An associate of mine tells the story of a former employer that sent the whole company out to a fancy resort so that they could, among other things, form teams that built boats out of Styrofoam. All that she learned from the exercise was that computer engineer skills don’t translate to practical boat design — and that great working relationships are not necessarily built based on a few days of manufactured fun outside of the office.
I’m not discounting the possibility that professionally-designed team-building activities can successfully build close ties. But, it’s just as possible that a more practical approach that’s directly connected to the actual work can be very effective.
Why force team building?
People are social animals by nature. Sometimes, however, they will actually fight their nature when forced into artificial team-building activities. Instead, try to make meetings more sociable, as formal business meetings can intimidate people who are not comfortable sharing ideas outside of their immediate group. Try to hold meetings in unusual locations or spaces. This can be a room with comfy chairs instead of a formal conference room. Even a restaurant provides a setting for some informal chatter and relationship building before diving into agendas.
Arrange inter-departmental activities.
Company departments commonly work in their own vacuums. They work together exclusively and they typically sit in the lunch room in tightly-knit groups. To develop a true team, create activities that will break down department walls. Cross-functional team members typically share new perspectives. This gives everyone a wider viewpoint that benefits every project.
Take this tactic one step further by including multiple departments not just in activities, but also in meetings. Where you might have only invited the Consulting Department in the past, include the Accounting Department members who will eventually be affected by a given project, along with anyone else who can provide meaningful input. Regardless of how they get together, members of all departments share a variety of perspectives. Team expansion helps set projects along the right path from the beginning, while anticipating and avoiding potentially major issues down the road.
Turn real-life issues into games.
Rather than relying on boat-building or any other artificial situations to build remote teams, why not create camaraderie within the actual things that you do every day? Sometimes, the best way to know your employees — and help them get to know each other — is through real-life situations.
Let’s say that your custom software business wants to expand to include a line of off-the-shelf products. Your sales people know the features that customers commonly request. Since your programmers create the custom products, they also have a good idea of universal customer needs, along with possible serious issues that can arise during the development process. Would an idea contest develop a better new product?
Create teams from both departments (and any other departments that might have meaningful viewpoints). Give each team a list of product must-haves and give them a specific time-frame to come up with ideas that will develop the perfect product. Don’t be surprised if all teams win the game; you often benefit most when you take one idea from Column A and another from Column B.
This is a win-win-win game. Your employees enhance cross-departmental working relationships. The company benefits from well-developed product ideas. And, customers benefit when they save money by buying the products that they truly need off-the-shelf.
Design space for interactivity.
If you and your team appreciate a bit of peace and quiet, then you probably want to avoid an open office design in your workplace. Still, this doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate team-building into workplace design.
Create unique spaces, whether they hold games, relaxation chairs or other sociable elements for workers to benefit from taking a break and getting to know each other.
Work relationships, like any other relationships, take time to build, but you can do this through a few changes to workflow. This can be the best strategy for team building at a fraction of the cost of hiring someone to take everyone to build boats at overpriced resorts.
Carol Roth is a radio host on WGN, a CNBC TV contributor, a ‘recovering’ investment banker & a bestselling author of The Entrepreneur Equation. You can find her on Twitter @CarolJSRoth or at www.CarolRoth.com. She also has an action figure made in her likeness.