Team-building activities have a polarizing reputation. A majority of companies have them, spending billions of dollars a year for programs designed to create stronger teams. The reason is, when done right, team-building is a great way to improve employee motivation, productivity and communication, build trust, and help develop problem-solving skills. When done wrong, you end up with unhappy employees who think the activity feels inauthentic, consider it a waste of their valuable work time, and aren’t giving it their full attention and participation.
When I am asked for a team-building exercise, two of the questions I always ask are, “What are you trying to accomplish?’ Team-building is so broad – it can mean a fun activity where you and your team let off steam, or it can be something that deepens the connection and knowledge between members of the team. It’s really important to understand what you want out of the experience and the group of people you’re working with.
Here are five tips to optimize your team-building exercises:
Set context and tangible goals
Part of developing team-building exercises is taking a high-level look at what you want to accomplish. Is this part of a one-day event where you have a limited amount of time, or do you have three to four days? How much do you need to accomplish? Do you have a brand new team? These are key questions to think about as they will affect what you can and can’t do.
If it’s a new team, for example, the exercises are probably going to be different than those for a team that has been together for a number of years. Also, I always tell people that they have to know what success looks like – will people feel more comfortable with each other? Will they know each other better? Will there be big smiles on their faces? That will help guide the types of activities and exercises the team participates in.
Get out of the office environment
Weekend retreats can be fun, but there’s no correlation between length of time and developing stronger teams. The benefit of leaving the office for team-building is that it minimizes distractions. When I try to train people in the office, they might have people coming to interrupt them or they’re going back to their desks. It’s really hard for them to disconnect and be present.
You don’t need three or four days, but some time away from the office allows you to disconnect and be present, and that’s a huge part of making the activity successful.
Understand the individuals on the team
When planning activities, think about the people on your team. A manager should be aware of people’s likes, abilities and interests.
A few years ago, I planned an activity that involved an escape room. I knew even as I planned it that there was no way I could do it because I have some anxiety. Then someone came forward and said that there was no way they could do it because they have anxiety and claustrophobia. You have to be thoughtful about whether people have limitations that could prevent them from participating.
Daily actions build strong teams
One of the requests I receive most often in the context of training teams is, “I have half an hour. Can you give me a really awesome training exercise?” The truth is, you’re not going to be able to build a strong team in half an hour, and it doesn’t happen through monthly or yearly activities.
The greatest impact you can have as a leader creating a team is through what you do every day. Does your team feel that there is equity in how you assign projects or on how you reward work? How does your team communicate? Is there trust between each member? These are all the things that happen on a daily basis that really make a team.
Strive for meaningful communication
Team-building is fundamentally about communication. When people come to me to help them resolve conflict in their team, it’s really them asking me to fix the communication issue. There are many powerful tools that can help with that. At Ceridian, we have Team Relate which we use to help people understand each other’s communication styles, how they interact and what motivates them, and provides insight into team strengths and dynamics.
This shouldn’t stop you from taking your team out for drinks or to a baseball game. Having fun is part of a successful team. Just keep in mind that team-building is not a one-off activity with a nebulous goal. It’s an ongoing exercise that should be personalized to your team with measurable goals.