Teambuilding has come a long way since the days of kneeling in a conference room to play bongo drums, undertaking the notorious "trust fall" and believe it or not, in Japan, taking a bath with the boss to form "naked relationships".
Most people don't enjoy the attention drawn to them in roleplay or other squirm-inducing activities, and some actively fear embarrassment and humiliation. Not surprisingly, these types of activities tend to drive a wedge between employees and employer rather than achieving engagement, collaboration and team loyalty.
Fortunately, the bad old days are mostly behind us says Karen Webb, who runs a teambuilding business on Waiheke Island, The Great Escape. "If managers say 'we're off on a teambuilding day', people will immediately think back to those bad experiences when they were embarrassed or found it a bit childish and silly," she says. "But these days, teambuilding focuses more on people just relaxing and having fun together in the great outdoors. It needs to be fun, engaging, not embarrassing and people need to get something out of it, even if that's just getting to know their team better and building relationships."
Webb ran training and development programmes for large corporates in Asia before moving to Waiheke in 2001. "The programmes I ran in Asia were classroom-based and very structured," she says. "But I found that whenever I adapted them to include some outdoor experiential-type training, I could just see the difference in how people reacted and how they learned. So when I came here, I knew I had to come up with something that was going to really engage people and make it fun to learn and build a team in this beautiful environment."
Since 2001, The Great Escape Island Challenge has seen about 10,000 people experience a range of adventures and team challenges while enjoying the sights and scenery of Waiheke. Teams set off around the island in vehicles with cameras (for photographic evidence) to score points for completing challenges, and the event finishes up with an entertaining slide show and prizegiving.
Taking people out of the workplace into a relaxed environment gives them the opportunity to get to know and understand colleagues, says Webb. "Then back at work, they feel more comfortable in interacting and working with anybody because they've built those relationships. The events I run don't take people too far out of their comfort zone and there's a bit of fun involved, so people feel safe and can be themselves and discover how others communicate. Getting face to face during the events can really help people understand someone's strengths and weaknesses, and back at work they're able to say, 'Oh, Mary can make an instant decision' or 'Pete's a really good problem-solver' and translate that understanding into their work environment."
If teambuilding events are too complicated, people won't enjoy them, Webb says. "Simplicity is key. In The Great Escape there are limited resources, goals to achieve, a time limit and that's it. All they've got to do is take the strengths of people in the team and work out how to build an amazing sandcastle or be the best-dressed in clothes from a charity shop and achieve it in the timeframe." She also believes the collaboration aspect is more important than the competition. "Competition can scare people. You don't want them to be embarrassed by not achieving something. But when they're in a team, no one is made to stand out — it's about the team effort."
... they often don't realise they've been teambuilding because they were having so much fun.
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Creativity and problem-solving are encouraged in challenges such as sandcastle building and art installations, where only team members and resources found in the natural environment can be used. "People have to think on the spot and come up with different ways of achieving a particular goal," says Webb. "A really good teambuilding activity is one that makes people think outside the square. So if there's an issue at work, instead of doing what they've always done people can look back on how they got together and opened up their minds to think of something a bit different."
Sometimes when people book The Great Escape, they'll ask to drop one of the challenges because they think it will take them too far out of their comfort zone. "While I'm happy to accommodate those requests," says Webb, "I remind them that it's a team event so no one is going to be pulled out and made to feel small. But often in a team, there's one person who's happy to stand out and say I'll do it, I'll dress up or I'll kiss a stranger in uniform. And in the workplace, there's usually one person willing to put themselves forward and that often encourages others to be brave as well. But of course, some people will never do that, and I don't think that's a bad thing because they'll have strengths in other ways. They might be more detail-oriented and better at researching and those characteristics are important in teams too."
While the greatest emphasis is on collaboration, Webb notes that the competitive aspect of The Great Escape can really motivate people. "They get bragging rights in going back to work and saying, 'we won!'. That's the result and they often don't realise they've been teambuilding because they were having so much fun, which is a great thing. But the reward and recognition from winning can be a great motivator."
Webb says the slide show is great entertainment because people find it hilarious, but it also gives teams a chance to see how others dealt with the challenges. "They might say, 'Oh, we didn't think of that' or 'Wow, that was so well done'. So people get really important in the workplace to celebrate and get feedback and recognition."
"I think a good teambuilding event is one where people go away having had an amazing experience of doing things together, and experiencing each other in a different way in a very relaxed environment."