Forget the trust fall, where employees fall backward off a platform and hope their co-workers catch them.
In a quest to attract and retain a new generation of co-workers, companies are turning to more inventive team-building experiences to create a sense of camaraderie and common purpose.
David Miller, general manager of Morrie’s Minnetonka Subaru, is a big fan.
His staffers have thrown axes, hit buzzers in a game show competition, chopped meat and vegetables at a cooking duel and solved their way out of an escape room.
“Each one has its own lesson,” Miller said. “No matter what the event, at the end of it, the team was closer.”
The desire to engage younger workers who thrive on experiences has cranked new energy into the old notion of corporate team building, while giving rise to entrepreneurial businesses that seek to deliver imaginative out-of-office activities.
Twin Cities business leaders can choose among team-building events including customizable scavenger hunts, bartending competitions, puzzle rooms where participants use clues to figure out how to escape, and a dining in the dark experience.
The aim is the same: to create shared experiences that will encourage workplace collaboration.
“These activities force us to use critical thinking, to be creative and innovative and to use our imaginations,” said Rue Dooley, a Washington, D.C.-based adviser for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “They force us to communicate with one another and to do it under pressure — though the pressure is contrived and the consequences are benign.”
For company leaders, Dooley said experiences can be a way to offer non-monetary rewards, such as a helicopter ride around Chicago instead of a $200 bonus. By getting different ages and departments together, they help break down silos, he said.
While the activities may divert office work for a few hours or half a day, team building also can reveal personality traits in new ways.
“It can be an efficient way to put your finger on the pulse of a high performer or different types of performers,” Dooley said.
Team building is nothing new, of course. From the 1950s through to the late 1990s, company-sponsored softball and bowling teams were the rage. But as of 2017, just 14% of employers surveyed by SHRM said they backed employee sports teams.
Baby boomers and Generation Xers wanted all-day physically intense activities, such as white-water rafting, rope courses, zip-lining and climbing walls. But that trend has waned as well, as business leaders prefer shorter bursts of more inclusive outings.
Younger workers are less hierarchical and seek out collaboration in the workplace. As they do in their home lives, many workers seek to build memories.
Though today’s workers don’t bring the same level of corporate loyalty as previous generations, many business leaders see investments in team building as necessary, not optional, particularly in a tight labor market.
“Employees feel that someone is taking time to invest in them,” said Miller, where team-building outings are part of a broader “emerging leaders” program he developed at the Morrie’s dealership.
It’s a deliberate effort to bring salespeople from the front of the store together with service people in the back. They gather in monthly sessions to discuss a business book they’re reading or the latest leadership principles.
“It’s that adage of: What if I spend time and money to train them and they leave? Well, what if we don’t, and they stay?”
Advancing business goals
Human resource experts say these new approaches to teamwork can be effective in the right context, but warn against spending time and money on “activities that are strictly recreational and trying to pass them off as team-building,” said Anne Thornley-Brown, president of Toronto-based Executive Oasis International, in an SHRM report.
Elements of successful team building include having clear business goals and objectives; understanding participants’ learning styles and physical capabilities so everyone can participate in a meaningful way; and finding a good match in the activity, site and size of the group, she said.
To be worthwhile, it’s necessary to do an assessment that ties the event back to business goals.
Getting too far afield has its risks.
“Employees know when they’re being put on the spot,” said Dooley, who has spent more than 25 years working in human resources. “Adults don’t learn the way children do. Competitions don’t always work out well. And people vary with the comfort level about health and safety and risk and insurance.”
Another risk: sending a message that it’s not a serious enough workplace environment. “Too much can work against you,” Dooley said.
Winnie Tan, co-owner of ChopRoom cooking studio in Minneapolis, said many companies “bake team building into their annual or quarterly calendars.”
Launched in 2017, ChopRoom has clients including small businesses and startups as well as Boston Scientific, U.S. Bank, Cargill, Land O’Lakes and the University of Minnesota.
The bright and modern studio in the Uptown neighborhood can host up to 36 people in teams of six, starting at $300 per team. The event runs for two to three hours, with teams working with the same ingredients plus a selection of optional enhancements to create an appetizer and entree. It begins with a slide deck and discussion about leadership.
“We cater to fun but focus on the business aspect so people can learn something they can apply and take back to the office,” said Tan’s partner and ChopRoom co-founder, Jay Schultz.
Participants work together to create a dish and sell their products to a “judge,” which Tan and Schultz say gives managers a way to evaluate talent and identify natural leaders, while workers experience the entire business cycle in just a few hours.
“Who has everything they need to do their job? It forces people to change plans, communicate, make decisions,” Tan said. “It forces them into problem-solving mode.”
Reducing workplace stress
Experiential team building is almost old hat at Haberman, the Minneapolis advertising and public relations firm, where co-founder Fred Haberman started a workplace garden a decade ago.
Dubbed the “Dude Ranch,” the farm in Delano was something of an experiment aimed at getting employees out of the city on a weekly basis to plant seeds, tend the gardens and harvest crops. Many of the agency’s clients work in health and wellness, sustainable farming and organics.
Haberman said working the farm, which is owned by a former employee and “Chief Garden Officer” Liz Morris Otto, gives his 50 or so employees more than paid time away from the office.
It reduces stress and enables generations to work beside each other and learn. Working the land also helps employees understand their clients at a more basic level and internalize the corporate ethos.
“We can’t be in this business if we aren’t modeling it,” Haberman said during one of the Thursday workdays at the farm, which was certified organic two years ago.
For Paul Grausam, of Western National Insurance Group in Edina, the activities serve as both a reward and icebreaker. For his first planned event, he took about two dozen employees to WhirlyBall, a mashup of lacrosse, basketball and hockey played in bumper cars.
“There was a lot of talking smack,” said Grausam, the lead business analyst in the property claims division, “all good-natured and fun.”
Other outings have included a Thursday night at the Canterbury racetrack, and trap shooting. The claims business is stressful work, Grausam said. Employees spend their days working with people affected by storms, fires or natural disasters.
“It can be a mental health break,” Grausam said, adding that the events help build a good workplace culture. “Fun shouldn’t be a foreign concept.”