Team building – two words that fill you and your employees with either excitement or dread. As the year comes to an end and you look back at the team bonding programs offered in your organisation, fingers crossed you feel that your staff enjoyed coming together for group activities and that the programs really benefited your business. For many employees, however, the thought of joining team building exercises only evokes memories of dangling cords, climbing gyms, trust falls and stress.

Originally started to improve groups’ interpersonal relations and social interactions in the 60s, team-building activities have gained popularity over the last 5 years. However, there has been an upsurge of fun-centred team-building activities that have attracted their fair share of bad press. Try googling and you will see examples such as building your “dream” racing cars, attending a cooking masterclass or learning martial arts. Why then do leaders continuously subject their employees to meaningless team-building activities?

This is perhaps due to the critical role teams are playing in our ever-changing environment. Facing the imminent threat of being uberized from disruptors, more and more organisations are increasingly organizing their staff into teams (e.g. cross-functional, virtual or remote) to remain agile, flexible and responsive. Therefore, leaders are now very keen to foster better communication, climate and collaboration among their employees.

Internationally, companies are reportedly spending a huge amount of time and money on team-building. Take the UK as an example. In 2016, British companies spent over £200 million on these activities to boost their employees’ morale. Despite its growing popularity, there is surprisingly very little attention by the scientific community to truly understand whether team-building really works.

Only recently Klein and his colleagues at the University of Central Florida and Army Research Institute conducted a meta-analysis of more than 100 published articles in 2009 to comprehensively investigate the effectiveness of team-building. Their results pointed to team-building having a greater impact on certain outcomes over others. Specifically, it works better for affective (e.g. trust, camaraderie) and process (e.g. coordination, communication) outcomes.

More is certainly needed to understand how firms can better utilize team-building activities to drive performance outcomes. But for now, it does appear that most leaders are content to throw money at frivolous team-building exercises to keep their employees happy. However, for those who are interested to lift their game, here are some ideas that you can consider to make your team-building activities really work. They are organised under the acronym PAY:

PAY: Purpose, Activities, Yield

Purpose: Focus on the goals being achieved through the team-building activity to better evaluate its appropriateness. If it’s about building trust, then getting your employees to engage in a highly competitive battle of paint-balls will certainly not achieve your end goals. Trust takes time to build and it’s not going to be gained instantaneously through a one-off team-building exercise.

Here are several questions that you can think about when setting objectives to achieve your outcomes:

  • What specific issues are you trying to resolve within your team?
  • Are you promoting better communication among your staff?
  • Are you trying to foster a higher competitive team spirit?
  • How can we get our staff to be more collaborative?

Activities: It’s best not to put your employees through excruciating silly team-building activities that everyone will dread. This will further entrench employees’ negative perceptions about these corporate exercises. Rather than subjecting your entire workforce through a one-size-fits-all event, it’s more appropriate to offer different activities to teams with specific needs. A highly competitive activity such as treasure hunt might be more suitable for the sales team to foster competitiveness. More regular social events such as barbecues are more appropriate for project teams to foster group cohesiveness.

The key is to create numerous different touch-points for employees to participate. Coercing or forcing employees to take part in only one type of team-building exercise has the potential to generate resentment leading to disengagement. Take, for instance, a company I know that got all its staff to compete in a singing contest – no doubt thanks to the popularity of American Idol, X-Factor and The Voice. That might have been fun for some participants but certainly not for those who were musically-challenged, who felt embarrassed and awkward having to perform in front of their bosses and colleagues.

Yield: I am always struck by leaders’ willingness to spend good money on team-building activities with no clue over the return on its investment. One suggestion that is worthwhile considering is to invest in a professional team-building facilitator to conduct a proper debrief session to make the link between the issues being explored and team behaviours during the exercise. You will be surprised at how many team building activities I’ve attended that I’ve failed to see how they improve the work I do.

To ensure that managers maximize value for money from their team-building, I’d like to recommend these 4 simple steps:

  1. Solicit ideas from team members before the event on what they would like to get the most out of their activities.
  2. Then work with a professional team-building specialist to design appropriate team building activities to achieve the goals.
  3. Administer a simple quantitative questionnaire, which measures the effectiveness of the activities against the goals, among the team members immediately after the event.
  4. Conduct the same survey 3-6 months post-event to determine the level of stickiness in terms of changed behaviours, improved relationships and increased productivity.

Companies are increasingly demanding current and future employees to possess strong capabilities on teamwork to further drive innovation, productivity and performance. So, it does PAY for leaders and managers to continuously focus on increasing the impact team-building activities have on their employees’ long-term success. When designed well, team-building days are invaluable in boosting overall team performance and effectiveness.

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