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Why you should ditch team building activities and just let people get to work

Team building is meant to bring people together, but it can often lead to the opposite results.

Why you should ditch team building activities and just let people get to work
[Photo: Rawpixel/iStock]

You’ve heard it before: It’s essential for people to feel connected to each other. A sense of camaraderie will enhance life at work. Having real-life human connections releases feel-good hormones. This, in turn, boosts your mood, improves your ability to learn and remember, and also makes you less prone to stress.

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Unfortunately, some leaders are taking team building a bit too far. Team retreats and group events may seem like a good idea, but the truth is they make most people a little crazy. A better approach is to help people be productive. At times, you need to keep the fluffy stuff out of the way.

Why team building is a problem

Team building can fail for many reasons. First, companies don’t often think about whether a particular activity is appropriate; they focus on the team-building element.

Team building can also eat into people’s work schedule. If people have a lot of time and their plates aren’t too full, holding a team-building outing can be a positive thing. But when your team has a full plate of work to get through, you’re just distracting them from doing their work.

Team building can also be less than helpful when it doesn’t include enough structure. When people don’t know each other well, it’s vital to create an environment that encourages people to be open and honest with each other and implement some structure. Maybe that means encouraging people to share an update from their work or an element of their life with the group. Without the necessary encouragement, people may just end up talking to those they already know—and they won’t expand their horizons.

What’s more, team building can detract from your employees’ work-life experience. For many people, no matter how much they enjoy their teammates, a compulsory team happy hour takes them away from the time they’d rather spend with their families or nonwork friends.

Rather than organize a compulsory team-building outing, consider doing the following things instead to bring your team closer together.

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1. Make team building task-oriented

Forget the rock-climbing excursions; instead, give team members meaty tasks to accomplish together (and I’m talking about real work, not fake tasks here). The most effective way to strengthen team bonds is by having people work together and accomplish results as a group. Winning the three-legged race may be exhilarating (or embarrassing for those who don’t love the cheesy), but overcoming a work challenge or solving a thorny problem is a much more effective way to get your team closer together.

2. Make team building optional

For many employees, socializing with the team eats into their work hours. As a result, this often means taking work home or staying late to hit a deadline. Because time is a limited resource, team social events compete with the time people would rather spend outside of work rejuvenating. That’s why you can’t make it compulsory. Some employees may thrive on more socialization—but others won’t. It’s essential to give people as much control as possible about how they spend their time.

3. Make team building less demanding

You also want to make sure that whatever you’re doing, it’s not too demanding. A chili cook-off during lunch hour or a quick cookie break during an afternoon slump will be less disruptive and provide greater gains than a strenuous hike that takes up a whole day.

4. Make team building more natural

Sometimes, people will naturally connect and don’t need orchestrated events. Think about providing places where people can connect informally (think: lounge-like seating and work cafés) or where they can walk and talk. A company I worked for had a walking trail; people regularly took advantage of it to have walking meetings. Not only does this provide another space for workers to be creative and get their work done; it encourages informal and organic connections between workers.

Team building doesn’t always need to take place outside of the office. So rather than orchestrating the quarterly barbecue or the monthly pancake dinner, trust people to collaborate based on the tasks they need to accomplish. Then limit the distractions that get in the way of them performing their responsibilities. Facilitating people’s performance is the surest route to a strong team and great achievement as an organization.


Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.

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