Team Building Activities That Actually Work

Forget the ropes course. These ideas will actually bring you closer to co-workers and help you work better as a team.
February 05, 2012

You may be familiar with team-building events that promise to generate team spirit and a healthier company culture but actually produce annoyance and ill feelings. Like me, you may have suffered through a ropes course—or worse—but came no closer to your co-workers.

Theoretically, team-building activities help employees work more effectively in teams, which should lead to better performance. For example, over the past 15 years Ken Wolf, CEO of Revelwood Inc., has encouraged teamwork by bringing together employees from all over the United States for events such as an amazing race through Disney World or a desert survival simulation. He points to better collaboration, communication, problem-solving and group decision-making with colleagues and clients as direct benefits.

Team building can also have a measurable impact on business operations:

  • Lessons learned and skills acquired are directly applicable to the workplace.
  • The CEO’s business philosophy is reflected in the design of the team building activity.
  • Teamwork is valued in the company culture.

To give you an idea of the results you could expect and why certain activities resonate, I asked a few business owners and execs to share their team building stories.

Gains in customer satisfaction and increases in sales

Heather Bennett, vice president of Marketing for M5 Networks, a VoIP provider of business phone systems and applications, reports that her company made “tremendous gains in customer satisfaction (as measured by our Net Promoter Score)” and grew sales without expanding the sales force.

The company sponsored a series of team-building activities called “M5 Rock,” and worked with School of Rock to execute the program—which involved music instruction for employees and culminated in a battle-of-the-bands event. The team exercises were designed to achieve a specific goal: improve each employee’s ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

“We were trying to make the point that learning a new skill requires time, patience and practice,” says Bennett. “We want people to apply these same learning methods to the skills they need to get better at their jobs and add value to M5 Networks. Specifically, our company and market space is growing and changing, and we often need to call on our employees to get out of their comfort zones and try something radically different. Efficient learning is key to making this happen.”

New strategic relationship and growth in customers

Andrea Manfredi, founder and CEO of SuperMoney, an online multi-product aggregator that connects its customers to financial-services offers, tells me that his company has reaped tangible benefits in a couple of ways.

First, SuperMoney landed a relationship with Fineco, a leading bank in Italy. A team within the company quickly delivered results on a high-pressure, time-sensitive project, overcoming the bank’s concerns about the size of his firm. In addition, customers (defined as active users who complete a transaction in a particular month) grew from 200,000 to 300,000 without a significant increase in advertising.

When Manfredi earned his MBA from INSEAD and served as a consultant for Bain & Co., he discovered that working long hours and solving complex problems with colleagues helped forge tight bonds, even closer than the ones with friends. His goal was to create similar experiences for his employees.

SuperMoney stages “Play Hard—Work Hard” events that are held after a full workday, when employees take a chartered bus to an offsite location. There, they play games until early morning, then rest for a couple of hours, and finally go back to work at about 10 a.m. On the second day, employees are tired but learn to work together in a stressful setting.

“Difficult times create more passion and connection than easy times,” says Manfredi. “If you go through tough moments together, you bond much more with each other; if you play normal games at normal hours, the typical [offsite] team building activity, it is useless!”

New product innovation

Paul J. Bailo, founder and CEO of Phone Interview Pro, a career services provider specializing in teaching clients how to perform well in phone interviews, shares that teamwork led to the design of their online education program PIP EDU. The new product came about as a result of a lunchtime conversation in which employees talked freely, had fun, thought about possibilities and shared ideas.

He considers experiential team-building activities unnatural as they require participants to strive for a goal that really isn’t theirs. Instead, he holds conversations over breakfast, lunch or dinner with his direct reports, leads “Team Time” sessions, and asks his management team to do the same.

The purpose of these regular face-to-face sessions is to enjoy a great conversation in a relaxed environment and connect with each other.

“I meet with my direct reports and individual team members,” says Baillo. “I try to spend more time with my direct reports so they can share, feel and execute my vision…The key to success is [an] open, direct line of communication. The manager needs to establish a trusting relationship with their direct report and be able to offer ‘real’ helpful advice that would add value to the staff member. If the manager cannot achieve this goal… they are not doing their job. I want hearts, minds, and souls coming to work…fully engaged ready to do great work. [The goal is] growth…to help the employee grow and to help the company grow.”

Pre-packaged team-building events usually don’t build better teams. But well-considered activities shaped by CEOs, synced with corporate culture, and relevant to the way the company works, can deliver real benefits: new products, more customers, better relationships and higher sales.

Julie Rains is a senior writer at Wise Bread, a leading personal finance community dedicated to helping people get the most out of their money. Get daily money tips by following Wise Bread on Facebook or Twitter.

Image credit: iStockphoto