Teambuilding Trends: Having a Field DayNovember 1, 2013

Physical and Mental Challenges That Strengthen Workplace Performance By
November 1, 2013

Teambuilding Trends: Having a Field Day

Physical and Mental Challenges That Strengthen Workplace Performance
The Switch employee Field Day, which has been held annually for the past seven years, features “at least one activity that involves a social component, and I don’t mean social media,” says Switch Chief Creative Officer Annie Castellano. “I mean getting to know the people that you work with on a personal level.” Credit: Switch: Liberate Your Brand

The Switch employee Field Day, which has been held annually for the past seven years, features “at least one activity that involves a social component, and I don’t mean social media,” says Switch Chief Creative Officer Annie Castellano. “I mean getting to know the people that you work with on a personal level.” Credit: Switch: Liberate Your Brand

Much of the teamwork that happens in corporate America today is through virtual communications, with the work force becoming increasingly remote and decentralized. But it is teamwork nonetheless, and when employees do gather for a face-to-face meeting, it bears emphasizing the value of effective collaboration. A teambuilding activity, one that serves as a metaphor for workplace performance, has long been a means to that end.

Given its value, one might wonder why a company would eschew teambuilding at an internal meeting, assuming that the agenda allows for it. Economic factors can influence that decision, according to Kim Silberman, senior vice president of New York, NY-based Madison Performance Group. “The cost of a teambuilding event can be prohibitive because it is an added expense. And for incentives, since most companies have cut back on their incentive travel, they elect to reward individuals with leisure time instead of a structured activity, which they would rather include in a meeting,” she explains.

Indeed, teambuilding has a hard time competing with leisure as a reward for top producers. Yet a key to successful teambuilding is that it should not be diametrically opposed to leisure; it should not feel purely business-related, from the attendee’s perspective.

“(Teambuilding has) clear business benefits, but the way that we try to approach it is much more organic so that it feels like genuine fun.”

— Annie Castellano, Chief Creative Officer, Switch, St. Louis, MO

Working Relationships

“(Teambuilding has) clear business benefits, but the way that we try to approach it is much more organic so that it feels like genuine fun. If it feels forced, it’s not going to work,” explains Annie Castellano, chief creative officer at St. Louis, MO-based Switch, an experiential marketing agency that stages teambuilding for corporate clients as well as for its own staff. When the activity is successful, it strengthens working relationships among participants, often cultivating numerous other qualities as a side effect, such as leadership ability, problem-solving, patience and communication skills.

But for Switch, skill development isn’t the focus of teambuilding; rather, it’s the development of those working relationships and camaraderie. If teambuilding becomes too centered on teaching specific skills, it crosses over into training, and that can compromise the fun and the socializing that should be integral to the activity. Teambuilding can certainly be part of the value proposition of face-to-face meetings: It is more deeply interpersonal than a reception or conference, as participants are collaborating face-to-face, not merely communicating.

Although teambuilding and training should arguably be conceptualized differently (as Castellano suggests), they both often fall under the corporate umbrella of “learning and development.” As such, they are implemented in response to certain business needs.

Learning Opportunities

At San Francisco, CA-based Banana Republic’s learning and development division, “we are looking at how to accelerate business results through our people,” says Tina Richards, senior manager. That basic objective has been carried out in a finer-grained way in recent years, with a focus on specific individuals who have shown promising qualities, adds Ben Putterman, director of the division. “We have moved away from a broad sort of training for everybody to more targeted learning solutions for people that we have identified as either high-potential or must-keep talent. It sounds like moving from a more democratized approach to an elitist approach, but I don’t really think that’s what it is; I actually think it is a more strategic and thoughtful way that you allocate money and training efforts to the people that you think are either adding the most value or have the potential to add the most value. That trend has probably been the biggest shift for us.”

While teambuilding is focused on group cohesiveness, it certainly can foster the professional development of particular individuals by placing them in roles that are outside of their “comfort zone.”

