Teambuilding activities have had a bad press over the years. Regarded by many as being on the periphery of the learning and development spectrum – where legitimate training meets a staff fun day out – many so-called teambuilding events have been little more than work jollies, where the organisers hope participants will develop some vague sense of having bonded. And of course there are always those who don’t want to participate.
But talking to a range of teambuilding training providers there is evidence that most now take a much more scientific approach by conducting training needs analysis and designing activities aimed at specific outcomes.
An example is Shropshire-based Active Training, where training consultant Steph Williams says the company offers experiential-based, aims-focused activities, either indoor or out.
“This means that we don’t sell activities, but solutions to a clients’ staff or inter/intrapersonal issues by creating tasks that work parallel to those they do at work – ie, using metaphors,” he says.
A one-day course for up to 10 delegates with Active costs £1,200. One activity devised by Williams is a management-based game where each participant is given a piece of information that, combined with all the other pieces of information, comes to a solution. But it is only through communicating effectively with each other that the solution is found.
He adds: “Our job is about giving delegates the emotional and political freedom to speak freely about their working relationships and what impact those relationships have on them professionally and personally. Then we can move the course from problems to solutions and action plans.”
But if a client requests ‘a teambuild’ and then asks for a pile of activities, Active Training has a sister company – The Adventure Rope Course.
Williams says: “This is usually for smaller local companies with bosses who want to reward their staff and have a laugh. It’s cheaper because I use staff technically qualified to take outdoor events rather than staff who are psychometrically qualified.”
More outdoor teambuilding activities are offered by BlueSky Experiences, a company run by James England, who diversified from farming on his 700-acre estate in Perthshire, Scotland, in 2001.
Challenges include participants tying knots blindfolded while other team members give instructions, and an activity called the Giant’s Causeway, where participants climb a series of telegraph poles while their team take the slack on a rope attached to their harness.
England says these events can be combined into an activity called The Big Picture, where teams earn money for successfully completing challenges, before spending it on paints and other art materials, which they then use to create part of a jigsaw. When all the teams bring their jigsaw pieces together, the finished picture reinforces a message from the day.
According to England, the activities chosen depend on what a client’s objectives are and, if requested, BlueSky consultants can administer psychometric or Belbin tests to ascertain the make-up of the team.
“Typical aims of the day include improving team interaction, seeing team members in a different light, or simply improving motivation or morale,” he says.
BlueSky ran 400 events last year and England says many companies combine a half-day’s work meeting on the premises with a half-day of activities. This costs around £100 per person including lunch.
The company also holds an annual charity teambuilding event called the BlueSky Challenge. In aid of the Prince’s Trust, it sees company teams compete in plotting their course through a series of checkpoints, which they complete on mountain bikes and in kayaks. This year, the event is being held on 12 September at Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries.
But if you want your teambuilding to take place in a less rural setting then you might prefer City Challenge, a company that runs urban orienteering team events where participants follow a series of clues around cities such as London, Oxford, Amsterdam and Prague.
According to managing director Jane Read, participants work in teams of seven to 10, each with a trained facilitator who monitors progress and behaviours, and encourages teams to use a combination of skills, such as planning, negotiation and communication, to achieve the best result.
She says: “We believe measuring outcomes is key. Full reports are written up after the event, and these help identify options for both team development and for individuals. Organisations usually find this extremely helpful and use our feedback as part of their own development programmes.”
Events from City Challenge, which has just added Brighton and Windsor to the locations it offers, start from around £225 per person, per day.
Read adds: “People are always looking for something different and exciting to challenge their staff. In our experience, clients often say: ‘Oh, we only want fun, that’s too much learning’, but when we get the individuals taking part, the opportunity to discuss their working environment without prejudice is much appreciated.”
At people development consultancy Formation Training, managing director Amanda Pearce Burton believes teambuilding should be delivered as part of “wider package of learning.”
This is because Formation delivers training to the public sector – mostly the educational sector and local authorities – where training budgets and tangible outcomes are closely monitored.
She says: “Our clients are seeking accountable training linked to aims and objectives. We may be asked to deliver a course on helping a team through change or improving the communication within a team, and inevitably teambuilding will be a part of that.”
Pearce Burton says a typical approach would be to ask delegates to reflect on examples where their team worked successfully and when it didn’t, and then to draw out learning from these situations. This is followed up with skills practice and role playing before linking it back to the workplace and devising action points for the team to take back with them.
However, she doesn’t rule out the use of fun activities altogether.
“I’m not one for curtailing creativity. Activities like storytelling and using metaphor have their place in keeping the training fresh but it has to be relevant,” says Pearce Burton.
But having fun is at the centre of the teambuilding activities offered by Venturi’s Table, which provides corporate cookery events.
Based in a custom-built kitchen in Wandsworth, south London, which can accommodate up to 60 people, the company is the brainchild of Anna Venturi, a Milanese caterer who saw the rise in the popularity of celebrity chefs as an opportunity to offer cookery lessons to work teams.
Costing around £120 per person for four hours, the team is split into groups who are given responsibility for preparing a starter, main course or dessert. And, of course, like all good kitchens, wine is readily available.
She says: “Cookery is good for bonding because people have to work together. Preparing a meringue, for example, requires a number of stages and precision.”
According to Venturi, clients sometimes use the experience to mix up personalities in one group or to give a new recruit a leadership role to develop their confidence.
“But the whole point is to come here and have fun,” she adds. “Many of my clients are from blue-chip companies who work extremely hard, and they appreciate the opportunity to relax and spend quality time together.”
Case study: Nationwide Building Society
After several changes of management, Nationwide Building Society’s head of operational risk unit, Lisa White, wanted her department to work more effectively as a team, to get to know each other better and draw out their different skills.
She enrolled her 16-strong team – split between offices in Swindon and Northamptonshire – on a one-day urban orienteering event in Oxford organised by City Challenge.
She says: “We needed an event where learning would be an integral part of having a good time. It wasn’t about putting people in a classroom but about getting out and taking part – seeing things from different peoples’ perspectives and working together in a co-ordinated fashion.”
According to White, encouraging people to work together in this way brought out previously unearthed skills. “It was enlightening to give them the opportunity to shine, demonstrating skills I hadn’t seen before,” she adds.
Back in the workplace, White says changes have been made in which individuals get allocated which projects, enabling them to develop their new-found skills, and take on new responsibilities and more challenging work.