We’ve all been there: the informal drinks after work invite from your line manager, through to the office quiz, right up to orienteering in Cumbria in February. Work team-building initiatives are a feature of the modern corporate landscape.
We're asking some serious questions about workplace fun. First, what is team-building? Secondly, does team-building really have any positive effect? And lastly is work supposed to be fun anyway?
What is team-building?
According to huddle.com there are four main types of activity that companies use to bring their people together. Communication games that are used as icebreakers; problem solving / decision making; adaptability / planning type activities; and lastly those that require trust. The idea being, that in the midst of playing what on the face of it is a variation on a party game, team-working skills are built as a 'side effect'. It is how children learn to get along, so why should adults be any different? Maybe Carl Jung was correct when he said, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.”
In this sense, it may be that people that have been stuck in the same old routines for years can learn from others by playing ‘The Life Highlights Game’ with the person they have been sharing a cubicle with all that time.
Does team-building really have any positive effect?
On the face of it, it’s a no-brainer. Shared group activities can lead to better employee relationships and a common sense of purpose. Gallup certainly found this in their most recent survey of the American workplace. They also found that people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to engage positively in their work. But it is here that such efforts need to submit to a reality check. The manager charged with fostering a sense of esprit de corps in their team needs to understand the limits of 'fun' as a team-building tool. As Donna Flagg, founder of Lastics, a dance based technique to increase your flexibility and improve body awareness, puts it; “Don’t expect a game of paint ball or a cooking class to solve relationship problems back in the office.”
Essentially if people do not get along you cannot 'fun' them out of it. Any element of compulsion tends to lead to resentment before the games even begin. A good manager has to listen to what his or her people want to get out of the experience.
Personal differences, work practices, and corporate culture will not be addressed in any positive manner by planned togetherness. It may in fact be detrimental. What can be achieved is the planting of seeds that can inspire change. As a tool for starting a conversation, 'meaningful fun' can show a team that the company cares about what they think and that they can be part of the process of improving the working environment for everyone, which as all the literature agrees, is only ever a good thing for the profit margin.
Barry Fentiman is a writer and events organiser, he has been through several organisational rebrands in former jobs; “There seems to be two main scenarios that prompt companies to engage in team-building interventions. When they have just gone through an intensive recruitment phase it is necessary to get the newbies to connect with each other. This is especially important where the 'pod' principle operates, such as in call centres. Nat West will do this over a week, starting with icebreakers and quasi-party games before picking up the pace and becoming more training centred.
“Team-building, when done professionally and sensitively is very effective for these purposes. When the new recruits go live on the phones they will need to rely on each other and it is best that they are not strangers by this time.”
Is work supposed to be fun anyway?
Barry continues; “The other time that team-building often raises its head, is when a workplace has had a number of individuals in post for some time and the management feel that things need spicing up a little. These occasions can be less successful. Team-building can open people up to change but it cannot make them change.
“The facilitators need to understand the limits of their influence. You cannot make people interact who do not like each other. You cannot change a workplace culture or work practices overnight (or in a weekend away in Malaga). What it can do is open channels of communication between people who ordinarily do not interact. This sort of communication helps people understand what other departments do, and allows the possibility of camaraderie, but it will not create it.”
But, it’s a case of horses for courses, and having a fun workplace may not suit every type of job. Levity while operating highly dangerous welding equipment may not be the best policy. But a middle ground is surely possible. Misery is not productive and neither is a workforce that does not get along; team-building, if done with the wants of the team in mind, and not in an enforced David Brent (of The Office) style, can be a force for positive change.