During a time of collective upheaval, this team building exercise might be exactly what your remote employees need.
Many employees view team building exercises as “the bane of their workplace existence”.
Paintballing, cook-a-thons and afternoon trivia just aren’t being met with the same level of enthusiasm as they once were.
Even when employees experience enjoyment from team building exercises, Associate Professor Julien Pollack, one of the co-authors who conducted the study with Dr Petr Matous, says these types of activities typically have diminishing returns.
“A lot of team building focuses on shared experiences, whether that’s a paintball activity, white water rafting, or something else. It’s putting people together to do the same thing outside the work environment and giving them a shared point of contact and common stories,” says Pollack, who is the Deputy Director of the John Grill Institute of Project Leadership.
“Most people will spend time with the people they already like, but taking a relationship from good to great doesn’t help the organisation as much as going from a non-existent relationship to a comfortable one. That’s where you get the payoff – it’s in building trust between new people.”
So if traditional team building exercises aren’t fuelling trust or bringing employees closer, what should organisations be doing instead? Are there alternatives to traditional team bonding that might better engage and inspire employees?
Forging deeper connections
For colleagues to bond over more than just their weekend plans or where to get the best coffee in town, organisations need to create safe environments that prompt them to dig below the surface and connect with one another on a deeper level. Some degree of openness and a willingness to be vulnerable is needed.
In Pollack and Matous’ study, the researchers drew on a voluntary self-disclosure technique designed to build interpersonal closeness.
They first went into an organisation and conducted a social network analysis, uncovering places where there were gaps in communication.
“People weren’t talking on a regular basis and then we input a structured team building strategy to focus on building specific relationships that were missing,” says Pollack.
They paired two people together, who would then spend one hour working their way through three sets of structured questions.
The first lot of questions were relatively surface-level and introductory, requiring the employees to share their responses to a question such as, ‘Would you like to be famous and if so, in what way?’
The second set was more personal – for example, ‘What is the greatest accomplishment in your life? What do you value most in your friendships?’
By the time the participants reached the third set of questions, they were encouraged to share more personal information and exchange comments that would build greater intimacy – for example, ‘Share something that you like about the other person’, or ‘Tell me about a time that you felt embarrassed’.
“People were discussing really personal things,” says Pollack. “When people are put in a situation and given permission to share personal insights, they would often say things that they wouldn’t share if they weren’t given a prompt.
“This is a tiny investment compared to sending your whole team on a full-day doing team building somewhere else.
The technique utilised was developed by psychologists as a known tool to build interpersonal closeness, but Pollack explains how they extended the technique to other domains.
“Our theory was that it would make people more comfortable discussing difficult workplace topics,” says Pollack. And their theory proved correct.
“If you see the other employee as a person rather than as just an anonymous figure in the world, you will feel more comfortable confronting them and discussing problems; either risks that you see in their area or in your own area,” says Pollack.
There were noticeable increases on the other measures studied too, including frequency of personal communication, comfort with personal communication, frequency of workplace communication.
“We are largely living off borrowed time. Organisations are relying on existing social capital that was developed before COVID-19, but we’re not investing much time in investing in new social relationships.” – Associate Professor Julien Pollack, University of Sydney.“
“The strongest was on the personal side; on personal comfort with the other person. There was a big change, even three months after the intervention.”
Putting team building into action
Forging personal bonds between a small number of employees through a team building exercise is likely to prove fruitful when conducted before a project kicks off.
“You might have a bunch of people working together who have never done so before, and with tight deadlines they are expected to start working together quickly. For trust to develop naturally, it takes a lot of time,” says Pollack.
If time isn’t on your side, personal team building exercises can help to develop trust more quickly.
Team building exercises that prompt employees to expose a vulnerable side might also take off more easily when organisations are facing a collective challenge – say, a pandemic.
With increasing normalisation of conversations about mental health issues, and remote working arrangements offering a window into employees’ personal lives, it’s often easier for these types of personal conversations to take root.
“Having a shared responsibility for each other is now much more top of mind,” says Pollack.
“I think that would provide a context in which something like this technique could become more increasingly acceptable and used.”
Conducting a team building activity like this over a video platform could also ease pressures or social anxieties, says Pollack.
“There’s a certain amount of anonymity and distance which could make it easier if you gave people the structure to forge those bonds,” he says, although it’s equally possible that the distance might put a wedge between two people when they can’t experience the other person’s physical presence or gauge non-verbal cues as easily.
Either way, when there’s little alternative for many companies, and particularly if new team members are coming on board remotely, a personal team bonding activity that breaks down barriers might help old and new employees to feel a sense of belonging in spite of the distance.
“Having a shared responsibility for each other is now much more top of mind.” – Associate Professor Julien Pollack, University of Sydney.
“I think there is a lot of potential for bringing people into new teams and forging the kind of relationships that they would be having if they were naturally hanging around in the office environment. This is a potential way of providing that as a surrogate,” says Pollack.
“We are largely living off borrowed time. Organisations are relying on existing social capital that was developed before COVID-19, but we’re not investing much time in investing in new social relationships.”
It also can help to reinforce our distant networks with those who aren’t in our immediate team, as these often fray in remote working climates.
Putting personal team building in context
Despite the value of personal team building exercises, more traditional methods still have their place. It’s just that they’re often relied upon as the one-stop solution for facilitating strong connections at work, when there are a vast array of other options that organisations can utilise.
If a workplace is looking to strengthen a team’s ability to problem solve, Pollack says an approach based around design thinking and systems thinking would be beneficial as they can be “great for reconceptualising a problem or coming up with creative ideas”.
His findings on team bonding exercises that forge more personal connections also don’t mean you’ll never have the opportunity to rock climb with your workmates again.
There’s still value in “putting people in a different environment where they can see things from a different perspective. It’s about taking people out of a physical working environment so they can be refreshed through a different style of activity, or giving them a common experience which helps them to form group identity.”
But if you’re hoping to build closeness and reach a level of comfort between employees, it’s worth testing the waters to try a more personal and targeted approach.
Effective team building exercises can help to cultivate a strong and cohesive team. AHRI’s short course on Creating High Performance Teams offers helpful advice for building strong teams. Book in for the next course on 4 November.