Team-building exercises that participants will actually enjoy

Keys to building camaraderie among colleagues
Keys to building camaraderie among colleagues

Team building activities and icebreakers can be a tricky part of meeting planning.
Do it well, and they can help colleagues forge relationships and teach participants how to work together more productively.

But to get there, organizers often have to overcome some resistance.

“People are very skeptical when they come to a ‘team building activity,’” says Marc Merulla, the president of Team Building Montreal/Ottawa/Quebec, a company that organizes activities in its three namesake cities. “I’ll hear people say, ‘I almost didn’t show up for work today when I heard we were doing team building (activities).’”

The problem is that the thought of team building exercises often conjures up images of awkward, cheesy activities.

“Initially when they hear team-building, they have these images of being blindfolded and falling off the edge of a table and being caught by their co-workers,” Mr. Merulla says.

To pull off a successful team-building event, the first thing to do is  figure out what you’re trying to get out of it. Are you trying to break the ice and introduce strangers to one another? Bring an established group closer together? Inject some creativity into a team before they get to work on a visioning or strategic planning initiative?

“They should be thinking about what they want to accomplish, what the objectives are,” Mr. Merulla says.

If a team-building activity is part of a larger event, he says it’s important to make sure the spirit of the activity is aligned with the overarching themes of the conference or
meeting.

Picking the right team-building activity also means thinking about who the participants are.

“The ones that stand out for me are the ones that didn’t work, where it was just the wrong tactic to employ for the group,” says Peggy Nieghorn, the director of business development at Ottawa’s Intertask Conferences. “The ones that do work well, the organizer has a very clear objective of what they want to achieve and they’re also very familiar with the group that they’re going to be asking to do this. The demographic of the group and the size is going to be very important.”

It’s also essential to make sure that participants are physically able to do the activity.

“People don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their colleagues,” Ms. Nieghorn says.

‘Serious fun’

For Mr. Merulla, team building is all about experiential learning.

“I call it serious fun,” he says. “Companies will give me some learning objectives, like collaboration or managing change or strategic planning or whatever their main messages are, and I incorporate that into an activity.”

Mr. Merulla’s favourite team-building activity is one he invented. Called “The Ramp,” it involves dividing the participants into 10 teams. They have to work together to build a ramp that a ball can roll down. Each team builds a single section, but the catch is that they’re not allowed to talk to each other. Teams are, however, allowed to communicate in a few specific ways.

“Everybody’s responsible for the success of the company. If one team decides to go rogue, or do their own thing, or be creative or innovative without communicating that to the other teams, the ramp won’t work and there will be a gap in the middle,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how creative or innovative your little team is, if it doesn’t align with the vision of the rest of the company, it could cause some problems.”

Scavenger hunts and rallies are also a go-to for Mr. Merulla. However, he says it’s important to keep activities relevant.

He says he recently did a type of scavenger hunt, called a high-tech rally, for the CBC. Participants were divided up into teams of five and given an iPad with a map of Ottawa on it. The idea was that they’d go to the destinations on the map and click on a “waypoint” in the iPad’s screen that would give them a question about something they were seeing that was related to the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

The idea was to make it both a team building and learning experience.

While the activity was a competitive one – teams received points for correctly answering questions – there were also organization-wide goals, such as “unlocking” a charitable donation if all the teams collectively surpassed a certain number of points. That way, he says, everyone was working towards the same goal, even as they raced to get there.

“Team-building can just be a shared experience … You’re accustomed to sitting next to these people in an office, so just experiencing white-water rafting, or zip-lining, or doing a tour, all of those can be a shared experience that the group can talk about later,” says Ms. Nieghorn.

Mr. Merulla says he usually gets called in when things are going well at a company.  

“Team-building isn’t about fixing something that’s broken. It’s about giving people the opportunity  to identify and practice elements that they need to bring to the team,” he says.

Team-building activity ideas:

Scavenger hunt/rally

For events with a lot of out-of-town visitors, a scavenger hunt can also be a way to introduce people to the city. These events can combine competition and teamwork. There are a lot of scavenger hunt apps that can make organizing a scavenger hunt easy, but Mr. Merulla says organizers should make sure to keep it relevant. There’s no point in doing a generic scavenger hunt. Make it local and make it specific.

Go-karting

“Go-karting would be a great option for a younger crowd,” says Ms. Nieghorn. This kind of event is good to help people get to know each other or celebrate, but is not the type of activity to use to send a message beyond fun..

Axe-throwing

A newer trend, this activity is pretty much just what it sounds like. “Go-karting, wall-climbing, paintball, all of those are physical, they kind of allow you to shake out the cobwebs and have some fun with colleagues,” Ms. Nieghorn says. But these events aren’t for everyone. “You don’t really want anyone to feel left out so you need a robust group to do those sorts of things.”

Escape rooms

These aren’t just fun, they can also help teams build communication skills, Ms. Nieghorn says.

Film a commercial

Give participants the equipment to film a commercial for the company. “Then it can be something that’s posted on a company website. It shows engagement with employees,” Ms. Nieghorn says. “That kind of thing can say, ‘This is a dynamic company.”