GO TEAM GO! Yay or Nay?
June 9, 2013 4:27 AM   Subscribe

Employers AND Employees--have Team-Building Retreats/Experiences been beneficial in your workplace?

I'm looking for some real-world perspective on the whole team-building retreat thing--you know, the deal where either someone comes into your workplace and leads a bunch bonding, communication building activities, or where you go offsite and participate in activities.

Managers/Employers--if you've organized such a team-building experience for your team, did the results justify the expense, as well as the time off from actual day-to-day work? Were any positive results long-term? Was there anything you would do differently next time?

Employees--were you someone who did the whole eye-rolling thing at just the thought of having to spend a day going through obstacle courses or problem-solving exercises with your coworkers, but at the end of the day found value in the activities? Or were you eye-rolling until the end and beyond? Is there anything you wish would have been different about the experience to make it more beneficial?

Thanks in advance, Team MetaFilter!
posted by bookmammal to Work & Money (41 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have been employed at two major insurance companies.

I think the official team building retreats stink.

However. The alternative one that my group had in 2011 was FANTASTIC. It was the "Team Marathon." Everybody who wanted to was put into a team of 4, and every week for the entire year, there was some sort of contest. The contests were things like mini golf in the lobby, wii bowling (we own a wii, best company decision ever), identify the photoshopped picture, insurance trivia, hula hooping, the bucket game from bozo the clown show, tons of stuff. Made for good trash talking and meeting people outside our immediate group. Took a lot of time on the planners' parts, though.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 5:07 AM on June 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

As an employee I have had two experiences:

First, as a staff member in a school where most staff worked together collaboratively in small groups but most of the day was spent individually in our classrooms without interacting with each other on a larger scale it was good to have a day to build personal relationships with the whole staff (about 80 people).

Second, as a staff member in a dysfunctional worksplace of 150 people spread over six locations (so, again, working colloratively in small groups but not interacting with the larger group) under management that some people felt actively hated us (staff got at 20% pay cut and workload increase the same year upper management swelled larger and got huge pay increases...). the "team building" exercises included surreptitiously filming staff doing their jobs in challenging circumstances (reduced staff/increased workload) and then showing the video without informing the people they were going to do so and publicly criticising individual staff member's performance in the video (without mentioning the systemic problems) with those staff members in the room ... Yeah, that wasn't a good idea and five years later people are still boycotting the mandatory team building event out of fear they will be targeted next.

Good food is VERY important, as is built-in down time to socialise/network.
posted by saucysault at 5:17 AM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Short answer, no. The bonding comes from the mutual suffering you do to get through one of those things.

People drink too much, cheat on their spouses and in general it's mayhem.

Managers love them because its an excuse to drink and screw.

So...two thumbs down.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:19 AM on June 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've been in a few of these as an employee and the eyes, they never stopped rolling.

Recently I was part of a job interview for someone at the manager level. His main idea was how he was going to do lots and lots of team building, activities he'd done at previous workplaces, great ideas he had for retreats, etc. Later it became clear that the second he started down that path he lost most of the interviewers. No one wanted That Guy on the team and no one thought those ideas were valuable for us.

I've never done an offsite and maybe they're different, but I have a feeling they'd just end up with me feeling like a caged rat.
posted by Stacey at 5:27 AM on June 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah I did one of these at my first job out of college, like an obstacle course out in the woods. It was ridiculous. It would definitely be a strike against an employer (or potential employer) for me if they did things like that. IMO it amounts to treating adults like children.
posted by pete_22 at 5:36 AM on June 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

Team building exercises....I once had a retreat type thing where the activities were not actually too bad, nobody was exposed or embarrassed, but they were trying to get away with one very large group and the facilitators really were struggling because the group was just slightly too big. The social aspect was pleasant enough but this was before the recession.

After the recession started the powers to be decided they could kill two birds with one stone. So instead of paying people to entertain us and get us to bond they made us volunteer and do what I termed 'destruction' gardening - chopping down overgrown shrubs in a country park. Got a positive mention in the local paper, got a short film for the next office meeting which could be linked to whatever the leadership message was supposed to be. Main expense was lost time at work, which was half a day.

