Holding Team-Building Events (for Employees who Hate Team Building)

Get the benefits of social cohesion at the office without cheesing off the introverts

For some of us, the very mention of team building is enough to make us want to call in sick. “Forced participation and ‘sharing’ shrivels my introvert’s heart,” says Heather Allen, a Halifax public servant.

Despite the common dread of this concept, done well, team building is highly effective and pretty much essential for most workplaces, especially those experiencing growth, or those stuck in some way. Organizing the right events and having an effective strategy in place to do this vital task is essential.

Here’s how to get the benefits of team building without alienating your colleagues and staff.

Be Cool

Thomas O’Neill, director of the Individual and Team Performance Lab at the University of Calgary’s department of psychology, says team building can be effective as long as you can do it in an engaging manner and aren’t wasting anyone’s time.

“If it gets weird that can send an awkward message to your staff.”

“Research from the MIT Media Lab on a large group of people working at a call centre found that when team members socialized more, productivity of the unit went up,” he says. “Presumably this was because they were just getting to know each other a little bit better and those social relationships then set the stage for higher task performance.”

If you’re forcing people to participate in activities that they perceive to be a complete drag or waste of their time though, there’s a high possibility the team-building event will be a spectacular fail. Some kind of activity in the woods where you all bond may sound fantastic to you, but will it really appeal to that socially awkward guy who barely speaks to his colleagues?

“You don’t want to do any weird team-building activities. If you’re going to have a facilitator, do a lot of screening because if it gets weird that can send an awkward message to your staff,” says O’Neill.

Help it Happen Organically

Team building doesn’t always have to happen in the form of organized events, and in fact you may have more luck getting people together simply by creating space for them to interact naturally.

In the MIT research project, team members were encouraged to socialize by reorganizing shifts in order for people to have lunch together. This may seem like a small thing but it works. Google does this at its offices, and provides lunch as further incentive for people to eat together, as do many other companies.

When REDspace, a successful digital studio in Halifax with more than 150 employees, moved into new offices, they were designed in a way that would encourage interaction and engagement between team members. Besides providing a kitchen stocked with snacks, there are tons of board games and games consoles that get used by groups of employees at lunch, and sometimes after work. This helps create a social and open environment that naturally leads to people getting to know each other, fostering an atmosphere of collaboration. O’Neill says spaces such as these allow for internal networking, and help enable people develop the relationships that they need to collaborate effectively.

“People are encouraged to find something that they’re interested in and be a bit entrepreneurial, to start a group, to run a game jam themselves, or start a board game night and to facilitate that sort of initiative,” says Mike Johnston, president and CEO of REDspace. “We live in an industry where we need to be constantly sharing knowledge and be constantly pulling people in to talk to each other, so we try to create the environment and let the seeds take root themselves.”

Provide Food (or Other Benefits)

There are of course plenty of formal opportunities to bring together, such as in team training days when everyone needs to learn a specific thing for the good of the organization. O’Neill says that when you pull together that learning with an element of socialization, you get team development, which can be very effective indeed. “You’re there to build the relationships between team members, but you’re also there to engage in helping the team identify strategies to get to the next level and realize their full potential,” he says.

REDspace does this through hosting weekly “tech shares,” where team members are encouraged to share new knowledge that might benefit others (such as a cool new piece of software they’ve been using), or “lunch and learns,” where pizza is brought in and everyone gets to see a presentation by one of the team. Johnston sees these meets as essential for everyone at REDspace to stay current, even if they aren’t creating billable hours for the company. “You need time to explore new technologies and mentor others. We try to make room for as much of that as we can,” he says.

Flight Centre has more than 1,000 employees across Canada, and creating a cohesive team is a big part of the company’s culture. One way in which that is fostered is to have regular Buzz Nights, which are used as a reward and recognition for employees. “The point is to come together for food and a drink or two, and really talk about what went well in a month, what was kind of tricky, and recognize the people who went above and beyond,” says Aaron Levine, an area leader for Flight Centre in Toronto.

These Buzz Nights aren’t on the clock, but are something that people really want to go to and look forward to, Levine says. What’s crucial in organizing them is keeping them fresh, and not always just falling back on free food and booze. “We’ve rented out a roller rink [and also] a movie theatre where we all watched an oddball movie with hotdogs and pop, we like to take them outside the box,” he says.

And the Buzz Nights are popular. Everyone wants to attend, even though there’s no pressure and it is totally cool if you can’t make it. Levine extols the benefits of putting on the events. “Employees feel like their hard work is being recognized, that they’re not just a number,” he says. “Most times that recognition comes in the form of a certificate and their name on the screen, but sometimes it involves a bottle of wine, and last year I took my top winners from the Buzz Nights to a Raptors game. We went in a limo, had great tickets, went for a steak dinner. It was great.”

Respect the Individual

With the best will in the world, not everyone is going to buy in to what you are trying to achieve. “You need to take the individual differences factor into account, and have some understanding of this and respect that decision in an autonomous way,” says O’Neill of the University of Calgary.

Having realistic expectations about how much people are going to want to participate is essential, especially with after-work social type activities. “Some people are very outgoing and social animals, so not only are they going to be there and enjoy it, they’re going to organize it for you. But then there are other personalities where it’s not a good fit, they’re a bit more down-to-business type people or they’re a bit more introverted, or they have a lot of other commitments,” O’Neill says.

The bigger issue is when people don’t want to participate because they can’t stand each other. An ice-cream social or a few free drinks isn’t going to fix that. In that case team building doesn’t make sense unless you fix those issues, and you probably want to get a facilitator in who can get to the bottom of what’s going on and work on those with the team.

Don’t Expect Instant Results

Even in functioning teams that get along, don’t expect immediate buy-in. “There is often resistance at the beginning, but once they see that this is a serious activity that is going to help them, the resistance tends to go away,” O’Neill says.

Knowing your team is going to help you determine what you need to get from team building and how to get there. What’s cool is that the research shows that the efforts do pay off, and when you get it right it increases not only a feeling of well-being in the workplace, but also drives efficiency. It’s a win for all involved. Go team.

Holding Team-Building Events (for Employees who Hate Team Building)
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