9 effective team building activities to try this year

Whether you're trying to mend a broken team, make newcomers feel welcome or reward a high-performing team, finding the right team building activity is key. Here are 9 popular activities and why they work.

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The time has come. You can’t avoid it any longer. You can already here the screams of protest. But there is no way out of it: You absolutely must do a team building event.

Maybe someone quit. Or the team isn’t performing well. Maybe your boss suggested it. Or there has been a lot of absenteeism. There is always a reason for investing time and effort in activities that make your team work better.

The data on team building tells a story you can’t ignore:  According to Gallup's State of the American Workplace report, most US workers (51%) are disengaged from their workplace. This is bad for business. Engaged employees produce better business outcomes, show up to work and do more of it, improve customer relationships, and obtain more impressive organic growth than those that aren’t engaged.

Last time you tried it, though, it was a disaster. “Paint ball will be a blast!” You insisted to a room full of sullen stares. And, sure enough, by the end of the day, paintball had disintegrated into a full-on war. There are still factions not speaking to each other.

So what’s your next idea?

 “How about axe throwing!”

Team building activities and why they work

  1. Throw sharp objects
  2. Hunt for hidden treasure
  3. Go organic
  4. Escape from it all
  5. Build bridges
  6. Build bikes for charity
  7. Dine in a vineyard
  8. Rock out
  9. Get a massage

1. Throw sharp objects

If you’ve got a new team or a team that gets along well, axe throwing might be a fun way to spend some time getting to know each other while blowing off a little steam.

“As with anything that’s supposed to be fun, 25 percent of your people will be gung-ho,” says Adrian Gostick, author of The Best Team Wins. “Some will be reluctant but will get into the swing. But there will be a few who will say, ‘This is stupid and why are they dragging me out here.’”

Still, there is a lot of time to talk and get to know each other while other people are throwing axes. And with all the movement, waiting for your turn, and the necessity to form teams, it’s hard for subgroups to isolate themselves and avoid people they don’t know. Also? Drinking to excess is not allowed. “This can be a good event,” says Gostick. “But you can't force people to have fun.”

Avoid it, though, if your team is fighting, broken, not functioning, and still angry from the paintball debacle. “Do not give those people sharp objects!” warns Liane Davey, Ph.D. and author of  Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track. “You have to be much more careful when you are trying to rebuild trust.” In that case, hire a professional facilitator to help.

When it works?
This is a social outing that gives people a chance to get to know each other in a fun, relaxed setting. Warning: If your teams hates each other, they are now armed with axes.

2. Hunt for hidden treasure

Ex private eye Jayson Wechter has been taking IT teams on team-building adventures through the streets of San Francisco for over two decades.  He builds a custom treasure hunt for each one.

“I first get information about the participants – their job, age range, how active they are, if they are competitive, and if they live in the area or are coming in from somewhere else,” he explains. This knowledge helps him avoid cultural references a non-American won’t get or clues that will be too easy for a local or too hard for an out-of-towner. “Then we meet in the game zone for a briefing and to go over the mechanics of the event and concepts of collaborative problem solving and working effectively as a team.”

Armed with supplies and clues, everyone goes out into the city to find answers. Along the way, you get a fascinating tour of San Francisco’s lesser known places, people, and history. “Finding the clues is like working a crime scene for small details,” explains Wechter. “It requires effective collaboration.”

In many workplace situations, there is one person – often a man – who dominates meetings and is seen as a leader. “But the most effective leader is not the person with the strongest personality,” says Wechter. “It’s the person who enables every member of the team to contribute as fully as possible.”

He often sees teams learn this lesson. While they are having fun, they see how they would play better if they listened to everyone.

When it works:
This event teaches leadership, effective collaborative, and a bit of history. It is a fun puzzle for smart teams that enjoy games.

3. Go organic

“The best team building exercise I was part of,” says Lisa Brand, a marketing executive in Los Angeles, happened on its own.” It started with a challenge: Bring in the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich you can make. People had strong feelings, it turned out, about the lowly PB&J. And submissions came in from all over the company.

“People brought in everything from gourmet confections to Skippy and grape jelly,” says Brand. Along the way, everyone shared stories about the role of PB&J in their life, ate each other’s offerings, chatted, and had fun. Without anyone having to call it a “Team Building Exercise,” it became a monthly challenge. Each one a different “Best version of…” category. Eventually relationships and friendships were formed around simple foods.

Key to the success of this organic team building, was the role managers played in recognizing, encouraging, and participating in it. No manager stepped in to wonder why everyone was taking a break to eat sandwiches. Instead, the contest was given space, time, and official sanction.

“A meal where you aren’t forced into uncomfortable one-on-one conversations is a great place to start with a new team,” agrees Davey. “Everyone has the chance to talk to each other, learn something about their background, and build trust.”

When it works:
Everyone needs to eat. If you find a way to make that social, you can build fundamental team relationships organically.

4. Escape from it all

“Escape rooms are a fun way to build on a team’s communication and problem-solving skills,” suggests Georgene Huang, CEO and Co-Founder of Fairygodboss.com, a career community for women. “They force you to work as a team in a pseudo 'high stakes' environment without any risks.”