Things that have generally gone over really well at my places of work were not technically team building events but still get people to engage in different ways. Events whereby the office was raising money for charity and you do that by asking people to participate in a range of activities throughout the day, all office based. Things like the leadership team doing a sponsored space hopper race round the office for example. These things are generally a laugh, they cost very little money to set up, it doesn't take too much effort to organise and doesn't cost too much in terms of hrs of work lost. You can all feel good about supporting x, people feel more inclined to engage because they are supporting a good cause, even if participation is entirely voluntary, and everybody gets a few short breaks throughout the day doing things like cake decorating, voting for best cakes and auctioning off cakes etc....Not a classic team building event but something that gets people to engage with one another, lifts spirits and is relatively cheap and easy to organise. YMMV.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:48 AM on June 9, 2013

The most successful ones I've been involved in have been that got the right balance of formal, planned activities and time for socializing. Specifically, there should be more of the latter than the former, and the entire event should feel like it's genuinely designed for the employees, not to further a hidden management agenda.
posted by maxim0512 at 5:49 AM on June 9, 2013

Team-building for the sake of team-building, no. Inclusion in planning and deployment of a project that will involve and affect the entire company, yes.

The former is cheaper, easier, and results in HR being able to check off an item on their annual to-do list. The latter is harder, takes longer, costs more, requires full buy-in from management, and can have long-term positive effects on morale and productivity.
posted by headnsouth at 5:54 AM on June 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've never had to do a multiple day retreat but I've been in an office where we do quarterly afternoon/early evening team building activities. These activities were fun for exactly the number of billable hours the company had allotted and after that they sucked. The events were techically only mandatory for the time we were allowed to bill but it was really hard to leave and I did not want to spend the few hours I had away from work at a mandatory work activity. So basically, if you do this, make sure everyone feels like they're being paid to be there.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 5:56 AM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Team-building for the sake of team-building, no. Inclusion in planning and deployment of a project that will involve and affect the entire company, yes.

A thousand times this.

Every "team building" retreat I've been on has been excruciating and stressful because, in addition to it being miserable and me always feeling completely put on the spot (as does everyone), they take a significant chunk of time when one could be doing actual work.

The best team building exercise is to actually manage a team properly, where each person knows their role and responsibility, and make sure to go have a beer once in awhile and definitely celebrate team accomplishments. That's what makes me feel part of a team.
posted by loveyallaround at 6:38 AM on June 9, 2013 [10 favorites]

Definitely not. Almost universally excruciating. The ones that weren't excruciating were simply painful.

Another thing to consider is if you have any introverts amongst your employees, there is no good way through a team-building experience. The whole thing is pretty much the antithesis of being an introvert. Shallow, meaningless, forced interaction and conversations about things that do not matter, forced socialisation when not actually engaged in "activities", often copious amounts of alcohol... it's just bad.

I agree with loveyallaround, manage the team properly. Communicate frequently, about things that matter. Encourage moments of idle banter, but also knuckling down and getting the work done. Celebrate it when you've done a good job, take some time out to think what could have been done better when things don't go so well. That's worth 10,000 hours of trust exercises, forced secret revelations, butcher's paper/whiteboarding and bogus personality type classifications.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:52 AM on June 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

I am generally neutral about these kinds of things, and they can even be beneficial since my company is quite distributed and even in my department we are working in many different places on many different projects.

However, this year the teambuilding fell on a really busy week for me with lots of deadlines, and it was incredibly stressful to spend the whole day/s NOT working on these tasks, and then come home after a long day "working" to work on work.
posted by sarahnicolesays at 7:00 AM on June 9, 2013

When I was a corporate wage-slave I hated anything even approaching "team-building" with a passion, right down to "everybody assemble in the common area and listen to a rah-rah speech by the head honcho," and so did everybody I knew. Just let me do my fucking job and go home, is the basic employee attitude. If you are (as I suspect) management, you may not be aware of this, because no employee in their right mind is going to let you in on it; it's like officers and privates in the army—different worlds entirely. So I'm telling you now in the hope that you will take it on board and if you do insist on some such nonsense, have the decency to arrange it in a way that will make it minimally intrusive on the time and energy of the employees who are required to take part in it, and for the love of god don't demand that they manifest a lot of fake enthusiasm. Nobody wants to be there except the managers who arranged it.
posted by languagehat at 7:06 AM on June 9, 2013 [19 favorites]

I did two team building events. One was a paintball day. It was voluntary, but there was free beer at the end of the day so it had a lot of buy-in. Not sure what it did for team building, but it definitely was good for morale for the next month or two.

The other was a ropes course. I enjoyed it because it was something I did that initially was out of my comfort zone, but for many it was a "I'll do this it beats sitting in the office" sort of day.

