Hired by a black-market art dealer, a group from the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis was tasked with stealing King Tut's cobra staff from a museum of ancient artifacts. The group hunted for clues in history books, cracked coded locks and even maneuvered lasers to try to open Tut's gilded tomb.
The outing at Escape MSP in St. Paul wasn't the usual happy hour.
Escape rooms such as this one have taken off in popularity. Since 2014, more than a dozen have opened in the Twin Cities area, luring groups of friends to take part in a live-action puzzle to solve — or commit — a crime and escape a locked and often dark room.
The spots — including Escape MSP, Riddle Room, Mission Manor and Zero Hour — are considered entertainment venues, but because teamwork is essential to figuring out the solution, Minnesota managers are signing up their employees for these social field trips.
"We have some newer members on our team, so we're trying to work together and be cohesive," said Dawn Hoffner, leader of the U group, which has the high-stress job of addressing patient complaints about treatment. "We need to find something fun that's not at work."
How much the escape room experience translates back to the office isn't clear. But organizers say it offers an egalitarian way to get the team out of the office and active, without relying on the exclusive golf course, the tired bowling alley, alcohol or any kind of physical prowess.
"It's challenging, it's participation-based, it demands your attention, and everyone can do it," said Matt Ames, the 33-year-old founder of Escape MSP, one of the oldest of these Twin Cities area attractions, with locations in Golden Valley and St. Paul. "It's not some sort of ropes course."
More common group games, say bowling or laser tag, can make for a camaraderie-filled afternoon, "but it doesn't tell you that much about the team itself," said Logan Giannini, manager of Mission Manor in northeast Minneapolis, which opened this year.
"Corporations are using escape rooms to really get a good look at team dynamics, lateral thinking and creative reasoning — how they really function as a team," Giannini said.
Mike Leddy, premium seating services manager for the Minnesota Vikings, planned an outing to Mission Manor last month. He said he was surprised how much he learned about his staff as they attempted to steal a fortune from a wealthy, dying patriarch.
"There are different strengths that come out," Leddy said. "It makes you notice who is more detail-oriented and who is all over the map in trying to find every little clue."
Effective or entertainment
While escape rooms can be effective as an icebreaker, Prof. Mary Zellmer-Bruhn of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management says they don't necessarily indicate how well a team works together back at the office.
"For team building to be effective into lasting to job performance, it needs to be more tightly connected to what people do as a team," she said.
So, holding a meeting about goals for the year will probably help more than deactivating a bomb while handcuffed in an escape room.
There is value in greasing social interactions among co-workers, too, as far as establishing trust and helping employees feel engaged with the company. "But it's a long chain before those activities will have an effect on productivity and performance," Zellmer-Bruhn said.
Still, the folks from the U Medical Center said their experience at Escape MSP reinforced their office dynamics, even if they failed to accomplish their mission to steal the golden staff.
"We already knew that everybody plays their role," said Samantha Hand, one of the participants. "Even if you don't know an answer to something, somebody else knows; we do that a lot."
Phil Wilson, general manager of BuzzFeed's Minneapolis office, said he doesn't see the escape room as anything more than social. His team of 30 employees tried out Escape MSP this year.
"For us, it was entertainment," he said. "Anything to get people talking."
But like many organizers of office outings in the metro area, Wilson is always looking for something different: a day at the State Fair, an afternoon at Dave and Buster's game complex, even a shrimp boil.
When the escape room phenomenon has passed, what will be next for local corporate outings?
"I would like to go go-kart racing," Wilson said.