Team building: Personnel Today goes to Spy School

Left to right: Louisa Peacock, Dawn Spalding and Tony PettengellA ‘spy school’ team bonding day turned out to be less about black ties, private jets and gadgets and more about mud, clay pigeon shooting and silly outfits.

The word ‘spy’ is an evocative one. Who hasn’t dreamed of snooping around, armed with improbable gadgets and weapons, getting the girl or boy and, almost as an afterthought, saving the world? And as for all that Bondian glamour – beautiful people, designer clothes, top hotels, luxurious travel, Daniel Craig…

Our heads turned by the thrill of it all, nine of the Personnel Today team enlisted in Spy School run by The Teambuilding Company for a day’s team building. A warm but grey morning in early November saw us head to the New Forest, cooing over the scenery and the ponies as we pondered the indignities we suspected were in store.

Any romantic ideas of evening wear and poker were dispelled upon arrival at a disused RAF base, when we were sent off to choose from a range of ‘one-size-fits-none’ camouflage jackets, our only accessories an assortment of less than glamorous black caps, hugely oversized leather gloves and some particularly becoming camouflage make-up.

The latter was enthusiastically applied, although this may be more to do with several of the team being old enough to appreciate Adam Ant and his facial stripes than with a desire to blend into the background.

Our first mistake…

Having decided to pit the men against the women – gender war is alive and well at your favourite HR mag – the fairer sex headed off to tackle a bridge-building challenge.

This involved moving our team of five across a series of barrels and platforms, which we had been instructed to imagine were the remains of a bridge across a ravine, equipped only with a plank and a couple of poles. Much head scratching ensued but we completed the task on time, carefully ignoring the expression on our instructor’s face.

The teams then swapped tasks, and the women tackled ‘cypher’, another game dependent on planning, team work – and refraining from rushing into things gung-ho. Again, brains triumphed, but only just, over our more macho colleagues’ apparent inability to follow rules and instructions. You may spot a pattern emerging. (continues below)

The third activity – and possibly the most eagerly anticipated – was lunch. By this stage, even the more optimistic among us had realised that we wouldn’t be dining in a gourmet restaurant favoured by international criminals, and we’d begun to fret that we might be faced with army rations.

It was with considerable relief that we found ourselves in The Woolpack, a thatched 17th century hostelry, which once played host to Greta Garbo. Dire “I vant to be alone…” jokes aside, this provided the perfect opportunity to catch up with how all the teams had fared with their first two challenges, and to enjoy the reaction of the locals as we trooped in, camouflaged and ready for battle. Disappointingly, they were evidently used to it, and barely looked up from their cod and chips.

The beast within

The afternoon saw our inner warriors take over, with normally peace-loving members of the team channelling their inner Rambo. Laser clay pigeon shooting was oddly addictive, once we’d got used to the weight of the 12-bore guns, although one member of the team, who shall remain nameless, was surprised to be shooting at discs rather than pigeon-shaped decoys.

Armed with Pulse Ranger laser guns that made wonderfully realistic gunfire and exploding grenade noises, one team was instructed to defend a flag, while the other was to seize it.

This was enormous fun, although alarming to see just how swiftly the patina of civilisation disappeared, Lord of the Flies-like, to be replaced by crazed bloodlust and the type of dramatics and acrobatics generally unknown outside the works of Sylvester Stallone.

So enthusiastically did we embrace the joys of running through smoke and flares, hiding behind derelict buildings and shooting at our colleagues, that several of us forgot that we were also being shot at, and, miraculously, a ‘dead’ person managed to seize the flag. While we at Personnel Today like to feel we can boast a wide range of skills, beyond the grave military manoeuvres are beyond even us.

Was this a good use of a day? Did it bond the team? Yes – and maybe. At the most basic level, it got us away from the office. We were forced to think about things we don’t normally deal with, and dragged out of our comfort zones. It was a well organised day, and the staff knew what they were talking about – they were fun, approachable and ever-vigilant in terms of our safety.

I’m not sure any of us will be giving up our day jobs, although rumour has it that a couple of the girls are already considering target practice as a hobby.

What the team thought

News editor Louisa Peacock: “I happened to be the ‘dead’ person who seized the flag. Glory and victory were all mine – until I realised that because I’d been shot just seconds before it didn’t count. But this didn’t matter, as it was a day where rules weren’t strictly adhered to, and we got the points anyway.

“And that’s what I liked about it. The game was not overly competitive just a chance to charge around a derelict military base with green paint all over your face, shouting and screaming and shooting randomly at your colleagues. Definitely more Army School than Spy School, and a visit from Daniel Craig would have been a nice touch.”

John Charlton and Tony Pettengell shootingTraining and coaching and legal editor John Charlton: “Spy School turned out to be a misnomer. I’d imagined cracking codes, covert operations, roulette, chain smoking, martini swilling and bevies of beauties. At least we got the latter from our female colleagues (am I allowed to say that, ‘M’?).

“Nevertheless the team games and rivalries, as always, worked well in breaking down barriers between participants, and we had a great laugh. Perhaps we could have kicked off with some team psychometrics – such as Belbin – and structured the teams accordingly. This would have helped create greater awareness of team dynamics.”

Reporter Guy Logan: “Spy School definitely shattered the team’s preconceptions about what is involved in the life of MI5 operatives. Opting for a ‘classic’ training, the team found itself kitted out in army surplus outfits, crawling through dirt, building pretend bridges over lakes and rivers of lava (convincingly represented by blue and red gym mats), and shooting each other in full-frontal assaults. Still, when we get held hostage by a crack commando squad from People Management or HR Magazine, at least we’ll be able to overcome them with no more than a stapler and some duct tape.”

Group production editor Tony Pettengell: “Quite where the ‘spy’ element came into it was not clear. While it was good to run about shooting laser guns, take out plastic pigeons with a laser rifle and club John Charlton over the head with a bridge-building log, there was a distinct lack of subterfuge, double agents and absolutely no sign of Miss Moneypenny, let alone Pussy Galore.

“And having taken the flag for the men’s team, I was dismayed that the women’s team were allowed to nab our flag despite being ‘dead’, Louisa Peacock having taken several point-blank hits to the head from my trusty Smith & Wesson laser repeater.

“The mental exercises demonstrated that the men’s team was less inclined to think and more inclined to do – without much success. However, all those years spent shooting at coconuts in fairgrounds paid off for the men, as they easily outshot the women’s team when the guns came out.”

Louisa Peacock and Dawn Spalding tackle one of the Spy School exercises

We were guests of The Teambuilding Company

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