Having a group of people who enjoy working together is essential to a happy workplace.
If you are nudging your team to feel closer, there’s nothing wrong with the team dinner. It’s convenient. It’s relatively cheap, and inoffensive—we’re all comfortable with eating. We’re not all comfortable with karaoke or skydiving. But over time, eating out gets boring, not to mention fattening.
Avi Millman, CEO and cofounder of Stray Boots, a company that offers cell phone-based tours and scavenger hunts (often used as team building events) offers this ideas for better bonding experiences that your teams might actually want to participate in.
There’s some evidence that a key part of feeling closer to someone is experiencing the same thing at the same time. When you do something you haven’t done before, the memory becomes more pronounced.
On Stray Boots’ tours, teams will take pictures of themselves by urban monuments they might not have noticed ("Philbert" the pig in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, for instance), thus experiencing their own cities in new ways. Cooking classes and brewery tours are likewise not on most people’s daily agendas, and hence can bring you closer than dinner, which you eat all the time.
Teams naturally feel closer when they accomplish things together. As one project manager wrote to me on Twitter, her best bonding experiences involved "shipping software on time. My [experience] is teams bond over meaningful work not made up games." Which is true. But other things can be meaningful too.
At the communications technology company Bandwidth, CEO David Morken reports, "We have done some crazy stuff," like sending a team to do a four-person bike race across the country while the entire company was trying to log as many equivalent miles running, swimming, or biking (the incentive is often time off).
"It has been awesome to see over the years how collectively we can get inspired," says Morken. "We have small groups of people running together, walking together, doing intramural basketball together." Volunteering as a team is another way to bring people together while doing some good in the world as well.
Whatever your bonding event, make sure people aren’t just sitting in one place. This is the biggest downside of a meal: people talk only to those sitting next to them. Even a happy hour can turn cliquish, or force people to create their own transitions ("I’m going to get another drink—does anyone else want something?")
On a scavenger hunt, you can talk to someone new every time you hop on the subway. If you must do a meal, have people move between courses, so everyone gets to know each other.
What people most appreciate is the gift of time. Even if your team is on the road and people can’t go home to their families at night, they might want some quiet me-time watching TV in their hotel rooms or going for a run instead of sitting with you in a restaurant for two hours. Take your team to an afternoon ball game, or go for a hike at lunch together. If that’s not possible...
When we get to know other people’s lives, we become more invested in each other. Inviting significant others to events is a good start, but half the people still won’t come because they’ll need to find babysitters. So aim for weekend picnics or backyard barbecues if you’ve got the space, so people don’t have to choose between advancing their careers and spending time with the people they care about.