audience. The hilarious final cuts provided a better understanding of the product and its subsequent audience. And those teams that missed the mark received the dreaded gong.”
Representing a destination best known for golf, Michelle Bovian, director of sales with Visit Augusta, states that as meeting attendees again start to look for one-of-a-kind encounters, planning a team-building experience that reflects the town is important. “Although we are best known for golf, we are also the world’s premier destination for the sport of disc golf on three championship 18-hole courses.” In addition, the Georgia city’s Class A minor-league baseball team, The Augusta GreenJackets, has team outings, complete with a private luxury suite and custom catering — tailor made for a sports-themed team-building experience.
If high-end wilderness is the ticket sought, look no further than Canada’s Nimmo Bay Resort in British Columbia. Located in the southern part of the Great Bear Rainforest — a one-hour flight from Vancouver, followed by a 20-minute floatplane trip from Port McNeill — this family-owned and operated premier lodge is spot-on for small (18 max), exclusive team-building activities. Here’s only a portion of a planner’s plethora of options within its more than 50,000 square miles of accessible wilderness: Viewing of whales, dolphins, sea lions, eagles, bears and more in their natural habitats; off-the-grid kayaking, and paddle boarding and helicoptering to 10,000-year-old glaciers, 1,000-foot waterfalls and Pacific salmon runs accessible only by helicopter.
Ian Chisholm, founding partner of Roy Group, a company specializing in leadership development experiences, which partners with Nimmo Bay, expounds on the value of team building: “There is no question that leaders at all levels of an organization learn most from experience. To me, the best activities allow a team to be uncomfortable together without compromising safety. In other words: They can stay on their edge, together.”
But, in one instance when a group was unable to go into the wild, Chisholm shares how he nevertheless transported the team back to nature. “The client chose the transition from ‘hill walkers to ice-climbers’ as a metaphor for the next chapter of their growth, so we ran a day of meetings on the roof of a skyscraper, surrounded by other ‘towering peaks.’ The food was vacuum packed, tents were used as meeting rooms and prayer flags were everywhere. The result was an entire day that felt like base camp. It even started to snow.”
The North Lake Tahoe area also offers an abundance of thrilling outdoor activities. “Our area — a year-round, four-season destination — offers a variety of opportunities for experiential team building,” says Jeffrey Hentz, CEO of the North Lake Tahoe Chamber/CVB/Resort Association. Continuing, he lists such outdoor adventures as Tahoe Via Ferrata, full-moon snowshoe tours, mountain biking, kayaking North America’s largest alpine lake and treetop adventure courses. In reference to more relaxing group activities, he mentions leisure nature walks and sailing aboard a private charter, with all — active and relaxing — served up with a backdrop of the Sierras. Prior to the pandemic, 80 guests 25 to 50 years old from a large multinational shoe company came to Tahoe for team building. The meeting planner’s goal: Find active, competitive outdoor experiences for team members requiring teamwork, problem solving and think-outside-the-box coordination. Working in conjunction with Tahoe Adventure Company, the result was a custom-designed “Amazing Race”-themed event — a GPS assisted geocaching scavenger hunt on foot through the woods, followed by a leg of the course by bike, and culminating on a beach stage with the incorporation of kayaks and paddleboards.
If the question for Wong is: “Have millennials influenced team building?” her answer is yes. “I think the goal is to experience something outside the box.” Her example contrasts a simple winery visit with going to a winery, learning about making wine, walking into the vineyard, venturing into the wine cave, meeting the winemaker — followed by team members blending and pairing their own wines. “Today, we see and experience all aspects of an activity.”
Says Willis, “You will see a focus on experiential and Instagrammable events to share on their social. It will showcase the company culture.” She also predicts a big push on mental fitness and wellness activities.
“We always find ourselves thinking each year, ‘How are we going to top ourselves the next year?’” Hollingsworth asks. However, the planner doesn’t think it’s about doing something completely new, but rather bringing back things in unique and interesting ways.
Lo’s advice is specific: “Review what has been done in the past and be uber critical. What worked? What didn’t? Do we know why? How much time and money were put toward the activity? What is the company culture supporting? Have you polled your team to see what they like? You may be surprised to learn they would rather hang out and play board games versus zip lining and ropes courses. If so, what can you do to make board games exciting for everyone?”
Don’t be afraid to try something new encourages Hoffman. “More and more, people want different options than a bowling alley. Experiences are in.” C&IT