Why team-building is more important than ever

It’s coming. Maybe in your world, it’s already here. The inevitable slowdown and corporate belt-tightening. After a decade of global economic growth, the drums of warning have begun to beat, as stock markets are suddenly more wobbly and economists warn of the increasing possibility of darkened skies ahead.

You’re already trying to do more with less. In North America, meeting budgets are projected to rise by less than 1 percent this year, while group hotel rates and group airfares will jump by more than twice that, according to American Express Meetings & Events.

In light of all this, pressure to justify every element of the meeting spend will increase. Where can you save, and what can be cut—partially or entirely? Historically, team-building activities have been a tempting target. They can be expensive. And they have a checkered reputation. Will goat yoga or blindfolded bungee jumping really bond co-workers? Is corporate fun worth the cost?

Seasoned organizational development and leadership coaching experts, such as Brian Formato, founder of Groove Management in Charlotte, North Carolina, argue that tougher times require cohesive work teams more than ever. “The best time to make the investment in team building and calling a team time-out is when things are not going well. It is an opportunity to recharge the team and to get everyone back on the winning track,” he says. “Sports teams call time-outs more often when things are not going well than when they are winning. There might be a good lesson here for companies, as well. A team time-out is a small investment in terms of time and money that can pay huge dividends when a turnaround is required.”

Business journalist Pat Olsen echoed this sentiment in Harvard Business Review: “When a team is learning to operate in a new, no-frills environment, group activities designed to foster collaborative problem-solving can be especially productive.”

So, how do you convince clients and bosses that team building in tougher times is more important than ever? Consider this your primer.

1. Be Strategic

Christy Lamagna, CMP, CMM, CTSM, founder of Strategic Meetings & Events in New York City and a meeting mentor for Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts, believes every program element of a well-planned meeting should serve a strategic purpose, including team building. She divides the process of strategic meeting planning into two primary components: goals and target audience.

Start with the end in mind. “What is the goal?” she asks. “Is it team building, ice-breaking, networking, breaking down barriers? If you know the specific strategic goal the meeting is designed to support, your foundation is firmly in place.”

After the goal is understood, shine the spotlight on who will be attending—and, most importantly, survey them. “Ask the audience what is meaningful, enjoyable, engaging, comfortable, desirable, to them, and then set out to create the activity. When we stop trying to provide all the answers and instead ask questions and listen, the chance of success goes up exponentially,” she says.

Who hasn’t seen—or at least heard horror stories about—team-building attempts gone horribly wrong? Forcing attendees to venture too far outside their comfort zones, physically or emotionally, can lead to alienation and withdrawal. In short, you can unhinge the team rather than strengthen it.

Planning an activity that is both on target strategically and enjoyable for the group is the holy grail of team building. “If karaoke is going to break down the emotional walls and get the group to come together and bond, loathsome as you may find karaoke to be, that’s what you need to offer,” Lamagna says. “Give the audience what they want and you’ll influence their behavior so that you get what you want. In this case, it’s supporting the strategic goal the meeting was designed to support.”

What the group wants may be place-specific. A coastal location begs for beach and ocean activities. Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay, for example, builds group team-building around whale watching, stand-up paddleboarding, sand-castle contests and similar coastal Central California experiences.

On the other hand, team building at El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort—the sole IACC-certified venue in Southern Arizona—takes advantage of its almost-constant sunshine and mountain-edged setting to stage scavenger hunts and other desert adventures. And while a round of golf might not be every attendee’s first pick, bonding over food and drink while teaming to win at a Topgolf location can forge improved communication and understanding.

Lamagna, who wrote the book The Strategic Planning Guide for Event Professionals, cites the example of a meeting she was hired to produce for a company with three distinct business units, each of which operated in silos, with separate executive teams, goals and cultures. Each division produced more than $1 billion in revenue. The units were being combined into a single organization. “No one was interested in doing things differently. It was an enormous power struggle, and the ballroom atmosphere was as close to the inside of a powder keg as I’ve ever been,” she says.

Lamagna slipped on her listening cap. “Realizing that team building may result in bodily harm to not just the audience but to those who suggested it, we spent time listening to the fears, frustrations and concern of a cross section of the audience. We realized that people wanted to be heard, validated, seen and remain relevant.”

So, how did she tie these learnings into team building? “We brought in a speaker from the area who showed a video about a local family who had adopted 13 special-needs children. This was a poor family, but it was all about helping the kids and providing a loving home. The video highlighted that the house was overrun with ‘stuff,’ as there were more things than space, and the family’s need was evident,” she recounts.

The speaker asked if half the group would be willing to make personalized cubbies for the kids so each could have a place to put their toys. The other half was asked to build a stage and assemble simple puppets for the kids to put on plays.

The group was soon nailing, painting, gluing and laughing—and focusing on the family’s needs, not their own. When the project was done, the family and all the kids walked into the room and saw what the team had built. “The attendees were visibly touched as they watched the reaction to their work. It segued into grown men sitting on the floor playing with puppets with kids on their laps, power women kicking off their shoes and dancing on the platform stage with kids, and everyone focused on something other than themselves,” she says.

Lamagna’s conclusion: “There were many lessons to be learned that day, and none of them would have transpired if we didn’t stop to listen and then create a strategic plan to deliver on the attendees’ wants. The result was not a seamless transition, but tremendous progress was made in those 90 minutes, all because we thought and planned strategically.”

