Teambuilding Without Oil Drums and Planks

You know, I have never built a bridge out of oil drums and planks in my life — I feel left out. I wish I had been on more teambuilding events. What I have noticed is that larger companies do more of this, probably due to that extra spare cash sloshing about. Small companies don’t do much teambuilding at all, but interestingly, have an innate team ethic due to their small size. A company with 5 employees will naturally be more cohesive than a large corporation because they are physically closer and tend to know everyone and everything that is going on.

Actually it’s ok not to do teambuilding if you think your team is “well gelled” already. However, for most people working in larger SMEs and bigger, some well thought through teambuilding can have dramatic positive results on the department.

Humans have a tendency to be “glass half empty” about the unknown, especially in the competitive working world. I have witnessed dozens of examples of staff members coming up with negative perceptions of others, without any evidence as backup. Regularly this perception is factually wrong and stems mainly from people not knowing each other well enough. It’s much easier to be critical of someone you don’t know. The foundation of all department performance is good inter-inter-personal (as opposed to intra-inter-personal — get me? Probably not) relations. Put simpler, people have to know each other — their families; their hobbies; interests; family history etc. Be aware, you cannot force anybody to divulge information about themselves — some people are more private than others. Generally though, taking the staff out for a meal or a drink (not during working hours of course) will break all those social barriers and lay the first stone of the team’s foundations. This may sound like I’m stating the bleeding obvious, but you would be surprised at the number of managers who don’t even get this. I’m afraid the working world is full of bad managers, but more on that in a future article.

Everyone loves a jolly right? If your company can afford it then these are great social barrier breakers. Some competition in the department is healthy, but just be aware that a “competitive” jolly could cause some small riffs. If you have two highly competitive people then put them together as a pair, so they work as a team rather than against each other. As time goes on and their relationship strengthens, you can experiment to see how they perform on opposing teams. Interestingly this will provide insights into their behaviours and could form part of a future development plan if you spot weaknesses. You should use teambuilding as an opportunity to observe your staff but don’t walk round with a clipboard making comments or noises like “mm, interesting” or “uh-huh”. If the staff know they are being observed then they will act differently and not relish the event fully (it’s essential your staff should enjoy themselves). There are oodles of competitive “jolly” events like off-road driving, clay pigeon shooting, karting, bowling and golf. Non-competitive activities are possible, but not as prevalent to buy on the internet. You could go for a hike; fly sports kites; team crocheting (I’ve managed to get crocheting into 2 articles now — “So what?” I hear you say) or fishing (you have to know that all team members are prepared to push a hook through a maggot).

Although jollies are fun and have some social use, they don’t require your staff to work together (a team!) to deliver something.

I have played a number of paper based or verbal teambuilding games. Although interesting, I don’t believe they deliver a positive experience. In most of the games, the team will fail because the games don’t have enough instructions and you have to get into the mind-set of the creator, which is impossible. Usually, teams learn of their failings afterwards and how they should of done it differently, which is not a positive reinforcer. I once did a day out driving various quick cars. One instructor spent his whole time telling us that we were missing the apex, braking and accelerating at the wrong point etc etc. In essence he just criticised without telling us how to do it properly (I think he had a whole bag of chips on his shoulder because his racing career had come down to showing novices how to drive round an airfield!). Another instructor was brilliant — an older, laid back, guy, who just told us how to go quicker. Everyone enjoyed that experience more than any of the other instructors.

I once took my team to a recording studio, which was surprisingly cheap. Their task was to write the song and lyrics, play the instruments and record the song in 3 days. Initially they were daunted because none of them played instruments (that’s why I chose it), but it didn’t take long before they were helping each other with their chosen tasks. Ultimately they learnt a lot about how to work together, had a great time and had a (admittedly quite bad) song they could take away.

Teambuilding should push people’s comfort barrier, but within reason. You can’t expect someone to abseil down The Shard if they have vertigo and certainly don’t enter your team into the next marathon if they are predominantly donut eaters.

The best (and cheapest) way of teambuilding is at work. Every organisation can provide opportunities for groups to come together to produce a useful outcome and build the team dynamic. One of the most fruitful ways is to get people involved in a project outside of their normal job remit because they will relish the opportunity to do something different. Does the office need re-painting? Create a vegetable patch (we did this). Reorganise the office. Setup a cost saving scheme.

During my time as an IT Manager for a large corporation, we had to install the IT equipment and move staff into new offices over a dozen times. I used this as a perfect opportunity to teambuild. I would bring in the whole team to work over a weekend (and I never had any issues with this), work long days to a set plan and then socialise in the evening. The only cost to the company was accommodation and meals, which was cost effective because the job had to be done anyway. The sense of camaraderie was high and resulted in a fruitful, productive outcome. The team bonds were strengthened in the long term and I could watch my staff behaviours (without a clipboard!).

Duncan Andrews