More often than not, we cringe upon receiving the invite for a company team-building event.

Aside from the few who were the captains of their high school pep squads or those who would literally do anything to avoid working for an hour or two, most of us have been subjected to awkward exercises building spaghetti skyscrapers or – eeek! – giving directions to a blindfolded teammate in front of a group. Why do companies do this to their employees?

Teams who respect and are comfortable with each other are more productive – modeling a positive culture and effective collaboration for others in the company. They communicate easily, with open trust in their colleagues and differences in opinion won’t disintegrate their bond. So, how can leaders help their teams reach this group nirvana? Set aside that box of uncooked pasta and let’s talk about team building that works at work.

Make a safe space for learning

Be mindful of your introverts and extroverts – consider your team when organizing activities to help them learn more about each other. It may make sense to hold your team-building event away from the office. Not only will this provide a neutral space, but it also removes participants from the gaze of other colleagues who are not participating. It also creates the ability to focus on the task at hand rather than that work thing that’s competing for their attention. Consider making your event a device-free zone unless the group is on a break.

Provide opportunities for natural socializing

Food is a great ice breaker and water cooler chats are a thing for a reason. Make sure breaks involve a visit to a snack or drink area, or better yet, provide a meal if it’s within the budget. Keep it informal and let people chat with each other without an agenda. Encourage introductions Bridget Jones style – with thoughtful details, like “George, did you know Tina here was an artist in college? Tina, did you know George was scouted for professional baseball?”

Don’t put people on the spot

Being put on the spot is uncomfortable for many. Let people volunteer to speak (making sure there are tasks suitable for your introverts and extroverts). Allow teams to be silly and have fun. Friendly competition is healthy, but watch out for the overly competitive. Some take winning to the extreme. Nothing destroys team cohesion and trust faster than labeling team members.

Trust wasn’t built in a day

Team building, like any construction project, starts with a strong foundation. Model the behavior you hope to inspire in others. As a leader, you want to get your team to be curious, empathetic, enthusiastic, and talking. How does that happen? Here are some ideas:

Getting to know you…but not ALL about you

Activities like “Two Truths and a Lie” and “Icebreaker bingo”* can get coworkers talking to each other about quirky facts. Keep it light! This is not the time or place to learn intimate details about your colleagues, oversharing about your fourth divorce or that time you were arrested in college. Don’t let these exercises devolve into a competition for the extreme story.

Get up, get on up

Activities that get you moving accelerate the chance for spontaneous conversation. Think beyond merely assigning random groups and making people change seats. Consider having signs around the walls with interesting categories and letting people vote with stickers or group themselves near relevant facts. Both are ways to get quieter employees involved without embarrassing them; and unlike the ropes course, no helmet or harness is required.

You’ve got to name it to blame it

Good leaders do more than manage stress – they try to reduce it before it becomes a problem. To do that, teams need to identify what’s holding them back, what concerns them, and what get under their skin. Consider having a “stress bucket” in one corner of the room where people can drop index cards with things that stress them out at work. Pick some stressors and place them as labels on separate large sheets of paper around the room and allow employees to jot suggestions on the paper. By allowing this exercise to happen without calling anyone out, you provide the opportunity for team members to help each other anonymously and identify behaviors that might be hindering productivity and team well-being.

Game Show Style

Giving your team two-sided paddles with A and B can lead to fun group activities that are quick and perfect when you are corralling them back after a break. Prefer meetings A- virtual, B- in person? Email or call? Text message or call? These quick surveys can gauge how they like to receive and give information or any questions that might help build cohesion. Attention of the group lagging? Spring a quick paddle question on them. Peanut or plain? Cake or pie?

All of these exercises can be translated to a virtual or hybrid working environment. Breakout rooms on Microsoft Teams or Zoom give team members the chance to get to know one other in smaller groups. Looping in virtual employees helps them feel included and more likely to interact with the team.

At the end of the day, teams that genuinely like each other work well together, ask for help without shame and assist whenever they can. These groups also boost emotional wellness, help employee retention, and support each other’s success, which ultimately helps the bottom line and makes the workday feel a little less like work.

Interested in learning more about solutions for common virtual and hybrid team challenges? Edwards Performance Solutions offers a two-hour workshop targeted for managers, executive leadership, or anyone leading a team. Form a foundation of techniques and best practices for leading virtual and hybrid teams to success! Click here to learn more.

*Icebreaker Bingo – collect interesting categories and fill out bingo cards. Have participants go around and find people to sign relevant squares. Depending on the size of your group, you may restrict to one signature per card or two. Bingos can win a small prize or some company-branded swag. It’s a good idea to include categories that range from superficial (wears glasses, has a beard), to medium level (plays a musical instrument, speaks two or more languages), to harder – requiring some conversation (worked in a florist shop, rode on a parade float).

AUTHOR: CAROLYN EICHHORN (Senior Project Manager)

Carolyn Eichhorn is a writer and project manager with experience in a wide range of industries from higher education to theme parks. This former Imagineer infuses creativity and a sense of fun into her personal and professional projects seeking to spark inspiration with her work.