Team-building exercises that actually work

Team-building exercises. Did you just shudder with the thought of trust falls in the company cafeteria or frivolous networking games (“find someone who wears contacts”) that make absolutely zero impact once you go back to your desks?

Of course, we’re all about collaboration in the cloud – a magical place where teamwork never goes awry or awkward – but we also absolutely recognize the importance of trust and camaraderie. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to build that up in person. Bottom line: it helps to like, respect, trust and “get” your coworkers. It helps your morale and, in turn, helps your productivity. Team-building is good business.

But team-building exercises often miss the mark. I asked around in order to find some success stories to share. The results, as you can imagine, varied dramatically.

Thrills and spills: pros and cons

Some companies are finding success by pulling employees out of their comfort zones and putting them in sink-or-swim scenarios like zombie obstacle courses, paintball battles or Survivor-style competitions while camping. OnClick Marketing tried the latter recently; senior account manager Lowrey Moyer reported that “The adventure did not disappoint. You really see each other’s true colors when you are depending on each other for ‘survival.’ Overall, there was a great deal of bonding that went on, and a lot of us are a lot closer and work really well together as a result.”

That’s the ultimate goal: to have fun today, but have it actually impact the way you work together tomorrow (and in six months).

Steve Wolf runs Stunt Ranch in Austin, Texas, a perfect place to go if you’re shooting a movie that relies on a lot of pyrotechnics and stunts – or if you’re a company looking to give your employees a day a little more memorable than Taco Tuesday.

“We have found that spending a day blowing things up together, making huge movie fireballs, and shooting each other in realistic military style paintball games does indeed build camaraderie,” says Wolf.

Of course, not everyone in your office is going to be a camping enthusiast like Moyer or a paintball Rambo. But even smaller-scale and less-intense competitions can pay similar dividends and provide a handy opportunity to “force” employees to spend time with colleagues outside of their normal circles.

Taking inspiration from Survivor or The Amazing Race can backfire, too. Professional event manager Cassandre Snyder cautions against these outings, saying she’s witnessed numerous injuries. If it’s a physical activity, people who aren’t physically fit may be unlikely to pipe up with a contrary opinion when your office gym rat is talking about what an awesome time she had. “If it is done one year, they never want to do it the following year,” Snyder says. She suggests charity events – everything from Habitat for Humanity to putting on talent shows for terminally ill children – as a replacement.

Team-building through charity

Charitable causes are popular with team-building experts (they’re popular at Central Desktop, too; our team recently ran-walked a charity 5K as part of our ongoing CD Gives program). If your goal is simply to blow off steam and have some fun, a happy hour or a trivia lunch may do the job. If you really want to build teamwork and change the way you collaborate on a daily basis – like when you’re actually, y’know, working – you may want to forget the fun and games.

“I think the best way to build a team is to have them work on a real problem together,” says Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC. “As long as the team is working on something ‘real,’ it does not really matter if the project is for the business or outside work.” Steere, too, mentions volunteering opportunities as a great opportunity for a team to solve problems and “become more cohesive, efficient, and productive.”

Outside-the-box thinking

While Steere recommends using real problems to test your team’s ability to rise to a challenge, other companies find success with fantastical problems that will never surface during the course of a regular day-to-day. Freebairn & Company is a creative marketing agency in Atlanta; they recently constructed a scarecrow (CROWTRON 3000) for a local botanical garden. “In our computer-based work environment, it allowed us to create something tangible and physical,” says Brooke Wilson, SVP of strategy and content. Instead of pitting teams within the company against each other, this approach pits your united company against other external competitors.

CROWTRON won first prize in the professional category and will be coming back to live with its makers at the agency, giving them a permanent reminder of their teamwork triumph. And quite a conversation piece.

Teamwork: you get what you pay for

“I’ve been managing people for 20+ years on two continents and what I find is that team-building exercises are BS,” says iPlace USA SVP Jeanne Heydecker. “I always found them awkward and being forced to make nice to people I had no respect for was a total waste of time.” For Heydecker, the way to foster teamwork is to provide real incentives (aka $$$). Employees still work toward individual goals, but also have team objectives, which are tied to team incentives and allow employees to earn “a much more significant bonus per month.” If your business pays lip service to team accomplishments but ties all of its bonuses and performance reviews to individual accomplishments, you haven’t really taken the plunge.


Finally, when you’re putting together your plan, don’t forget to heed one of the lessons from our Breaking Bad teamwork gallery: never underestimate the value of free food. “As simple as it sounds, employees are more willing to participate if there’s a treat in it for them,” says Deborah Sweeney, CEO of “Talking over food comes naturally to people, so I’ve found that team-building exercises prove very effective while enjoying a little snack.”

Have you organized or participated in a team-building event that made a positive impact on the way you work together? We’d love to hear about it.

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.