The Future of Team Building: Meeting the Challenge of a Hybrid Workforce and WorkplaceOctober 20, 2021

October 20, 2021

The Future of Team Building: Meeting the Challenge of a Hybrid Workforce and Workplace

Nate MartinNate Martin is CEO and co-founder of Puzzle Break — America’s first escape-room company. A graduate of the DigiPen Institute of Technology, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts prior to Puzzle Break. Martin is a frequent lecturer and blogger, a Business Journal 40-Under-40 honoree, and was also profiled by MSNBC’s “Your Business,” where he was dubbed the “Founding Father of Escape Rooms.”

The workplace has experimented with remote work for decades before anyone ever heard of COVID-19. The advent of personal computers and the internet opened us to using technology to make our workplace more flexible way before the present scenario unfolded.

The pandemic put the process on steroids, of course, forcing enterprises in nearly every industry to adapt almost overnight or risk closing shop. But the changes this process wrought went beyond a sudden deployment of critical infrastructure to support remote workers en masse. Perhaps, the most significant paradigm shift was in the way we interact and bond with each other as co-workers. Above all, it was about how we build and maintain strong teams in the altered reality where most — if not all — of us aren’t physically in the same space.

Gone are the “water-cooler moments” and other seemingly incremental activities and touchpoints that contribute to productivity. Those experiences cannot be readily addressed or duplicated by a quick video chat, and the cascading implications of this will require significant additional adaptations in the days ahead. Team building is a critical area in which the enterprise must adapt to survive and thrive.

Team Challenges That Don’t Directly Translate

The impact of the pandemic was like a meteor strike with so much social connectivity tissue evaporating overnight. Unsurprisingly, that seriously affects team building and bonding with a detrimental effect on productivity. There’s more to team bonding than chats in the break room or hallway, of course. Grabbing a bite or drink with co-workers has been part of workplace bonding for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, these team-building activities don’t translate well to video conferencing, so we must address more deliberate methods.

Team building has always been about both improving one’s skills as a person and of the whole team as a unit. However, many traditional in-person team-building events were already admittedly out-of-date and stagnant. Personality tests, lectures, off-campus retreats, and trust falls are all activities that have gone well past their sell-by date. Not only aren’t these rooted in meaningful data or science, but they are also quite painful and often disliked by the participants. Without participant buy-in, any team-building activity is dead on arrival.

Why Virtually Re-Create Something That Wasn’t Working Well?

We may have lost the ability to do in-person team building for now, but so much of the content was “old and moldy” to begin with. However, most organizations — not to mention companies that conduct team-building events — had to do something, so they retrofitted these activities into a form factor that makes no sense. But the question is more than one of logistics; more importantly, why keep doing stuff that wasn’t working well even in person?

Instead, companies and vendors first need to determine what works well empirically and what does not. That means closely observing how people work and interact to solve a problem, then turning that knowledge into actionable data. Only then can we focus on the types of activities — not the activities themselves — that we can adapt or reinvent to suit a post-pandemic world.

Creating Evidence-Based Team Building That Actually Works

The post-pandemic scenario necessitates an evidence-based approach to team building that is informed by observation.

First, we must observe and record. As a team-building company, for example, Puzzle Break has observed thousands of teams undergoing traditional team-building exercises over the last decade, repeating the same techniques time after time. We’ve also observed non-traditional methods — escape rooms or solving a mystery, for example — trying to determine what works and what does not. The act of observing and recording provides companies and vendors with a veritable gold mine of data, allowing us to detect statistically significant trends about how teams work together optimally.

Second, we have to ensure the actual activity empowers the participants to leverage their diverse, and disparate, skills and insights to achieve a common objective. This is conspicuously missing from a lot of the team-building activities, such as a personality test or trust fall.

Finally, we have to repeat and refine. We must continue collecting and using the data to make activities we’ve created ever more effective in their impact on the participants.

The Future of Team Building Must Be Fun and Engaging

Some changes can be permanent; personal interaction at the workplace may never entirely return to what it was only a handful of years ago. The most likely future scenario, though, is that we’ll reach a steady state of a hybrid workplace in which people come and go in an orderly, if unpredictable, manner.

Logistical challenges aside, the worst team building you can do is nothing — you have to invest in your employees and your teams if you’re to survive and thrive. At the same time, you can do a lot better than blindly retrofitting an existing team-building experience for online and video. If it didn’t work well before, it won’t work for the new workplace.

We must adopt a whole new model for team-building activities, one that works equally well across the in-person, work-from-home, and hybrid environments. And, it has to be fun and engaging — not the personality test and lecture bit — if we want people to want to participate in a meaningful manner. To create a truly magical experience, we have to observe and record to learn what works in the new hybrid workplace and reject what does not. And we must never forget that while physicality may be a thing of the past, virtuality presents opportunities and avenues for exploration that in-person cannot.

Team building is not about trust falls or a rope tug-of-war; it never really was, even in the pre-pandemic era — and it is not the case in the hybrid workplace of today and tomorrow. The bottom line is to effectively provide experiences that encourage everyone to work together and use their brains to achieve a common objective, regardless of where they may physically be. The way forward is to study the evidence, behavior, and data and use it to create a team-building strategy in step with the times.  I&FMM

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