When you think of team building, you likely think of awkward group activities like the trust fall or tug-of-war. Many of these activities supposedly work by fostering shared experiences and helping to establish trust.
But how do people actually feel about team building activities? While we know that team building exercises are generally effective for increasing collaboration, not everyone a) enjoys participating in them, and b) reports finding them personally effective.
For instance, according to a survey of 1,000 British workers, most of whom had participated in some type of team building exercise, only 54% said that participating in more of these activities would help strengthen their relationship with their colleagues.
The survey also found that certain types of activities were reported as being the least effective. For instance, adrenaline-inducing activities like bungee jumping, and trust exercises like being blindfolded by a colleague, were found to be least effective.
Overall, workers reported valuing everyday team building strategies over contrived activities: “This research confirms that people place more value on open, collaborative and flexible ways of working every day than one-off team-building exercises.”
This leaves business owners and managers in an awkward situation: wanting to increase collaboration among workers, but not wanting to force them to engage in gimmicky games or activities.
This post will look at what the research tells us about which team-building exercises actually work to increase collaboration. While some of these may not look like your typical, structured team building activities, they’re more likely to elicit an accurate collaborative response from your staff.
1. Schedule team breaks for the same time
One study published in the Harvard Business Review looked at a number of teams across various industries to see if they could identify what made a successful team. Using electronic badges, they tracked methods of communication – both verbal and non-verbal -– as well as whom each person chose to talk to.
What they found was that teams who communicated well outside of formal meetings were the ones who performed best. In fact, energy and engagement outside of meetings accounted for 1/3 of the variations in productivity between groups.
To see if they could replicate this type of engagement, researchers suggested that one call center change their workers’ schedules so teams would be off at the same times. This would hopefully give teammates more time to talk and connect socially outside of formal group activities.
The experiment paid off: Average handling times fell by 8% overall in the call center, and a whopping 20%+ among the lowest-performing teams.
If you’re looking for a simple but effective way to increase collaboration, build in time and opportunity for team members to socialize together outside of formal meetings. It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture like a company picnic or staff retreat (your staff are unlikely to appreciate these anyway). It could be as simple as scheduling their breaks at the same time.
2. Provide opportunities to volunteer together
According to a Wakefield Research study commissioned by Citrix, an effective team building exercise should provide an opportunity to bolster collaboration and help teammates unwind together.
One way the study’s authors suggest doing this is by giving members the opportunity to volunteer together outside of work. According to Dr. David W. Ballard of the American Psychological Association, activities that require groups to lend a helping hand not only bring teams together, but help individual team members recharge.
He writes, “In addition to being a good corporate citizen, employers can feel confident knowing that research suggests that participating in volunteer activities outside of the office can help employees recover from work and come back re-energized.”
When deciding which types of volunteer activities to participate in, be sure to consult with your team members. What causes are they passionate about? Are they able to volunteer outside of work hours, or do family obligations make this untenable? Be flexible to the needs and desires of your workers before jumping in.
Possible volunteer opportunities that are ideal for groups include:
- Helping out at the local food bank
- A charity run or bike ride
- Working for Habitat for Humanity for a weekend
- Cleaning up a park or abandoned lot
- Staffing a local event like a children’s charity drive
3. Organize activities that help build social sensitivity
Social sensitivity is an extremely important element of successful teams. It’s this trait that allows members to recognize and acknowledge another’s feelings, even when those feelings aren’t verbalized.
In a group where members lack this trait, feelings of frustration or anger may be ignored or not acknowledged – either because it’s too uncomfortable or because no one has even noticed.
While individual intelligence levels have often been thought to strongly correlate with high performance levels, social sensitivity seems to be an even more important factor for team performance.
One of the most effective ways to facilitate strong social sensitivity within a group is to set the stage for conversational ‘turn-taking.’ While many groups operate under the ‘free for all’ method (anyone can speak at any time), this strategy may not be effective in groups where social sensitivity is naturally low.
Instead, consider implementing more structured turn-taking in the formal group setting. Directing questions to individuals can also work, so long as individuals are allowed to decline to answer. Going around the circle when asking for feedback can also work as can following a structured agenda.
In the book, “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” by Liz Wiseman, the listing method is suggested as a way to address social sensitivity. Managers create a list of names of participants in the meeting and scratch off names during each meeting as the participants speak. This ensures that everyone gets to talk at least once.
4. Use competitive exercises, but not against internal teams
Traditional team building exercises often involve teams being pitted against other teams. The idea is that a shared mission or goal will result in increased feelings of togetherness, thereby increasing group collaboration.
And while competitive exercises can work to build community, they also have the potential to backfire. In their book, Learning, Remembering, Believing: Enhancing Human Performance, Daniel Druckman and Robert A. Bjork caution managers and team leaders to make sure teams aren’t competing against other, internal teams. According to the research, this often leads to dissension and animosity within the organization – not a result you want from team building exercises.
Takeaway: Never pit internal teams or departments against each other! Setting up a competition with an external company will ensure your team’s competitive energy is directed outwardly, rather than at the people or teams they’re supposed to be bonding with.
5. Share meals together
If you want to get your workers excited about team building, offer them a free meal! Sharing meals, whether at work or outside the office, can go a long way toward building community and increasing connection.
Our Wednesday catered lunches have brought the team closer together and allowed us to bond over non-work interests. Since we began these lunches, I have noticed that the team is more open, more collaborative, and more energetic.
One study looked at a group of workers who regularly share meals together as part of their jobs: firefighters. They found that this simple act resulted in a significant positive improvement in group performance.
According to researchers, there are a number of ways eating together generates positive effects:
It increases collaboration between employees who would otherwise never engage.
It increases productivity, as less time is spent traveling to get lunch off-site.
It encourages healthy eating, which in turns reduces both absenteeism and insurance costs.
Keep in mind that you can achieve these same effects without investing in costly banquets or restaurant meals. Simply providing a warm and inviting area in which to eat may be enough to entice many workers to eat together.
In fact, if you look at the subjects in this study – firefighters – you see a group of workers who plan and prepare their own meals without any involvement from management. This “food culture” is completely self-managed, and results in strong feelings of closeness and camaraderie between team members.
Team building helps teams develop the skills and connections they need to collaborate effectively. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone wants to participate in team building games or events, which can seem gimmicky and contrived.
Be sensitive to what your team wants, and is able to do. If they’re up for a more structured activity outside of work time (i.e., a day of volunteering or some competitive games), then great. But, for those who prefer less contrived options, you still have options that can effectively facilitate collaboration.
Originally Published on Huffington Post’s Contributor platform by contributor Ekta Sahasi June 24, 2016.
Ekta Sahasi is Vice President of the US Business Innovation Center (BIC) for Konica Minolta in Foster City, Ca. She is an entrepreneur and technologist passionate about leading fundamental business and cultural transformation, and investing in new ventures and technologies across diverse industries. The BIC partners with leading technology companies to create new world-class software, services and a portfolio of new businesses capabilities for Konica Minolta. Prior to joining Konica Minolta, Ekta spent 10 years at eBay Inc. where she co-founded and led both eBay and PayPal’s Research and Innovation Labs. She successfully developed one of the largest corporate innovation programs, and experimented with emerging technologies.