I have found that team building should happen naturally over time by having a good manager who recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of those in her charge and does not allow for drama.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:07 AM on June 9, 2013

Team-building is terrible when it's sold as team-building.

That's Michael Scott territory.

What would Jim Halpert do? He'd throw a fun picnic and invite everyone and oh by the way, there's a three-legged race where people will have to team up...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:25 AM on June 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

My department does 'retreats' that are really an extended meeting in a pleasant setting. Leadership gives boring reports. blah, blah, blah. However, there's research that shows that eating together and interacting socially in a different setting helps build relationships. Get people to sit with people for other groups and work on something, either a game, or a project. If you can bring in a good speaker, or have an interesting demonstration or performance, that's good, too.
posted by theora55 at 7:35 AM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

NO. Oh my goodness, no.
posted by michellenoel at 8:08 AM on June 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Good lord, no. No team-building, that's only for management -- bad management, their clueless attempt at reviving a dead horse. I'm reminded of an off-hand comment Dilbert's pointy-haired boss made once -- "Maybe we should have a morale-building pizza party." Definitely Michael Scott territory, and thanks to Athanassiel for pointing out the extra stress this puts on introverts (as if the extroverts notice, or care).
posted by Rash at 8:14 AM on June 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've seen them not billed as such, just something pleasant like a cruise around the SF Bay, with the top person saying very, very few thank-you words.
posted by ambient2 at 8:15 AM on June 9, 2013

Short answer - they suck. I don't think they benefit anyone but management, and I have not forged any stronger relationships by participating in them.

When I first started at my job at a community college, we had an awesome year end retreat where it was a play day. We played social games, even went to a ball game and ate great food. Then, the people responsible for this fabulous event retired. New management came in, and the fun times stopped for good.

The very next year, our team building consisted of 2 days locked into a room with our coworkers. That wouldn't be so bad except it was all for data mining purposes: management planned to change the organizational structure and wanted a feel for how we would take it. Our retreat was totally not a retreat. I was exhausted and irritated at the end of it. To make it even more infuriating, they kept asking for our ideas, but ended up employing THEIR ideas in the end. Every year since has been something similar, and we all dread it.
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 8:18 AM on June 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

The entertainment news channel that employed me tried to,do one of these thing, complete with fire walking . Dismal failure, but oodles of great moments ripe for snark. The next year, they adopted a school in an underprivileged neighborhood and painted, planted, did fundraising, etc.. Vastly better, even if forced labor still sucks.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:35 AM on June 9, 2013

That wouldn't be so bad except it was all for data mining purposes: management planned to change the organizational structure and wanted a feel for how we would take it. Our retreat was totally not a retreat.

Yes this too. Perhaps because of the nature of the organization I work for, we are basically treated as a focus group for 8-10 hours. We are encouraged, under some duress and shaming, to disclose personal feelings and information, and it is an extremely alienating and highly defensive activity for me.

There is always a perfunctory recognition of good work but that pretty much tends to highlight and credit the same people (management, generally) who get all the credit anyway, and never fails to leave out the same people who are never recognized -- usually those who killed themselves setting up the day.

This all functions to be whatever the opposite of team-building is.

In the end, as MeatheadBrokeMyChair says, they just do what they're going to do anyway.
posted by loveyallaround at 8:42 AM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Never been in the industries where there are drinking retreats. They are just one long brainstorming session with good food where I work, which is nice, but not restful. Not sure it's even useful.

I put my foot down at any mandatory physical labor personally. That's not my skill set, not related to the work I do, and frankly, quite humiliating for nonathletic types like myself. I am not getting paid enough to be treated like a Japanese game show contestant and would be filled with rage at any boss who wanted to do that to me. I would actually start looking for another job rather than go through that more than once.

My inner thoughts and dreams are also nobody's business but mine...ask me to submit to embarrassing personal questions and I will just start making shit up. Or simply refuse.

Treat your employees with respect. Make it relaxing not stressful. Make it about celebration, not interrogation.
posted by emjaybee at 9:02 AM on June 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

As an employee, I've hated every attempt at team building that I've been forced to endure. They're stupid, a waste of time, and never related to the actual work I do. When possible, I refuse to participate in them, even though I know it may cost me in the long run. The only people who seem to like them are the managers who confuse these activities with actual management, probably because they can spend weeks planning these things instead of actually doing any work.