Each person brings specific skills to this sort of game and all are necessary. So, it’s a great way to play off everyone's strengths. There is a time pressure, but no real-world consequences for failure. People will have to throw in, communicate, and work together to solve the puzzle and escape the room in the allotted time.

“What’s interesting about escape rooms,” says David Goldstein, COO of TeamBonding.com. “Is that the team members don't know they are working together. But they have to in order to succeed. I am the guy that that picks everything up and turns it over. I am not the guy who solves the puzzle. But both of those people are necessary.”

When it works:
Locking a broken team into a room for an hour might not be a great idea. However, new teams will gain from this collaborative puzzle solving event. Solid working teams will kill it.

5. Build bridges

“We had the technical operations team build a bridge,” says Emily King, Human Resources Director for ScienceLogic. “It was a blast.”

They broke the group down into six groups of four, gave everyone a bag of marshmallows, a box of toothpicks, and some magnets and asked each team to build a suspension bridge over some tables. They had 20 minutes. The best bridge would win a prize.

But before the timer started, everyone did the Gallup StrengthsFinder test. This assessment identifies if people are ‘strategic’ (able to plan and spot patterns) or if they have ‘positivity’ or ‘command’ (where they have presence, take control, and make decisions) along with many other qualities.

“It was very funny to watch,” laughs King. “Everyone doing it found it great fun, too.” One team, with too many strategic members talked and planned so much they ran out of time and never started their bridge. Another, with too many doers jumped in and started building without listening to the instructions. They had to start over and never finished their bridge.

“The group I worried about the most,” says King. “Had one woman who asked question after question. I thought they would use up all the time answering those. The leader was ‘empathetic’ and worked hard to make sure everyone was on board. In the end, they worked so well together they won.”

When it works:
This sort of facilitated team building where someone guides a team through a test works for any team and is a good solution for a team that needs to work on building trust and psychological safety.

6. Build bikes for charity

“The most popular team building event in the world, right now,” says Goldstein of TeamBonding.com. “Is the Charity Bike Build.”

That’s where a team shows up to assemble bicycles for children who have never had one. The bike building itself is something of a team building exercises, as the participants have to work. It’s also good for retention and company culture because people want to feel good about where they work and charity events give them that.

But giving the bikes away is when the real magic happens. “When the kids show up and accept the bicycles,” says Goldstein. “People cry.”

The groups go from worrying about work that won’t get done because of this team building event to enjoying having permission to build a bike for a kid to understanding that their workload, that issue they’re having with someone on the team, their commute, or whatever else it is that they are feeling sorry for themselves over is nothing compared to a child that has never owned a bike.

“This is the thing I am most proud of about my work,” says Goldstein.

When it works:
This is a great event for a team that’s working well together and doesn’t need to get to know each other.

7. Dine in a vineyard

 “Eating together is a great way to build trust,” says Davey. And culinary team building events are wildly popular. Cooking classes can be fun. But it can be hard to find a class that hits everyone’s skill level. And someone who goes home from work to cook for a family might be annoyed by it. But events where the participants eat, preferably in some lovely setting, are welcomed by everyone.

“I did a fantastic event with a fairly new team,” says Davey. “We had a meal in a beautiful vineyard.” Appetizers were served outside in the vineyard, among the vines. Then the group moved into the caves for the salad course. Each course got a new location – and a new seating arrangement.

“They had a wonderful room with a big roaring fireplace where we ate desert and enjoyed an open time where we could join any group or talk one-on-one. It was an excellent team-building event.”

When it works:
This is a great for any team that needs to get to know each other. There is plenty of opportunity for conversation and no forced groupings or physical activity.

8. Rock out

Karaoke is so last decade. This year, it’s all about live band Karaoke. League of Rock specializes in team building events where you get to get up on stage and perform in front of a rock band. It’s so much classier and Karaoke and takes the experience to a whole new level.

It’s really fun,” says Davie. “You are on stage. It’s your big chance to play the guitar or be the rock star you have always dreamed of being. But it is just as fun if you don't want to get on stage. You are in the audience watching your teammates rock out.”

This is the sort of team building that takes a working team to the next level. It gives them a shared history and builds on their relationship rather than just helping them get to know each other.

“This is the sort of event where people end up with nicknames and in-jokes emerge,” says Davey.

When it works:
Got a team that works? Want to bring them closer? This is a great way to do that.

9. Get a massage

When Xavier Lee, now head of executive coaching at Ideal Coaching Global and a partner at Centered Leadership Institute, worked on a high-functioning team that had just had an immensely successful year, his team – of about 50 people – went to Thailand for team building.

This is the sort of team building event that is, at least in part, a reward. Travel puts everyone on equal footing, gets people to stop the daily grind and enjoy each other’s company, and builds strong relationships and fond memories.

Lee’s team was living and working in Asia at the time, so it wasn’t distant travel. “It was fantastic,” he says. “There were chartered busses to take us to the sites. We went to temples and took a guided tour of Bangkok. We went to a nice dinner with a show. Then we got a massage.”

It’s hard to imagine a team that would whine and complain about that kind of team building event. But you don’t have to go all the way to Asia for it.

When this works:
When a team is really working, it shows in your bottom line. If that’s the case, spoil them, make them feel appreciated, and cement the team’s relationships.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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