Do office ice breakers set your teeth on edge? Well, you're not alone: Almost a third of U.S. office workers dislike team-building activities, according to a 2012 Wakefield Research Study commissioned by the cloud technology company Citrix. Although companies have the best intentions when they plan these activities, says David W. Ballard of the American Psychological Association, they can be counterproductive if not executed properly—disrupting trust, heightening tensions, and allowing cynicism to grow in the workplace.
"An entire industry has grown around corporate team-building programs, from ropes courses, wilderness programs, and paintball to ice breakers, trust exercises, and coaching sessions based on questionable personality tests," says Ballard. He adds that while it's not unusual for vendors to "pitch high-priced programs" and "tout amazing performance improvements" that companies have achieved as a result of such activities, employers should still take these promises with a grain of salt.
Team-building activities should bolster the work employees complete together, or provide a genuine opportunity to relax and unwind. Not everyone is comfortable with seances or group meditation, and supervisors should be sensitive to that. "Take care to avoid putting employees in embarrassing or uncomfortable situations," Ballard says. "Recognize that people have different preferences and respect employee boundaries regarding physical contact and the disclosure of personal information."
Employers should be sensitive to differing needs and limitations as well. "When planning team-building activities, employers should also be sure to offer a variety of options at different times, including some that are during work hours, so that employees with different physical abilities and those with caregiving demands aren't marginalized or excluded," he adds.
After heeding the above caveats, employers should consider these five types of bonding excursions for their workers:
1. Volunteering. Coordinating employee volunteer activities encourages co-workers to give back to the community, while promoting the causes they care about most, says Ballard. "In addition to being a good corporate citizen, employers can feel confident knowing that research suggests that participating in volunteer activities outside of the office can help employees recover from work and come back re-energized," he adds. Orion Associates, a small management services company stationed in Saint Cloud, Minn., has encouraged volunteering since it first opened its doors, and attracts employees who are interested in giving back to their community. "Almost 100 percent of Orion employees have volunteered their time and energy to disaster relief efforts and, in the process, have improved their own leadership abilities in a way that extends far beyond what they could have learned in a seminar," Ballard says.
2. Fitness or sports activities. According to Ballard, there are a variety of activities that get employees out of their seats and moving. "From softball or bowling teams, to walking groups and company-sponsored participation in charity walks or runs, promoting fitness activities communicates an organization's commitment to employee health, while fostering team spirit." He points to Alaska Pacific University as an employer currently leading the charge in this co-worker bonding effort. "Every other Friday at 3 p.m., employees at Alaska Pacific University set aside their work and leave the office to participate in activities including yoga, cross-country skiing, and volleyball," says Ballard. "Employees benefit from the physical activity and have the added incentive of ending their work day early if they participate."
These activities have both mental and physical health benefits. "Employees have lost weight and report a higher awareness of wellness issues, strengthened sense of community, improved morale, and increased motivation," says Ballard. "The interactions among departments have also led to improved communication, a better understanding of colleagues' roles, and more effective collaboration."