by Alex Palmer | August 03, 2015

Who doesn't love a good teambuilding event? It turns out, a significant number of people. A recent survey of more than 1,000 American workers by Citrix and Wakefield Research found that 31 percent said they disliked such activities. Anyone who has ever been reluctantly roped into a silly office contest can probably think of a few reasons why workers might begrudge these experiences. This can be an even bigger concern at a meeting or an executive retreat, where concerns about making the best use of attendees' limited time are even more pronounced.

But the fact is that teambuilding, if done right, can be broadly effective. Researchers at the University of Central Florida analyzed data from 103 separate studies conducted between 1950 and 2007, and found that teambuilding does indeed make measurable improvements on team performance. The issue is not whether teambuilding works, but what kind of teambuilding works.

"An exercise that is simply a fun day away from the office produces little return on investment three months after the retreat," says Dianne Crampton, founder of TIGERS Success Series, Inc., a management-consulting firm based in Bend, OR. "Couple that with increasing employee desire for work-life balance, and you might find employees calling in sick the day of the event." Fun-focused teambuilding activities can be a good time, but at the end of the day, it can be difficult for company leadership to pinpoint exactly what value the organization gains from it. Crampton points to her company's own internal survey of more than 2,800 HR professionals. It found that while there can be a short-term spike of morale based on the aura of fun, this does not translate into long-term improvements in skills, attitudes, or behavior.

It doesn't have to be this way. By setting out clear goals, tailoring activities to attendees, and conducting effective pre- and post-event evaluations, a company can get quite a lot out of a teambuilding event.

Dress Rehearsal
Ben Dattner, Ph.D., executive coach and principal of New York City-based Dattner Consulting, as well as a professor of organizational development at New York University, sees ineffective teambuilding as the result of misalignment between a company's goals and the activity.

"If you want to create a sense of shared team spirit, you really don't want to be doing paintball, where attendees are hunting down their co-workers in the forest, or on a go-kart track trying to beat each other to a finish line," says Dattner. "That is exactly the opposite of what you are trying to create back in the organization."

Instead, Dattner urges companies to think of a teambuilding event as a "dress rehearsal" for the "final performance" of what they will be doing when they return to work. If the company leadership wants to see more openness and transparency in the organization, those things need to be the focus of the off-site event.


Creating personal experiences,
even with large groups,
is a focus for teambuilding
organization Odyssey Teams

"A successful teambuilding activity creates temporary conditions that encourages behaviours you hope will become permanent when the group returns home," says Dattner. "You're going to the off-site to do a run-through, then take the show back [to the office]."

"Teambuilding should be viewed as a means to an end, not the end in itself," says Bryan Mattimore, cofounder of Norwalk, CT-based Growth Engine, which offers consulting and creates off-site programs for corporate clients.

Mattimore gives the example of an event Growth Engine coordinated for financial services firm FiServ, aimed at sharing leads and building new revenue streams for the organization. It brought together 125 senior executives from eight of the company's divisions, putting them through a series of creative exercises to help them identify cross-divisional sales opportunities.

"At the end of the day, we had the group put a dollar figure on what they thought these new cross-selling ideas would be worth," says Mattimore. "The group estimated as much as $125 million in new sales. A year later, when we checked back with the VP of sales, they had realized $72 million of the $125 million."

Mattimore emphasizes that "creating something new together" can be a powerful experience when teambuilding. A strong example of this was an event his company put together for Benefit Cosmetics (owned by luxury-brand company LVMH). Growth Engine gathered 150 regional sales reps and store managers to help devise store-activation ideas for some of the company's new products. Using a process that Growth Engine has called "brainwalking," they set up 25 "ideation stations" around the room. Teams of six would go to each station and start writing up a new idea.

"Then, in a kind of 'idea volleyball,' we had teams rotate to their neighbors' station, and build on their ideas," says Mattimore. "Then several more rotations took place, until finally they rotated back to their original station and circled the ideas they liked, including their original ideas."

Not only did this activity prove productive, generating hundreds of ideas in about 45 minutes, but the effort to build on one-another's ideas created the kind of "role playing" that the company leadership hoped to see when attendees returned to the office.