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The guide to team-building exercises

Whether you’re building a team from scratch, actively working toward building engagement, or fostering an already high-performing team dynamic, team-building exercises are essential and should be ongoing.

At its core, a team is a mini organization.

While it’s important to measure company-wide engagement, monitoring morale and engagement on individual teams on a consistent ongoing basis is critical to organizational success. Engaged teams who work well together and work efficiently help organizations achieve their business goals. One of the simplest, most immediately impactful ways to boost team morale is to make a habit of running team-building exercises.

Just as talent-optimized organizations will adjust their people strategies on a larger scale to enhance employee engagement, team leaders will do well to keep their team members engaged by fostering collaboration and effective communication by way of both large and small team activities.

Here are some questions to ask when you’re planning team-building exercises:

What is the business context?

When planning a team-building exercise, remember that it doesn’t have to be reserved for large company-sponsored outings. It can be as simple as a 5-minute exercise at the start of a team check-in or a 30-minute activity during a quarterly meeting.

Tailoring your team-building exercises to fit the context of the time and environment in which you want to perform them will make the exercises a seamless part of your team culture. 

Who will participate?

A team can be as small as a few people or as large as a department. When thinking about team-building exercises, it’s critical to determine who will participate so you can scale appropriately.

In talent-optimized organizations, cross-functional work is inevitable. Consider using team-building exercises to bridge the gap and enhance collaboration and communication between departments that will need to interface on a regular basis.

For example, if an organization’s product team and engineering team work closely on deliverables, using team-building exercises to create cohesion can make for a more favorable output.

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How much time are we willing (or able) to spend away from our desks?

Each team’s circumstances are different. For teams frequently interfacing with customers or those deep in technical projects integral to the success of the established business strategy, finding time to step away from their desks may seem at best an inconvenience, at worst a productivity killer.

Keeping in mind that engaged employees with high morale are proven to be more productive and effective, consider planning your team-building exercise far enough in advance to provide notice to other teams or customers who may be affected by the time away. If there seems to be no time for a large-scale outing, get creative with smaller, ongoing team-building activities that can be incorporated into meeting times that have already been allotted.

Ask yourself, “What should the team gain from this exercise?”

It won’t be the same for every team, nor will it be the same for every circumstance. Establishing a goal for your team-building exercise will make narrowing down the right activity much simpler. Here are some examples of goals you may have for your team through these exercises:

Breaking the ice

If a new team member has recently joined, one of the best ways to get this new person acclimated is through a quick team-building exercise. A go-to for many teams and organizations is to share fun facts at the start of a meeting or create a crowdsourced onboarding document or team microsite where employees can write their own creative bios to share with new and existing team members.

Improving communication

For high-performing teams, communication can become almost telepathic. For newly-formed or teams experiencing conflict, communication can be an area of major contention or breakdown. Taking time away from the stresses of the day to day can create an environment that encourages open communication, building a foundation for team members to better work together when back at their workstations.

Enhancing problem-solving skills and creativity

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut from time to time. When daily demands of the job have your team blanking on what to do next, a team-building exercise that will flex problem-solving skills and creativity may help teams go back to their work with renewed energy and perspective to push the project or initiative forward.

Team-building outings, like escape rooms, or in-house activities, like scavenger hunts, can help teams work better together to solve problems through enhanced communication. When teams can work together to solve problems outside the challenges they face at their desks, they’re likely to come back with renewed perspectives and energy to tackle the issues they otherwise felt they couldn’t.

Building trust

Teams built on a foundation of trust can weather even the most difficult circumstances. Conflict at work is inevitable, so team-building exercises that help build trust and rely on accountability for success can be effective tools to get the team to a place where they can work more effectively together in the office or remotely.

Boosting morale

Let’s face it: Sometimes, teams just want to have fun. In fast-paced and slower-paced environments alike, morale can fall for a variety of reasons. The hum of the daily grind can sometimes lull employees into being less productive and more stressed. Taking the time to just kick back and enjoy time together without the pressure of delivering a work product at that moment can do wonders for team morale.

Think about the team’s work styles.

Each team dynamic is as unique as the demands of the department and the needs of the organization. If your organization collects data from workplace personality assessments, take a moment to learn about each team member and the overall group.

In a talent-optimized organization, teams are made up of diverse behavioral profiles and perspectives. In brainstorming team-building exercises, think about the various personalities and behavioral needs of the team. For teams with high drive and strong leadership qualities, activities that give people the opportunity to work together in a more competitive setting, such as Office Olympics, may be energizing. For quieter, less extraverted teams, low-stress activities that require some time for creativity and reflection, such as Paint and Sip Nights, may be preferable.

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When teams are made up of both highly independent and more collaborative team members, planning team-building exercises that can utilize smaller, diverse groups made up of members who complement each others’ strengths will be ideal. Game nights—from strategy board games to cards to charades—allow for a range of activities that leverage independent performance and collaborative effort. This will give each team member the opportunity to leverage their interests and natural aptitudes.

Get input from team members.

At the end of the day, the team-building exercise is made for the team members themselves. To boost morale and engagement, ask team members what sort of team-building exercises they would like to participate in. This can be done in an open forum, such as a meeting, or through the use of a poll or online survey. Brainstorming this way will create a log of exercises that can be performed on an ongoing basis and meet the needs of everyone involved. When team members feel ownership of their own team-building exercises, their engagement in those activities will skyrocket and the benefits will be palpable.

As you continue to engage in team-building activities, ask for feedback. Keep in mind: Feedback should not be a one-time thing. As an organization grows and team dynamics change, it’s important to continue to ask team members which exercises feel most beneficial and enjoyable and align with their needs. Keeping a pulse on what’s working and what’s not will make the activities more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Be consistent with the company and team values.

While there are plenty of options for team-building exercises, it’s important to remember that they must be consistent not only with the company’s values, but also with the values of those of the team. If the organization is dedicated to reliability and accountability, tailoring your team-building activities to build trust and require the team to rely on each other for success will be your best, most beneficial bet.

In an organization dedicated to talent optimization, team members’ values should already align with the company’s. When there’s a mismatch, it’s an opportunity to examine the company culture and determine if this is a one-off mishire or if there are deeper organizational issues. Using team-building exercises to learn more about your team dynamic will help to make better decisions around task or project assignments and uncover some strengths you may have been unaware of. It may also help disengaged employees who may seem to not foster the same values of the organization to surprise you and come on board with the company mission.

Keep going.

A one-time activity is a band aid; consistent team-building exercises can create higher morale, boost productivity, and build greater team cohesion.

Team-building exercises are an integral aspect of engagement—both in keeping a pulse on engagement levels and also providing opportunities for disengaged employees to change their tune. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding your team, taking time to step away from the day to day and interact with each other on a more personal level will set your team on a more engaged journey.

Work will always be there waiting—but having a strong team that works well together will make it all the less daunting.