“Yay, team building exercise!” said no employee ever.
Team building and Team Bonding (mistakenly used to mean the same thing on occasion) are phrases loved by HR and management, and hated by employees. Google ‘Team Building Exercises’ and you’ll get a cringe inducing list of activities like ‘Share your personality’, ‘Try a compliment circle’ and ‘Have a show and tell’.
The purpose and logic behind why companies want their teams to do this kind of thing are fairly sound (I’ll come back to this later), but, as with pretty much all work related extra-curricular activity, without the engagement of the employees they are pointless.
You can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn, you can’t coach someone who doesn’t want to improve, and you can’t build an unengaged team.
My memories of team building activity in my early career consist mainly of a bunch of people going through the motions, keen only on getting back to their desk and getting on with the day job.
So how do you effectively build and bond a team? Well first we need to clarify exactly what these two terms actually mean.
The purpose of a team building activity is to create cohesion, to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to learn to communicate effectively. Team building exercises can be extremely powerful tools for managers to understand the dynamics of their team, how they work together and expose areas that need improvement.
In order to be effective, though, the team need to fully engage in the activity, and act as they would naturally, not how they think they should be acting.
An example of an old team building activity might be some kind of physical puzzle, with a time limit to solve it e.g. put a line on the floor, with a stick 1.5 metres beyond the line and ask the team to retrieve the stick, without touching the floor beyond the line, within three minutes.
Whilst this kind of activity might tickle the brains of the thinkers, it is unlikely to fully engage a whole team, especially if the solution is quickly arrived at and only two or three people are needed to complete it.
A true team building activity needs to take people a little out of their comfort zone, it needs to be something they have not seen before, be big enough to engage every member of the team, long enough to give valuable insight, and, when announced to the team, needs to intrigue them to want to try it.
Team bonding, on the other hand, is about the social relationships within a team; whilst, as colleagues, you are unlikely to become besties, spending time together in a social setting, where work is off the table, can help a team become closer, and, as a result, more effective.
In the UK the most common bonding activity is a trip down the pub after work, something that seldom needs much twisting of arms to achieve. However, this can easily be an activity that excludes parts of the team for a variety of reasons.
A truly effective bonding activity needs to be inclusive; it needs to happen at a time when everyone is available and not feeling pressured to attend, or clock watching because they have somewhere to be. It needs to last long enough to have value, without becoming overlong. It needs to be an activity that everyone is comfortable with, in a venue everyone is comfortable in.
Above all a truly great team bonding experience will leave the team with a collective memory that lives on for days, months, or even years, evoking strong feelings of connection amongst those that took part.
The Benefits of Team Building and Team Bonding
Having read the above, the benefits should be pretty self-explanatory, what manager would not want to learn more about their team, to increase their skills and company engagement?
Team building activities will:
Team bonding increases the levels of trust and communication amongst a team, often leading to higher levels of employee engagement and happiness. Team building and bonding are an important part of developing a strong team, and when done effectively, can significantly increase productivity.
So, you said something about Escape Rooms?
Yes, I did, and you are probably already well ahead of me, but I’ll spell it out anyway!
Escape Rooms are perfect for both team building and team bonding for small teams.
Firstly, going to play an escape room with your work colleagues doesn’t initially sound like a team building activity, team bonding yes, but (unless advertised as team building), it is something the vast majority of, if not all, team members would look at, and think “ok, that’s new, I’ll give it a try, could be fun.” (And it is fun!)
From a bonding point of view, escape rooms involve an interactive, immersive experience, great entertainment, but also a challenge to be overcome. Different types of room can provide different experiences, from clever puzzles, to jump scares and unexpected discoveries, but all require you to be there, together in the room, getting hands on.
A good escape room experience will bring a team closer: there will be shared successes, a new experience, “yes” moments as locks pop open, the escape, but also “oops” moments where a simple oversight is rectified with a laugh.
Now consider things from a manager’s point of view: your team will need to solve a series of puzzles in order to complete the game and escape the room. They will need to work together, and showcase a variety of different skills (most importantly communication) to be successful.
To begin with you’re putting your team into an unfamiliar environment, and get to watch first hand how they react to it. In order to escape the room, your team will need to display a range of skills including observation, situational analysis, problem solving, physical dexterity and more.
Learn who your natural leaders are, how your reflectors and activists interact, is the quiet one actually hiding a big brain, is the loud one also a good listener? As a leader, are you able to step back and let your team do the work, or do you find yourself taking over?
Now add a time limit (usually one hour) adding a measure of jeopardy: you might not escape! This often brings out people’s natural personality, and traits, that may be hidden at work: competitive streaks and a lack of patience are difficult to hide in an escape room!
So, as you can see, an escape room experience will challenge your team to face unknown challenges, work closely together, communicate effectively, showcase their abilities, present unique insights into their skills and personalities, and strengthen bonds.
Team Building and Team Bonding are both important factors in building a strong team, and Escape Rooms offer a great experience that provides both.