I'd go so far as to say that if you (or your bosses) think that your workplace needs "team-building", then something has gone wrong at the managerial level and no amount of forced fun and frivolity will fix that. Team building comes from within, not from without.

On preview, pretty much what everyone above has said...
posted by ralan at 9:15 AM on June 9, 2013

Ugh. My workplace seems to do this a lot, and I generally like my co-workers, but every activity that comes up always seems like gym class for grown ups. For those of us who despised gym class 15 years ago and continue to despise it today, it's a disaster. Go karts, volleyball, various snow activities, dodgeball, soccer, hockey, relay races, bowling, you name it and i'm sure we've done it at some point, and it all puts an emphasis on people with natural co-ordination abilities and it sucks for the out-of-shape.

Good food on the other hand usually goes very well. People have bonded over food though the ages. If you want my team to bond, feed us well. But for the love of god, no more crappy pizza!
posted by cgg at 9:31 AM on June 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

We've done a couple weekend retreats. Friday night to Sunday afternoon things. We all go up to a large chalet in the mountains and just hang out for the weekend. Hike, read, do puzzles, play games, whatever you want to do, it's up to you. No structure. Meals are provided and prepared by the business owners; helping out is appreciated but not at all required. It's been a real treat to get to know some of the other employees that I don't interact with much on a daily basis. There is no "drinking and screwing", as this is a family retreat (bring your spouse, bring your kids if you want!) and we're a smallish (~18 full-time), very close-knit company. They've been great experiences.
posted by xedrik at 9:32 AM on June 9, 2013

I participated in one of these. It was an actual out-in-the-woods ropes and obstacle course. I had a blast, and most of my coworkers did too. It worked for us because we already were a pretty small, cohesive team who thought goofing around in the woods was a fun way to pass the time. The majority of us already enjoyed each others' company and had similar senses of humor. And even the managers didn't take it too too seriously. No one's work evaluations depended on serious participation or outright success in climbing a wall or hanging off a rope.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:57 AM on June 9, 2013

Thanks to all who have replied! In the past, I have definitely been one of the "eye-rollers" when required to participate in events like these. I wanted to get some perspective on whether or not other people see value in these types of activities in the long run. My employers seem to be leaning towards implementing some team-building activities, and have asked for my input--and I want to be able to give them a well thought out rebuttal--and some alternatives. Thanks for all the ideas!
posted by bookmammal at 9:57 AM on June 9, 2013

The only people who like "team building" are management, who scarily seem to actually believe in this Kool-Aid. I do not get it. As someone else said, employees are just there to do their time/work and get paid. We're not there to BELIEVE--if I could get paid to do something I BELIEVE in, I wouldn't be here, but nobody's gonna pay me to fulfill my soul, so just leave me be, ok? And I don't want to be a TEAM, or else I'd play in some kind of sports league. Work isn't so much a "team" anyway, really. Everyone does their jobs and hopefully they do it well enough to work with other people, preferably on their own recognizance.

Really, if you and your coworkers don't get along enough to work towards a common goal in the office already, a long day of playing sports games most people aren't good at and making your introverts incredibly unhappy isn't going to fix that. You'd be far better off throwing some kind of food party.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:01 AM on June 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

My last job was generally actually pretty awful but I did really enjoy the few times a year that my department did something off-site. Part of the reason we did it is that we had a lot of account reps who weren't in the office much and only saw each other at meetings so it was a chance for everyone to socialize.

Here's the thing: They were more like field trips and less like "you must bond and complete these challenges and it will change your life." Nothing lasted past the length of a workday (and some were shorter), no overnights or anything like that. Some were a little more outdoorsy like the swamp tour, Global Wildlife Center tour, etc, and some were a little more low-key, like the time we did one of those paint-and-drink-wine classes. Each was a little out of everyone's comfort zone (um, hand-feeding llamas anyone?) but not ropes-course-tightrope awful.
posted by radioamy at 10:44 AM on June 9, 2013

My eyes never stopped rolling during the few retreats I attended....the consensus among my coworkers was "Why is the company wasting money on this nonsense? Couldn't they just use the same funds to give us all raises or bonuses or something?"
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:34 AM on June 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't think you can engineer this stuff. You'd have to be diabolical. What really pulls people together is a nasty surprise, full of shared fear and adrenalin, not a fun day on the ropes course.