Self-Discovery and Integration

For example, an employee who does not normally assume a leadership position can become a team leader and thereby acquire a new perspective and perhaps undergo a little self-discovery.  “The activity might be very natural for some, and they might have the best skills of the group, so it gives them an opportunity to step up and lead their team,” Silberman observes.

Teambuilding also can support company-wide integration when teams mix together participants of different levels within the firm, and from different departments. “It’s good to put people with others whom they don’t interact with too often, and build relationships that maybe don’t exist but that you want to encourage,” she adds.

When Switch conducts its internal teambuilding, the organizers ensure that each team represents a cross-section of the entire agency. “We don’t want, for example, a team of creative persons versus a team of accountants, or a team of planners versus a team of production people,” says Castellano. “People know their own department members pretty well. It doesn’t make for effective teambuilding if the teams are the same groups that always interact with each other.”

Well-diversified teams will invariably include some participants who know little to nothing about each other, and that’s why Switch’s employee Field Day, held annually for the past seven years, features “at least one activity that involves a social component, and I don’t mean social media,” says Castellano. “I mean getting to know the people that you work with on a personal level.”


The 15 Switch employees who are appointed Field Day commissioners oversee the day-long event and design nine team challenges with both intellectual and physical aspects. “We try to do things that are universally accessible, so no matter what shape you are in, you can still participate in a way that can contribute to the success of your team. We don’t want anybody to feel like they just brought the team down,” says Castellano. “Typically we stay away from the very, very physical,” Silberman remarks, “because it’s not fair (to some participants). You don’t want to be in that situation where you’re the last one getting picked at volleyball.” By the same token, excessively cerebral challenges are not usually a good choice either.

Innovation and Creativity

Challenges that involve creativity, however, are especially in vogue, even if they do somewhat disadvantage participants who lack that quality as a forté. “The work that we do around innovation and creativity with teams is probably the trendiest thing we do,” says Putterman. “It’s a super-hot topic in corporate America right now, and in learning and development functions. For example, we bring in improvisational acting groups to teach our teams. Improv provides a great framework for how to communicate and build off one another’s ideas in the moment; it has an incredible application to the way that teams work in a corporate environment.”

Banana Republic’s learning and devel­opment division recognizes that fostering creativity at all levels of the organization is critical, hence the mixed composition of the teams that participate. “The interesting thing about these innovation workshops is that we don’t do it by title or function, so you can have a front-line employee standing by a senior vice president doing a totally goofy improv acting exercise,” Putterman explains. “The old model that the people at the top with the big titles have all the ideas and all the answers is ludicrous, and (the mixed character of the teams) highlights that. We need ideas more than we need anything else, and we believe that great ideas can come from any part of the company and from any level. Actually, to some degree you can make the argument that some of the youngest and newest members of the team are going to have the best ideas.”

The Big Picture

Creativity comes in many forms, of course, and one of those is painting. A very popular kind of activity today has each team painting a single tile that will be interlocked with those produced by other teams so as to produce a giant painting.

Silberman recounts an event of this type, appropriately called “The Big Picture,” that Madison Performance Group conducted for Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, a New York City chain. The final painting usually depicts an image of significance to the company, and “in this situation the company had eight core values, and we basically created a beautiful photo that incorporated the words communication, quality, accountability, etc., within a New York City setting.

“We had 10 teams of six participants, so the mural was divided into 10 square canvases,” she continues, “and each team had a color photo (of what their square was to look like). And the colors they saw on the photo they actually had to make. They also had to work with other teams that had a square next to theirs to make sure that when they make a color that bleeds over to their square, that it’s the same.

“These photos are very detailed, and it takes about an hour and a half for six to 10 people to paint their square as perfectly as they can. And then when all the pieces are done, the facilitator puts them together (they snap together) and it makes this huge canvas. The company can then take it to their corporate headquarters and hang it up.”

“The Big Picture” can be quite rewarding for participants, but it’s not the easiest teambuilding activity. “When you see the final product it’s amazing, but when you’re actually doing it, it’s hard. It definitely pushes the comfort level of those who are not artistic,” Silberman says. “But there is definitely a lot of teamwork involved. Team members even visited other teams who were having a hard time with their square. And there was strategy to figure out who they had to work with outside of their team.”

