Ask a table of professionals what their favorite team-building activities have been and you will hear a resounding groan. Loathing such corporate BS will unite people, of course. But sometimes a group really does need to shake things up to improve morale, foster relationships among workers, or gather momentum behind an initiative.
Here are five team-building activities that won’t elicit disdain and just might work:
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A cooking class can bring out even the most intro- of the introverts in your company.
“It got the team talking about where our skills were in the kitchen, which we were more open to discussing as it was separate from our ‘work skills,’” says Matt Bomberger, director of portfolio analytics for a VC firm, of an Iron Chef-style exercise. Focusing on the activity allows conversation and bonding to happen naturally.
“The small groups gave us opportunities to chat more than we do at work, and I learned things about co-workers that I hadn't known before,” says Laura Clark, senior editor at parenting website Mom.me. If all else fails, at least you have a (hopefully) delicious meal to eat at the end of the activity.
“Hi, this is George from Contracts in Boston. Remember how we both sucked at bowling? LOL! So, about that draft I emailed you last week…”
Engaging in sports with your coworkers can be a gamble. Erin Mercer, SPHR, an HR consultant who has planned many team-building activities, says “It depends on the culture of the company. For the active staff of a golf course, a sporting event is a perfect fit, even if some employees don’t know how to play, as long as they have a sense of humor about it.” But that might not be right for workers in a more sedentary industry.
Bowling, however, is the great equalizer, where people of all types and levels of physical fitness can get involved. Bonus if there is a social space at the alley where employees can mix and mingle if they aren’t interested in actually playing in a game. Kathy Tracy, a senior manager for Covidien, found bowling to be a win for the company’s worldwide legal meeting.
“It turned out to be quite fun and a way for folks to talk to others (including leadership) from around the globe and different areas,” she says. “When you can sit with people and find common ground that is not work related, it makes phoning someone to ask questions so much easier.”
Nothing makes people feel better than when they are helping someone else. Every Thanksgiving, employees at the Cheesecake Factory home office are invited to bring their families and serve dinner to the homeless at the Salvation Army in downtown Los Angeles. Michelle Bomberger’s Equinox Law Group has participated in Habitat For Humanity building projects.
“In professional services, they might hate the fact that you’re taking away from their productive time, but they’ll enjoy it nevertheless,” she says. Tracy’s legal department sponsors families during the holidays, shopping for gifts and spending an afternoon wrapping them together. Volunteer work doesn’t even have to be off-site - it can be a toy collection or diaper drive in the office.
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For larger organizations, it does help to bring far-flung departments together so they can get to know each other better. But instead of an awkward cocktail party, structured networking gives participants clear expectations. Speed Networking works like speed dating: there are set questions so there’s no pressure to be creative, and there is a time limit with each person.
In Networking Bingo, everyone gets a Bingo card, but on each square is a characteristic, like "Middle name begins with M," or "Has met 3 famous people," or "Has gone skydiving." The person who meets enough coworkers who have those characteristics to fills in his grid first wins. You might have seen your child come home from school with a Bingo card like this. Guess what - he now knows the names of every kid in his class.
Jackie Titus, head of strategy at marketing agency Artemis Ward, finds that casual celebrations, like karaoke night with dinner where seasoned execs take part just as fervently as the young recruits, help to relax interactions between management and staff.
“What I have noticed about team building is that the forced programs do not work,” she observes. Events designed to “thank” the whole company, like an outing to a baseball game, or a surprise food truck lunch, or even a meditation program, can foster organic interactions among people. They’re team-building without even knowing it.
It helps if you build a culture of cooperation and teamwork from the ground up. “If you have to do a team-building event, then you don’t have a team,” says Cat Lincoln, co-founder and CEO of social media agency Clever Girls Collective. Having suffered through many well-meaning team-building activities in previous jobs, she is happy to see her company of 25 growing a collaborative spirit through regular activities.
Because they all work remotely, the employees meet in person once a month for a company meeting, where managers publicly celebrate “Props,” the accomplishments of individuals that uphold their mission statement tenets: Innovate, Elevate, and Be Fierce. “Everyone is so excited for each other,” Lincoln says. “I never played sports growing up, but now I understand what it feels like to be on a winning team.”