It’s time to reimagine what team building looks like.
There’s no shortage of team building horror stories out there: Whether pressured into sharing personal stories, participating in an uncomfortable physical activity, or mandatory after-hours socializing, team building has a reputation for being exhausting and miserable for many employees. If you’ve ever felt the light draining out of your eyes while trapped in a human knot with Roger from finance, you’re not alone. One study went as far as to call it “the bane of [an employee’s] workplace existence.”
It’s easy to understand why. Team building is so often associated with embarrassing, patronizing, “mandatory fun” activities that have been commonplace in the corporate world for decades. Trust falls, three-legged races, and other activities better suited to an elementary school classroom have been planned in futile efforts to get working professionals to collaborate better in their day-to-day work.
It turns out that these activities don’t do much to build teamwork in the long-term.
To get to the root of why team building activities are so dreaded for so many people, we need to examine whether the problem lies in the activity leadership chose, or the reason they’re scheduling the activity in the first place.
If you get to the root of these issues, you can refocus your team building activities to focus on building rapport rather than teamwork, and hopefully leave your team feeling energized, not drained.
Here are our six guidelines for organizing better team building activities.
Don’t use team building to fix culture problems
This is a big one, and it addresses the root why so many team building activities don’t land with employees. Many leaders organize team building activities as a means to correct a negative working environment, or to assuage ongoing conflicts among the team.
The harsh reality is that if your team isn’t working well together, no amount of escape rooms or chocolate tasting events are going to improve the situation.
Planning a team building activity to fix a cultural problem is a band-aid solution that ignores the responsibility of leadership in setting culture. It also infantilizes your team by suggesting that if they could only just learn to collaborate through a zipline course, they’ll work better together in the office. And employees can sense that subtext.
Before you ask your employees to participate in team building, you have to unpack the reason you want to do it in the first place. If it’s to address a serious communication or cultural issue, a team building activity isn’t going to fix that. These issues need to be addressed in an open, sincere, and constructive way if you want to improve a difficult working culture (though that’s a whole topic on its own).
Keep it voluntary, not mandatory
So what if your team is working together just fine, and you just want to organize a fun activity for an offsite event to build rapport?
The first thing you’ll need to know is that some people just don’t want to do team building activities at all, and that’s okay. The way you address that is by keeping team building voluntary.
Some people prefer to keep their personal and professional lives strictly separate, bristle at the idea of mandatory fun, or find team building too emotionally and mentally taxing on top of their work day. In one survey, 3 out of 5 employees reported feeling some degree of anxiety when participating in team bonding activities.
Some leaders may worry that making team building activities optional will mean lower turnout for the activity itself. However, the same survey found that employees were 3.6x more likely to participate in optional team bonding activities than mandatory ones.
It seems when the pressure is off the employee on whether to attend or not, they’re more likely to attend anyway. And those who don’t want to participate can have their needs met as well.
Make it brief and low stress
Team building doesn’t have to be highly structured or take hours to complete. In general, keeping the activity to an hour or less can make it feel less stressful for your team, and won’t take too much time away from getting work done.
Short-form team building can be leveraged for long days of collaborative brainstorming. For example, 15-minute brain breaks during a strategic offsite can be a great way to refresh the mind. Doing a round of “would you rather” questions with willing participants is one great way to break the ice with your coworkers without getting too personal. Getting a moment to get up and stretch can do wonders too. Famously, director Hayao Miyazaki does group calisthenics with his team every day.
Creative brain breaks can be great for team building too. The Lego Duck Challenge is a short, fun way to reset your brain after a long work session. Plus, you get to see the differences in how each person approaches the task of making a duck out of 6 Lego bricks. It’s a short, powerful activity that fosters creative thinking, analytical thinking, and perspective-taking.
Classes on Zoom are great options for relatively short team building exercises too. Painting or drawing, quick crafts, and cooking classes have a wide appeal and don’t require the team to have to travel somewhere just to participate. Plus, they’re great for remote teams—for cooking classes, just make sure you take into account any allergies and other restrictions your team may have, and ensure the program you’ve chosen can accommodate them.
Team building doesn’t have to be structured, either. Simply giving your team space to meet up casually, chat, and get to know one another on their own terms is also powerful team building. You can design these get togethers within a physical office or event space, or they can be built into your company’s internal messaging tool if you work in a remote workplace. This can look like a lounge in an office space with snacks and comfortable seating, or maintaining an active just-for-fun channel on Slack.
