How to Create Effective Team Building Activities

To create an effective team building day, give people a voice, give them choice, and make it accessible for all.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

In ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,’ Patrick Lencioni says that “It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it’s so powerful and so rare.” While we can argue about how rare it is to find effective, high performing teams, there is research that suggests that you can improve team performance with team building activities.

I’m lucky enough to work for a company that actively tries to build a healthy remote team culture. Several years ago, one department started ‘In-service Day,’ and the sessions were so popular that other departments were invited to join in the fun. Now, if we want to get in to a certain session, we have to be quick to log onto the registration page as soon as the sign up email hits our inbox.

So how do you design a team building event or in-service day that employees want to attend? Here are four things to keep in mind:

Give People a Voice

Allow employees a voice in the process. Our ‘ISD’ (in service day) committee does this in two ways. First, they come up with some general topics, and then sends out a survey to see which ones rise to the top. This extra step saves them from spending hours putting together a presentation on a subject that few people will find interesting.

On that same survey, the ISD committee asks participants ‘if you could put together a 15 minute presentation on anything, what would it be?’ This has yielded some surprising (and highly popular) Ted-Talk style presentations. We’ve heard from people who spent a year reading books only by female authors, people who enjoy board games (and think you will too), and people who take fantastic vacations on a shoestring budget.

These shorter talks are a great way to take a mental break in between the longer, more traditional knowledge-building sessions. It’s also a great way to get to know colleagues. The most interesting thing about this success story, is that it came about almost by accident. When an early iteration of the committee was trying to generate ideas for ISD, someone said ‘maybe we should ask people about other topics they would like to hear about?’ When you ask people for their ideas, you may stumble across a jewel.

Give People a Choice

There is a school of thought out there that goes something like this: ‘We can’t please everyone, so we might as well plan an event that leadership likes. People will complain about it either way.’ It’s true that there will always be some folks out there who have to be dragged (metaphorically speaking) kicking and screaming to team building events. Most of these folks have had bad experiences with team building events in the past. That’s no reason to continue to confirm their bias.

Admittedly, there may be times that you need to train your employees on a specific topic, whether they want to attend or not. Topics such as workplace safety and security come to mind. Remember that these sorts of training sessions aren’t team building activities and shouldn’t be talked up as such. Your employees might spend some time bonding by complaining about compliance training, but the team building aspect is coincidental.

There are different ways to give employees a choice during team building activities. Depending on your budget and the number of participants, you may wish give participants the option to choose the sessions they attend. People who decide to attend a session are far more likely to get something out of it.

However, the most important choice, the choice you should never violate, is over how much personal information an employee is obliged to reveal. Some employees have survived terrible childhoods. Others belong to minority groups that face discrimination. Still others like to keep their personal lives separate from their work for their own private reasons. No one should feel forced to share personal information.

I learned this one the hard way. I was planning a party in honor of someone, and I asked a colleague–we’ll call him Don–if he would share a particular memory at the party. Don told me that he couldn’t do so, and he shared the extremely personal reason why he couldn’t. I apologized for asking. To this day I regret making him unexpectedly relive that memory.

What I should have done then (and what you can do now) is ask for volunteers. Something as simple as emailing the entire group saying ‘I’m planning a session on common in-service day planning mistakes and how to avoid them. If you would be willing to share a story about a time you created a truly boring team building activity, please let me know via email by Wednesday and I’ll be in touch,’ can solicit the same information without outing anyone.

While it’s true that employees can bond over shared vulnerability, that will only happen if the sharing is voluntary. Mandating shared vulnerability can potentially force some employees to relive traumatizing experiences. Don’t do it.

Give People Access

This is particularly important in you are planning an in-person (vs online) team building event. I had a boss who elected to get an MBA while fully employed, and his cohort was required to attend a 2 day team building event. At one point everyone was required to climb to the top of a telephone pole. (It wasn’t an actual pole with wires. I’m pretty sure using an actual working telephone pole is illegal.)

I remember thinking a) that I would have flunked MBA school on the first day because I am afraid of heights and while I have no problem climbing trees and riding roller coasters, there is no way I would willingly climb to the top of a pole and sit on it, and b) what did they do with the students who use wheelchairs? Telling people to sit on the sidelines while the rest of the team engages in a team building event sends the message that some people are second-class employees.

You still have to think about accessibility even when your team building event is remote. At my last team-building day, the organizers solicited facts from the participants ahead of time. Our job as a team was to guess which fact belonged to which person. Instead of just displaying the fact on the screen, the organizer also played a clip of someone reading the fact. This meant that every colleague–regardless of vision status–could participate in the activity.

It may feel overwhelming to try and make your event accessible to all. While you can do research on your own, this might be a good time to solicit information from the group. Again, you can email the participants ahead of time and say ‘I’d like to make sure our team building day is accessible to all. If you have ideas or tools that can help make this day available to people who have cognitive or physical impairments, please share them with me.’

As an aside, if you ask for this information, and people tell you how to make an event more accessible, use the information they give you. Asking for ways to make an event better and then ignoring the information is disengaging. For the best results, ask for accessibility tips early in the event planning process.

Creating an effective team building day requires thoughtful planning. But you don’t have to (and in most cases, shouldn’t) work in a vacuum. Give people a chance to partner with you. You will end up with great ideas you would never have thought about otherwise, avoid disengaging sessions, and create an event that is accessible for the entire team. The care and thought you pour into the event will shine through and leave employees feeling respected. And feeling respected is truly team building.

Author: Teresa

I am an analyst for Kaplan and a business writer. When I'm not analyzing numbers or trying to find the perfect phrase, I manage my obsessions for chai tea, knitting, and running in the woods.

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