A freak storm taking both masts off the rented schooner was the best thing to ever happen to one place I worked. Watching the second plane hit the WTC together was definitely a bonding experience. Some guy on hard drugs wandering in with a gun and herding everyone into the walk-in. An elevator with a vandalized phone stopping between each floor when you've all been working late on a Friday night.

Those are people I still talk to. We worked well together after those different events and we trust each other.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 11:43 AM on June 9, 2013

These attempts at team "building" can be very destructive. As a hard-working employee dedicated to doing my demanding job as well as possible, I seethed with resentment and anger whenever I was yanked from my desk for a day to play silly games. Or even fun games.

And "team building" can easily turn into "clique forming." People who are unable to participate fully in activities because of health limitations can end up feeling singled out, bullied, excluded and devalued. These feelings don't wear off when the event is over.

In my experience, these events had a poisonous effect on the mood of the office, and distracted us from working productively together for weeks before and after.

Real team building looks like this: consistently treat your employees with fairness and respect; support their work by giving them the resources that they need to do it; be flexible enough to provide opportunities for brief, informal socializing throughout the day. Think "water cooler," not "rope climbing."
posted by Corvid at 11:43 AM on June 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

The only teams these things build are an alliance of employees who may have had differences in the past but have now united as a group of people who hate management with a burning white hot fury and feel that their time has been wasted.
posted by elizardbits at 12:40 PM on June 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

At the non-profit org I'm at we sometimes get corporate volunteer groups. They generally seem to like the change of pace and getting outside, and it probably feels like less of a waste of time and money since they are still being productive and it's for a good cause.
posted by domnit at 12:46 PM on June 9, 2013

I am neutral on a big organization wide team building events. Neutral because while I generally enjoy them I am not sure they were valuable.

Now what I am particularly fond of is when you get to socialize and travel with groups that you are working with on projects. This is especially true when these people come from outside your normal area or they might be customers or vendors. In my experience, this helps build bonds with people and helps to you get the true person rather than just the person that is in a meeting or making demands over e-mail. It is much harder for you to get blown off by someone that has a personal connection with you. Likewise you will be more likely to not jump to the worse possible conclusion when you read some ambiguous text from someone.
posted by mmascolino at 12:47 PM on June 9, 2013

No, they are uniformly horrible. I've been in the workforce over 20 years and they have always, always sucked, long- and short-term. Like, "I can still get violently angry about the ones I endured in the 90s" bad. Just don't.
posted by Violet Hour at 2:40 PM on June 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

They are evil wastes of time and energy.

Worthwhile group cohesion happens naturally when a group comes together on relatively equal footing in order to achieve a common agreed-upon goal.

Manufactured fake team building has no real goal, fake equality, forced voluntary participation, lame joviality and no agreed-upon importance.

Then rare non-work-related bonding of co-workers involves good food or shared crisis.
posted by mightshould at 7:16 PM on June 9, 2013

Negative results.

Our best "team building" effect comes from our off-station jobs where a smaller group, maybe a couple of dozen employees and a couple of supervisors, has to travel to another place and work there. Those people become tight. They're doing their normal work, not playing silly games, but many are in an unfamiliar place. The ones who have been there before share tips with the ones who haven't. Everyone shares tips on a good restaurant they found. People are free to do things together, or not, after work, but they have to share rental cars and live in the same hotel, so end up often doing things together. The introverts end up getting comfortable and warming up to the extroverts over time.

You can't artificially re-create that with bullshit "exercises" in a reasonable and cost-effective amount of time. Our jobs take several weeks to months, and everybody is getting paid per-diem and plentiful overtime if they want it. They're doing it voluntarily even if only for the money. There's a benefit to them, personally.
posted by ctmf at 7:50 PM on June 9, 2013

Hell, I'm an extrovert and I hate these things with all the passion I can muster. You want teambuilding? Give the team a bonus with the money you were going to spend and the time off you were going to use and let grownups arrange their own social lives.
posted by Space Kitty at 8:04 PM on June 9, 2013

Ask the people who are proposing this how many unpaid weekend days they would be willing to put in. Then ask them how many unpaid weekend days they would be willing to put in to to make up for days spent performing tasks that do not help the company's bottom line. That's what team-building exercises result in for most rank-and-file employees.

Then mention that for ten to twenty percent of the employees team-building exercises in a low-morale environment will be an impetus to look for a new job.

If a company needs to improve morale, they should look to pay increases/bonuses, to lightening workloads or to offering comp-time.
posted by aninom at 9:19 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

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