Prioritize inclusivity and accessibility
Imagine your team leader has organized a slate of fun activities for a particular workday:
- Team picnic (with gluten-free and vegan options)
- Mountain biking adventure on a scenic trail
- End bike ride at a local winery for a private tasting
To some, this might sound like a generous and fun day planned by leadership. It even makes accommodations for dietary restrictions, which is thoughtful. However, it has some oversights in the realm of accessibility and inclusion.
Centering team building around activities that involve physical exertion isn’t always an accessible choice. While an activity like mountain biking could work in some workplaces, you risk excluding those who can’t take on strenuous physical activity.
It’s also important to consider hidden disabilities when choosing an activity for your team. Just because someone “looks” able-bodied doesn’t mean they can go rock climbing or white-water rafting. Never assume a person’s physical ability.
The other issue is that the bike ride ends with a wine tasting: While it isn’t necessarily wrong for companies to provide alcohol at employee functions, making drinking the central activity of team building is exclusionary.
Tech has a notorious drinking culture, and it causes some friction for sober people in the industry. In one survey regarding the industry’s drinking culture, of the 35% of respondents who said they prefer not to drink at a work event, 22.3% said they’d avoid the work event entirely, and 11.5% said they’d pretend to drink at the event, which likely points to a cultural pressure to drink in tech.
Centering team building around alcohol can cause people who are sober to self-exclude from work events, and can be dangerous for those in recovery or frustrating for those who choose not to drink. That means you may be better off avoiding wine tastings, brewery tours, and cocktail-making classes. Because you never know who on your team abstains from drinking, it’s best not to assume drinking as the default.
Your employees shouldn’t feel like drinking is the only way to connect with their coworkers. Be mindful of this need to ensure your team building activity feels inclusive and safe for everyone.
It’s important to note that some teams may wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity to go wine tasting or mountain biking. The best way to gauge this is by asking team members directly. You can send a poll or survey to your team presenting them with options for potential activities, and ask if there are any activities on the list that they’d prefer not to participate in. This way, your team members can advocate for their needs without feeling any pressure to explain their reasons.
Surveying your team is also useful if you’re planning a meal out and want to accommodate dietary restrictions.
So what is accessible and inclusive? The answer can vary across all teams and workplaces depending on individual employees’ needs, but there are some best practices you can follow to ensure you’re creating an inclusive environment for all.
It’s important to check your attendees’ accessibility requirements first and foremost, but plenty of activities are accessible and inclusive:
- Painting, pottery, and other art classes
- Cooking classes
- Scavenger hunts or board games (these are especially good for the videogame industry, as they relate to game design)
- Powerpoint party (attendees are given advance notice to craft a 5-minute presentation on any subject they like)
- A meal out with the team
Inclusive, accessible team building doesn’t have to be complicated or esoteric. Sometimes a simple activity or a meal out is enough to show your team that you appreciate them, and to give them the opportunity to get to know each other if they so desire.
No physical touch
Some of the most loathed team building activities involve physical touch. Trust falls and human knots are some of the most infamous examples of high contact team building activities, and they’re unpopular for a reason: They can put people in uncomfortable situations.
Not everyone on your team will be comfortable with holding their coworkers’ hands or catching them as they fall. This is especially true if someone on your team is dealing with harassment within the company, or has dealt with workplace harassment in the past. Plus, they don’t do much to build teamwork anyway.
It’s best to skip activities like these.
Make sure they’re paid
If you’re going to organize a team building activity, it should be during working hours. Connecting with the team is part of your employees’ work, and if you’re not paying them to participate, that’s bound to breed resentment.
Just because it’s meant to be fun doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get paid.
Inclusive team building
While it can be a challenge to predict your individual team’s needs, these are just a few ways to address common grievances about team building by those the activity is meant to serve.
Some people want opportunities to get to know their coworkers and have fun. Some people would prefer to not engage in team building at all. In some cases, you’ll find that some people aren’t against the idea of team building altogether, but would prefer it directly address real work projects. If you find that your team responds better to this model, that’s your sign to make team building less about personal bonding and more about working together on a project that’s directly connected to their everyday work.
No matter what, ensuring that you’re listening to your team and meeting their needs is paramount.
But if one thing’s for sure, it’s that nobody wants to deal with trust falls or human knots ever again.