Employers should see to it that physically demanding activities don't put employee safety at risk, or exclude those with different physical abilities. "Avoid team-building activities that are likely to provoke negative or cynical reactions from employees," Ballard says. "In some work settings, the mere mention of a 'trust exercise' or a ropes course can unleash the eye rolling and sarcastic comments. The key here is to know your workforce and the types of activities they are likely to enjoy. If you're not sure, ask them."
Trying situations can also arise when the CEO's beloved activity is used as a team-bonding exercise. Just because a manager enjoys a particular pastime doesn't mean his underlings must follow suit. "Because of power differentials, employees may feel obliged to participate and wind up in a situation where they are either outperformed and feel inferior, or hold back in an effort to let the boss win," Ballard says. "A team outing shouldn't just be another opportunity for the leader to demonstrate why he or she is in charge."
3. Field trips. Leaving the confines of the office to visit a museum, nature center, or local historical society gets employees out of their typical work environment and provides an opportunity for new learning and experiences, says Ballard. He singles out Green Mountain Coffee Rosters as an employer that has pursued this strategy. "Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters takes this concept to the extreme by sending employees on trips to gain first-hand knowledge in coffee-growing countries like Costa Rica and Guatemala, where they get to see the entire coffee-growing process for themselves," says Ballard. "Employees learn by farming, picking, and processing coffee with their own hands, and develop an intimate understanding of the company's impact in these communities."
4. Professional development activities. Transporting employees to an off-site training workshop or conference both fosters learning and provides an opportunity for them to interact in a different environment, notes Ballard. "Participating in a shared learning experience allows employees to serve as ambassadors for the organization and discuss how the new knowledge and skills they develop can be applied back at work," he says.
Ballard says professional development is a recurrent activity at Wisconsin-based marketing communications firm Versant, where "employees are viewed as knowledge leaders and are expected to share their learning experiences through written summaries, presentations, or group discussions when they return to the office." These actions behoove workers by reinforcing on-the-job lessons in unique settings.
5. Shared meals. From celebrating a colleague's birthday to marking a long-time employee's retirement with a happy hour, breaking bread is an inherently social experience, says Ballard. "Team lunches, dinners, picnics, or coffee outings can be a great way for co-workers to unwind and get to know each other in a social situation," he says. But forcing workers to team-build in the midst of an office potluck should be avoided at all costs. "While it may be tempting to try and squeeze team-building activities into group meals, avoid the temptation and just let employees enjoy the opportunity to socialize in a relaxed, informal setting," Ballard says. And, of course, employers should exercise caution, even during times of mirth. "Also, take care not to set up a situation that promotes or encourages the consumption of too much alcohol—a social lubricant can quickly become a slippery slope," he adds.
In addition to these team-building techniques, Ballard encourages workers to hone skills that enhance job performance. "For example, in a work setting that requires employees to be flexible and use strong verbal communication skills, a group activity with an improvisational theatre group may help the team pick up some tips for working together and thinking quickly on their feet," he says. These actions can be done without exiting the office doors. "Even without going off site, simple things like building in coordinated break times, having employees shadow their co-workers to better understand what others do, and celebrating employees' personal and professional milestones can help create a work environment where employees build strong, positive relationships with their colleagues, and, in turn, have a more positive and productive work experience," says Ballard.