Full disclosure: If the people on your team don’t get on, have long-standing disagreements or personality clashes or if the leadership of the team is flawed you will not put it right with a “team building” activity, however much fun it is.
There, now that’s out of the way we can work on our relationship. That might be hard because you don’t know me, or it could be that you have doubts about my knowledge or experience. Bit like the problems you might have between individuals on your team.
So, what can we do about it?
Well, what we won’t be doing is building a raft, walking on fire, learning how to survive in the woods, go paintballing or booking a round of golf. I could go on at length about each of these, but done badly they amount to variations on compulsion, workplace bullying, appealing to misplaced macho cultural posturing or creating an environment that excludes others. Similarly, we won’t be insulting you with some pointless, time-filling “busy time” that will be retro-fitted with vague “what did you find out about each other while you did that” questions.
That last point is something that has come up many times for us. The conversation goes like this:
“We have a morning of content from the team leaders that carries on until just after lunch, but we need a fun team building exercise for about two hours at the end of the day.”
“I see. So, what areas would you like to look at?”
“We just want to bring them closer together and let them have some fun after a lot of being talked at.”
You don’t want a “team building exercise” because you have no concept of where any team dysfunctions might be sitting. What you want is a two-hour filler because you have run out of content and you don’t want to send them to the bar that long before dinner.
That gripe aside, let’s assume that you genuinely have a sense that all is not well in your team dynamic, or at least it could be better. An off-the-shelf activity is unlikely to address that, much less put it right. If you could build a team in such a short period, we would all be successful football managers and pre-season training could start a couple of days before the first scheduled fixture.
The reality is that the team building exercise is not the thing that will build your team. The insights and the conversations that happen while it is going on are where the magic happens. The point where somebody realises what they are saying and doing, or not saying and doing, is having an effect on the people around them and the success of the activity they are undertaking.
To get to this point you need something that in some way replicates the area where you think the team are not operating at their best. Do they have trouble trusting other people? Give them something that requires trust and delegation. Are their hand-offs between departments and individuals suspect? Let’s explore that then. Unless you work for Robin Hood International, Sharon from Finance won’t understand the pressures of Dave from Procurement by bonding over a team archery challenge.
The secret to a good team building activity is understanding the roles, pressures and characters in your team and finding ways to help each person express how these factors affect them in a safe and non-judgemental, non-confrontational environment. That doesn’t mean to say that you have to turn up with detailed psychological profiles of each person and a breakdown of their workflows and interactions. In fact, if you did, they would probably be wrong. They would be based on your external perspective, not the team’s lived reality.
The trick is to have an activity or an exercise that is close enough to the high-pressured world of work that they know but is fun and light-touch in the way that it is presented. You then run it, let people play in this safe world and then – crucially – let them talk about what they saw, felt and experienced and help them apply these insights to make their team stronger.
In our considerable experience we have found that by avoiding suggestions that “team building” is a thing, and instead giving people an engaging activity framed by our approach of context (“this is why we’re doing this”), experience (the activity itself) and reflection (“what made the task work better or worse”) your team can enjoy a shared activity, lose themselves in it… and in so doing find things out about themselves, their colleagues and their relationships that build them as a team rather than foist the notion of “team building” on them.
There’s a subtle difference.
Humans are social animals. Your virtual team meetings just will not cut it. Sorry.
How social? Well, very social… but in a fickle way.
If you have time, you can undertake this experiment. Grab a piece of paper and write on it the names of all the people in your life that mean something special to you. We’re talking about individuals that if you heard that they had died it would be devastating news. It might take some time, but I doubt, if you are completely honest, that you will get above 200-250 names. Even if you don’t write the list of names and you just do it in your head, I bet few of you think of the person you sat next to in Junior School or the next door neighbour you had two moves ago. Many of you won’t include the names of the people you worked alongside three or four jobs ago, even if you worked closely with them for years.
There’s even a name for this. It’s called Dunbar’s Number. (He puts your figure at 150, but I’m assuming that you are extra-specially sociable.)
Now think about the distancing of the past few months. The anti-social distancing, if you like. Even if you consider yourself an introvert, like your own company and have quietly relished not having to interact with your work colleagues outside of a Zoom call, chances are that you are missing out on the benefits of working in a team in a multitude of ways and the bonds that hold your workplace together have become weaker.
You might not think so. From conversations we have had, many people are doing back-to-back virtual calls, but the ubiquitous video call is no substitute for actual face-to-face conversation in the real world. We have all grown up subconsciously “reading” each other for meaning - from tiny little cues and micro-expressions, from where you look, how often you blink, crinkles around the eyes… even the position of your feet. Aside from the distractions of the room that you are in, the lure of “just checking my emails while I listen”, and the very human tendency to check out how you look in the small image in the corner of the screen, rather than make “eye contact” - camera contact - with the person to whom you are talking (come on, own up, we’ve all done it…) it’s just not the same.
We’ve been talking to a lot of our contacts recently about the growth of this virtual culture. Many of them admit to either not joining online conferences or joining and having it on “in the background”. Again, this is learnt behaviour – we have all grown up with a similar attitude to our televisions. We can easily zone-in and zone-out of the news, or a film, or a documentary and your brain will readily swap the buffer of the TV screen for that of your computer.
Moving on from the challenges of the medium (and “Zoom culture” is a true medium, in that it is neither rare nor well done!), working in your own home office mini-silo is disruptive and deleterious to creativity. In a radio interview on the Emma Barnett Show on BBC Radio 5 Live on September 22nd 2020, Carolyn Fairburn, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry spoke of the damage long-term isolation can do to creativity and innovation – you can’t plan the future of your business sitting on your sofa.
This brings us to a kind of impasse. On one hand, while the virus is out of control people do not want to meet, but the technology that obviates travel and face-to-face meetings isn’t always fit for purpose, particularly when you want to come up with new ways of working in the future that are better than those of the past. Our contention is that if you want to be more creative, find ways to interact creatively.
Office interactions are varied; stimuli are subtle and prevalent; unexpected things happen that pique your interest and spark ideas and conversations. They are not a TV show with a face on a screen that talks and shows slides for an hour. If you wouldn’t watch it on your TV at home, why should anyone engage with it on your computer?
And before you think you’ve cracked it, the answer is not another Zoom quiz. Engaging people is not discovering that they don’t know the title of the first song played on Radio 1 or that they can’t name the sixteen regional offices operated by your firm. It’s harder than that.
We’re still sick of boring meetings, and we still think you should be too. Especially if you’re attending from your sofa.
If you need help shaking things up, check out our suite of team building exercises for your virtual and face-to-face meetings here.