2. Curtail Other Costs

“Strategic cost management will be an increasingly crucial component of the business-event planner’s skill set.” —2019 Global Meetings & Events Forecast, American Express Meetings & Events

Anne Thornley-Brown, president of Executive Oasis International in Toronto and a sought-after team-building facilitator herself, is a big advocate of finding ways to trim meeting costs while at the same time making sure team building is an investment that continues to be made.

Her cost-slashing strategies include mounting on-site meetings in locations where interruptions can be controlled—a branch office of the same company, for instance. Other options include swapping meeting spaces with a supplier or client and using a hybrid format (a combination of videoconferencing and face-to-face sessions).

Meeting in lower-cost, alternative venues is another way to reduce expense. “I’m not knocking resorts, but local churches, for example, sit empty during business hours, and many have state-of-the-art AV, kitchens, meeting rooms and breakout spaces.” For one client on a tight budget, she designed a winter retreat that included a takeover of a local conservatory, where she staged an island survival theme that included a photo safari of the different plants and Caribbean catering from a West Indian restaurant.

Other alternative venues, Thornley-Browne says, can include college or university campuses, libraries, city hall or other municipal buildings, country clubs (if your meeting executives are members), art galleries, community theaters, movie theaters, conservation areas and summer camps in off-season.

3. Demonstrate ROI

Controlling expenses, which is sure to be popular with those who sign the checks, is in the toolbox of most planners. But Thornley-Brown believes demonstrating ROI for meetings—and team building, in particular—is less common, but shouldn’t be.

“We have made a big mistake by not tying team building to the bottom line,” she says. “I’ll be very frank. I’ve seen a lot of planners’ eyes glaze over when ROI is mentioned. Planners get excited about design, music and all that, but if we don’t learn to talk the language of the C-suite, we are going to be viewed as irrelevant…and maybe even extinct.”

That language is rooted in metrics. These include measures such as absentee and productivity rates, profitability and overtime costs. Teamscapes, a UK-based experiential learning company, recommends tracking before and after measurements of key metrics (the after-event measures should be taken at monthly intervals), supplemented by surveys of group attitudes about the team-building activity and its effectiveness.

The most quantifiable way to show that a team-building exercise pays off is for it to generate revenue directly. Thornley-Brown says one approach she’s successfully used is for teams to compete in designing and executing revenue-generating projects, such as guerilla-marketing initiatives, pop-up events or flash sales, for the company or a charitable cause. To support these projects, other teams can design, shoot and launch a video across social media platforms.

Thornley-Brown calls another exercise “The Quest for Black Gold.” Participants begin by identifying business challenges, team dynamics and interaction styles in a series of small group exercises. “Next, they are taken to the desert and given the task of using clues to locate an abandoned oil field and broken-down oil derrick. If they succeed, they will pump black gold…oil…and enjoy a celebration under the stars,” she says.

The next day, at a debriefing, teams articulate tools and strategies they used to be successful. “Through facilitated business exercises, they identify untapped markets for existing products or services, and hidden business opportunities,” she says. “Then, teams formulate a plan that they implement back at work to generate revenue.”

Of course, team building ROI can be quantified in other ways, too (see sidebar on page 64). As Lain Hensley, co-founder and head dream chaser of Odyssey Teams in Chico, California, puts it, “Although it is hard to measure the value of a healthy team, we have all experienced the pain of being on an unhealthy team. Common sense tells us that good teams make happy people, and happy people work better.

“People want to know three things about their boss or teammates: Who are you? Where are you going? And can I trust you? If people have positive answers to these three questions, you can move mountains. The long-term ROI of great team building answers these questions and gives people a common experience that will reset the emotional memory of the group.”

4. Give Back

During tougher economic times, people everywhere are most in need, and companies can best leverage CSR activities with their employees and markets. Team building with a CSR focus is often the easiest sell to corporate executives, who frequently have personal or company philanthropic targets to hit in their annual plans.

Rare is the destination that doesn’t offer a robust menu of CSR options, particularly if there has been a recent natural disaster or weather event. Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort in Rio Grande, for example, is promoting team building in nearby El Yunque Rainforest to play a role in the island’s hurricane recovery. The resort even provides transportation and complimentary lunch.

Human needs, of course, are many and varied. At PCMA: Convening Leaders 2019 in Pittsburgh, attendees participated in a charity activity by packing tampons; it was preceded by a talk on “period poverty” by Nadya Okamoto, the young founder of a menstrual movement.

“The cost of the CSR program is minimal when you consider the bar bill for 1,000 people, gift bags that are often given and other typical elements to the modern meeting,” Hensley says. “Participants often appreciate that the company spent less on certain items when they see how the savings were spent on those in need. And they especially love it when they get to share in the experience of giving.”

For the past seven years, Hensley’s company has worked with Microsoft “to awaken the power of customer relationships and customer collaboration.” All college hires and many emerging leaders participate in a program designed to immerse them in a company culture attuned to responding to ongoing customer feedback. The program culminates with Odyssey Teams’ bike-building or prosthetic hand-building program. After teams build these products, children who will receive them make a surprise entry into the conference room.

“Theory becomes reality,” Hensley says. “Product is now a purpose, and the depth of impact that is possible when product and customer are united is the spark that lights the new fire that is now Microsoft.” He has produced similar trainings for pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, Gallo Glass, Wells Fargo and UCLA MBA students.

“Mass amounts of information are not enough to keep people interested and meetings are being driven more and more by emotion and impact. Even the most cynical and hardened of the group can’t resist the emotional bump and organic lessons that will flow from these kinds of experiences.”