Team building activities are a common fixture in corporate budgets. Usually held offsite, may it be indoors or outdoors, a facilitator instructs the participants to run through an obstacle course or build the tallest structure from a set of materials.
These activities are varied, with the aim of building relationships and bolstering team spirit, which should ultimately lead to better collaboration and team performance. At best they are fun and inexpensive to run, at worst they are costly and a total waste of time. But are they really worth the time, money, and effort?
Lately there’s been a lot of arguments against team building activities. A Harvard Business Review article by Valdes-Dapena in 2018 headlined “Stop Wasting Money on Team Building”, and said that “Events like these may get people to feel closer for a little while; shared emotions can bond people. Those bonds, though, do not hold up under the day-to-day pressures of an organization focused on delivering results.”
Another headline only last month in Fast Company by Pollack and Matous says “Why team-building exercises are useless” and highlights that “one problem [in team building] is overcoming the natural human tendency to hang out with those people we already feel comfortable with.”
These research-backed treatises not only challenge the value of team building activities, but also point to the root cause of its failure or success – the individual participant.
Most individuals naturally tend to gravitate toward people they know – a psychological safety, which hinders relationship-building with others and contributes to the failure of a team building activity, according to Pollack and Matous.
On the other hand, Valdes-Dapena points to individual motivation as the culprit to the failure of team building activities. He stresses that “quality collaboration does not begin with relationships and trust; it starts with a focus on individual motivation.”
Hence, in designing and running team building activities, it’s important to think about how to break down the psychological safety of individual participants by clearly imparting the value of collaboration, on a personal and professional levels.
The ultimate goal of any team building activity should be to foster collaboration, a skill which the World Economic Forum dubbed as one of the skills of the future in the age of digitization and artificial intelligence. We define collaboration as where two or more people or organizations work together to realize or achieve a goal or project successfully. A Stanford study from a few years ago showed that teams that collaborated effectively experienced higher engagement levels, higher success rate, lower fatigue levels, with business impact persisting for several weeks.
Therefore, in the team building activities we run for organizations, which we call Collaborative Team Building, we use a five-step framework to ensure the success of the activity.
Firstly, we define the objectives of the collaborative team building activity with the executive sponsor. This is where we likewise educate the business executives on the importance of collaboration as the ultimate goal of the activity, and visualize the future state of the teams and organization.
Secondly, we baseline the collaboration level of the participants through quantitative online questionnaire and qualitative interviews and focus group discussion. This is where we evaluate the gaps and opportunities to improve collaboration.
Thirdly, we design the collaborative team building activities, outlining the need to clearly communicate with the participants the importance of collaboration and how it will help them achieve their personal and professional goals.
Fourthly, we run the collaborative team building activities, taking note of team dynamics and giving immediate feedback and coaching to the participants.
Lastly, we post-process the activities, integrate with other learnings, and provide recommendations to sustain collaboration in the workplace.
In many situations, we employ a digital tool to supplement face-to-face collaboration, taking into account the growing Generation Z and young Millennials in the workplace who are digital savvy.
Employing this methodology, we see significant improvements in collaboration in the workplace, resulting in ultimately achieving individual and team goals. It is, therefore, critical to be cognizant of the objectives of any team building activity, that is, to develop and foster collaboration, and not cloud it with lofty, vague words such as building trust and relationships.
The author is CEO of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation firm. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.