Culinary Events

With the ongoing foodie trend and the proliferation of TV cook-offs such as Top Chef and Iron Chef, it’s seldom that a planner can go wrong with cooking as a teambuilding medium. “Cooking teambuilding is extremely popular, and it’s very easy to build into meal functions,” notes Silberman. “And while some types of events are better with smaller groups, you can do a cook-off with 100 people, dividing them into 10 teams of 10, for example,” she says.

Still, not all attendees will have a culinary streak, and so it’s advisable to include competitive elements besides the actual cooking. “We did a chili cook-off this year for an IT company where not only did they have to make a chili with X number of ingredients, but they also had to name their team, come up with a brand, create an advertising board, and present their team and their product,” Silberman relates. “And they could earn points based on all the different things that we asked them to do, not just for how good their chili was.”

Performance Adventure

So just as it’s a good rule of thumb to diversify the composition of teams (across departments, levels of seniority, etc.), it’s also sensible to try to vary the skills and activities involved, thus creating more opportunities for each participant to shine. One way to do this is to offer a variety of competitions through several hours or even a day, as in the case of Switch’s Field Day or Newport News, VA-based Ferguson Enterprises’ Performance Adventure. “Our training department holds 12–15 Performance Adventure events annually, onsite at Ferguson headquarters, distribution centers or branches,” says Mark McNitt, director of training. “Activities include putting together a puzzle blindfolded, getting your entire team across the room using stepping stones, etc. The average number of participants per event is 24.”

The company considers the “adventures” a kind of experiential learning. “We started offering such programs in 2010,” McNitt says. “Our motivation was to help new Ferguson teams, formed either though acquisition or expansion, to work more effectively and realize their full potential. We also wanted to offer a broader range of learning options for our associates beyond traditional classroom or Web-based training.

“We launched this program without a specific request from management or departments; rather, we started knocking on doors and took the learning opportunity to the departments and managers, and then based on their needs customized the training deliverable.”

After conducting participant surveys and gathering managers’ feedback regarding observed changes in associates’ behaviors, McNitt’s team cites positive results for Performance Adventure. “Teams are working more effectively, communicating better and achieving more consistent results,” he says. “Areas impacted include building trust, managing conflict, understanding commitment and defining accountability.”

Proving ROI

ROI measurement for teambuilding is often taken with a grain of salt, however. A variety of factors can lead to better performance in the workplace, and it can be hard to conclusively attribute the improvement to the teambuilding. “Often this need to prove ROI is a self-inflicted sort of pursuit that training people put on themselves,” Putterman says. “The problem is that you are trying to put a scientific measure on an unscientific body of work, and if you show that kind of measurement to business leaders that are very analytical and numbers-driven, they are going to punch holes through it. I do think (ROI measurement) is valuable in some cases, such as technical training.”

So in the case of teambuilding, many organizations simply gather participant reactions via post-event surveys. Onsite debriefings also allow them to discuss any personal benefits they derived from the activity, what they learned about coworkers, how they envision the activity translates to the workplace, how they felt about the activity’s duration and level of difficulty, and so on. Ideally, reactions and assessments are also gathered while the teambuilding is in progress. “Oftentimes we can measure performance in real time so that if something isn’t going as well as we hoped, we can make a course correction before it is too late,” says Castellano.

Company Engagement

Some of the most significant reactions to teambuilding don’t need to be “gathered” because they’re more or less obvious: excitement and enjoyment. These emotions drive engagement with the company. Participants want to work for a company that takes the trouble to design a fun, creative activity for them, and they are more motivated to work with professionals with whom they have shared an exhilarating team experience. For Switch, that experience begins well before Field Day, with the drafting process. “Which team you play on isn’t random; you’ve been strategically chosen by the team captain, and there is a certain commitment that you feel to your team when you know that you’ve been chosen,” Castellano explains. Participants thus get the feeling that they’ve “made the team.” “It’s something that people really get into,” she says. C&IT

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