An exercise in bonding: does team building work?

Are team-building weekends away from the office an effective way of breaking down barriers within a group or outstation jollies...

Are team-building weekends away from the office an effective way of breaking down barriers within a group or outstation jollies with short-lived results? Annie Gurton reports from the front

In the 1990s, taking your team to learn to abseil down a cliff face, battle with paint balls or build a raft to cross a river were vaunted as the way to bond teams and get them to work effectively together. Many away weekends also combined classroom-based training such as leadership skills or media training with outdoor activities.

Such events are just as popular now, says Iain Jennings, managing director of Peak Activities, which organises courses comprising a wide variety of events and activities. He says, "We still get lots of IT firms using our courses for team building as well as leadership and management development, as well as for pure 'jollies' just for fun and reward."

He believes their value is just as relevant now as in the 1980s and 1990s.

However the long-term value of away weekend bonding activities has increasingly come into question. IT manager Robert Saunders found that the effects of his away weekends were limited. "We got to know each other and it was all lovey-dovey when we worked together in little teams. The weekend was full of good intentions but nothing came of it.

"We all tried to communicate with each other for the first month afterwards but as there was no monitoring by the bosses things just went back to normal."

Consequently some managers sometimes take a more radical approach to achieve team bonding. David Ballantyne, a member of PA Consulting's Management Group, says, "We recently had a big project to review all the telecoms services for the newly merged BP and Amoco companies, and we took the team to a hotel for three months."

Isolation

Team members were isolated from their families for several weeks at a time. "The longest session was 37 days, and another time we were there for 28 days without a break home."

There was a combination of work and play, with long hours but with relaxation time and tutorial activity built in. The results were dramatic for the project, which achieved its objective of 50% reduction of telecoms costs by managed outsourcing to Worldcom.

"We had to sit down and work out how we were going to manage the different telecoms requirements of offices in different countries, belonging to previously separate companies, and in some cases using completely different equipment and with different demands.

"We had to work out how the contract and outsourcing service would work, and what service level agreements would apply. It was very complex, very challenging and very exciting," says Ballantyne.

He adds that the consultants didn't mind being away from their families for such a long time. "Of course if someone had had an emergency they would have gone home, and many of the participants went home at weekends, but essentially it was a lock-in until the job was done."

The result was a tightly-bonded team working effectively together.

Whatever approach is taken, it requires proper planning if the objectives are to be achieved. Sheila Vaughan of the Institute for Development Policy and Management at the University of Manchester, says, "It is a mistake to think that there is a connection between being able to survive the night on an open mountain and a subsequent tendency to be nice to colleagues or manage teams better."

She believes that there is a tendency for away weekends, outward bound-type activity and team building activities to be isolated, random and apparently unlinked to specific work tasks.

Objectives

Ballantyne says, "In our case it was relatively straightforward because we had a job to do and the purpose of putting the team together 24 hours a day was to achieve a specific objective."

But Vaughan says that in many cases firms put work colleagues together in isolated situations without establishing the workplace-related intentions beforehand and then without evaluating any specific benefits or differences six months later. "Training and team bonding both indoors and outdoors should be continually questioned and challenged and there should be some clear connection with the organisation's learning schemes."

She adds that failure should be seen as part of learning and embraced as an opportunity.

"The outdoors is real, unpredictable and there is nowhere to hide. Furthermore, it's fun. The workplace is also real and unpredictable but there is often opportunity to 'hide' so the away weeks or weekends have special value," Vaughan says.

The University of Manchester runs team bonding events and activities which "establish the notion that it is possible to work, to learn and too have 'serious fun' at the same time," according to Vaughan.

Putting work colleagues together in an unusual environment away from the office can be effective for motivation and an alternative to shopping vouchers as a way of rewarding and incentivising. Ballantyne believes that although outdoor pursuits has its place, isolation for specific projects can be equally effective to concentrate minds, develop team bonding and leadership and management qualities.

"A lock-in for a week or several weeks at a time sounds draconian but is surprisingly popular. We all thoroughly enjoyed the focus and the ability to get the results we were looking for."

Participation needs to be voluntary, or at least not mandatory, to achieve the necessary positive attitude. Ballantyne found that the system worked well.

"There needs to be the support mechanisms in place, such as all office services, but away from the support culture and distractions the participants are able to concentrate on the activity in focus," he says.

Saunders says that, although the organisation of the away time needs to be carefully managed and planned, it also depends on the participants to make it work. "I think that away weekends are like being at school. You've got to be relaxed and cool. Anyone who's too enthusiastic gets labelled as teacher's pet and others gang up against them. That's why I think that they don't really work. No one wants to be seen putting in too much effort."

Ballantyne disagrees, saying, "A concentrated time together can make a team bond better and work more effectively together."

Success criteria

Any course to help bond and motivate a business team will only be deemed successful if, it helps the participants to:

  • Understand the fundamentals of effective team working

  • Deal with stress, conflict and problems within the team

  • Solve problems, delegate and take instructions as necessary

  • Manage negative and positive emotions in the workplace

  • Skillfully provide constructive feedback to other team members

  • Read more on IT jobs and recruitment

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