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."
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.
Employers should come to terms with the reality that forced team-building methods are loathed by many employees, who might find them artificial, embarrassing, and a waste of time, adds Ballard. But employers can combat this cynicism by promoting team-building excursions that fit best with the their company's culture—activities employees want to do as opposed to ones they are forced to do.