Effective team building is more than just a fun outing 

Type ‘team building’ into a search engine and you will find endless options, ranging from painting workshops to escape rooms and cabin-building. A fun team outing, however, is not the same as effective team building, warns assistant professor Roy Sijbom. He explains that team building relies on specially designed strategies. It consists of 3 fundamental components: setting a goal together, identifying the needs of your team, and evaluation.

A team-building activity is a group activity organised for the purpose of improving collaboration. Not all team outings are team-building activities, says Roy Sijbom, assistant professor of Occupational and Organisational psychology at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). “A team BBQ is fun, but effective team-building takes more than fun alone.” 

Setting a target 

For a team-building activity to be effective, you have to set a clear goal first, such as: 

  1. Setting team objectives; 
  2. strengthening the bond between team members; 
  3. clarifying roles in the workplaces; 
  4. solving problems within a team. 

Sijbom explains: “All these elements can enhance collaboration within a team. Employees who understand their common goal and each other’s responsibilities are more effective. Improving relationships between team members can boost mutual trust and improve communication.” 

Identify the needs 

Your team’s needs determine what team-building activity you should organise. “Employers or managers should avoid deciding on an activity on their own and involve the entire team”, Sijbom recommends. “Everyone should feel that they were part of the process. Talk to the team and identify bottlenecks or issues. Once you agree on a clear goal, you can start looking for a team-building activity that will help you achieve that goal.” 

Examples of goals with matching activities: 

Improving communication between team members 

Solve a puzzle or riddle with your team. Solving a puzzle together will highlight how team members communicate and listen to each other and what could be improved. 

Clarifying team roles 

In group activities with a specific objective, such as an escape room, team members become aware of their role in a group and how their role affects the team. 

Discovering each other's (hidden) qualities 

By taking a creative workshop together, such as painting or building with Lego, team members learn more about colleagues' (hidden) talents and qualities. 

Creating mutual trust 

Having team members voice their appreciation for each other or share something personal during feedback or introductory activities will improve mutual trust. 

You need good communication to identify your team’s needs, Sijbom explains. “The bigger the team, the more difficult it will be to foster understanding. After all, everyone will have their own way of interpreting other people’s words and ideas. This can cause misunderstandings and create delays. A team-building activity aimed at improving communication can help.” 

Do not forget to evaluate

Always evaluate and discuss what you learned from the team activity. “Spending an afternoon playing with Lego is a waste of time if you never discuss what you learned in the process”, Sijbom explains. 

Take the time to discuss who had what role during the activity. Who depended on whom? “When team members start to see the consequences for others if they do not perform their task well, a better awareness of their role in the bigger picture emerges. You can translate this to the division of roles in daily work. A joint evaluation session can be incredibly valuable”, Sijbom concludes. “As a matter of fact, the evaluation is a team-building activity in itself.”

“Remember to schedule a follow-up evaluation in the future to reflect on the weeks following the activity. Compare the results of the evaluation with the current situation. What did the team-building activity change?” 

Online team building 

Online team-building activities can be just as effective. In fact, they are more important than ever with the advent of hybrid working. “You can now find online escape room activities that work the same as live escape rooms”, Sijbom explains. “You learn to think as a group, share information, and cooperate. You can achieve the same results online and offline, as long as the activity was designed for the specific goal you have in mind.” 

Third parties 

Sijbom points out that when it comes to team building, it is best to seek the support of a seasoned team-building expert. “It pays to familiarise yourself with the companies offering team-building activities beforehand. Not everything labelled as team building was actually designed with that purpose in mind. Always ask the organiser how the activity will help your team accomplish its goals.” 

If you do not have the budget to bring in a third party, go looking for team-building activities online. Make sure that your chosen activity comes with clear instructions. Determine if the activity is a good fit for the goal you have in mind and prepare well. Or better yet, have your team come up with their own ideas. This will maximise your chances of success.