What is Team Building (and why is it important)?
Team building is talked about so much that we can easily forget the real purpose behind it. What is team building, how do you do it, and why do we even need team building anyway? After all, can’t we all just agree to get on with our work and skip the fuzzy stuff?
This is the way I used to think too.
I was frustrated when the HR department would organize “team building activities”. They just cut into my work time and it all seemed pretty pointless. But then I started to work with remote teams and I soon came to realize that teamwork online is an entirely different matter.
When you don’t have daily interactions with your colleagues and you can’t read their facial expressions or body language, there is a real need to make a conscious effort towards team building. And in fact, most teams these days work at least partly remotely, so I’ve changed my mind about team building for all teams.
What is Team Building?
Team building is the collective term used for activities designed to get a group of individuals to work together as a team. Usually, this involves getting the group to participate in activities and/or events which promote cooperation and are designed to motivate individuals to communicate, get to know each other, and help each other.
Why is Team Building Important?
Have you heard of the saying teamwork makes the dream work? If you’re lucky enough to have the experience of working with a group of people whose skill sets complement each other, who all respect and like each other, and have a common goal that they are all motivated to work towards, it really is like a dream.
Work is fun. Work is rewarding. You enjoy making progress together and when there are problems, you buckle down together and work through them.
Human nature means that we’re wired to help people in our clan. It’s an evolutionary instinct that comes from caveman times when we needed to rely on our tribe for survival. Sure, most of us are decent human beings and we wouldn’t leave anyone bleeding on the side of the road, but it’s the people closest to us that we help the most.
So the idea of team building is to feel closer to the people in our teams – to make them part of our tribe so that we feel committed to them and them to us. For teams to be effective, we need to get team members to at least respect each other, and preferably like each and enjoy spending time together.
7 Ways to Build Strong Teams
There are lots of approaches to team building, but here we’re going to cover the main ones – particularly as they apply to distributed teams.
1) Traditional Team Building Activities
When you think of team building activities, you probably think of the social things that workplaces organize to get team members to bond together. By putting team members into different settings, which are usually more relaxed (but sometimes more stressful!), people get to know different sides of each other and come to understand the complete person. These activities may or may not include the team members’ families or significant others as well.
Typical examples of in-person team building activities include; picnics, after-work drinks, bowling, rock climbing / abseiling, treasure hunts, cooking classes or sports activities.
All of these things are very effective in building teams but they are also time-consuming, sometimes expensive, and are generally not applicable to distributed teams that may not even be located in the same country.
2) Incorporate Team Building into Regular Meetings
Most people hate meetings. Yet regular meetings set a rhythm to the week and ensure no-one is being left out of communication loops (one of the biggest causes of employee dissatisfaction). Without regular meetings, management is generally very ad-hoc and certain people and projects can easily slip under the radar. Regular meetings (eg a morning stand-up meeting, SCRUM meeting, WIP meeting, etc) are essential for managing a team of people.
However, meetings should not be exclusively about the work! Given that we’re going to meet regularly, these occasions are a golden opportunity to get to know each other better. This doesn’t take a lot of time and is easily be added to the default meeting agenda.
For example, in our own team meetings, we include a section we call “NWRT” – Non-Work Related Topics. We start our weekly meetings with this and it serves to break the ice and help people relax into the meeting. It could be talking about what we did on the weekends, something that’s in the news or sports related. (It’s important to realize that some people may not be comfortable talking about their personal lives.)
To add some creativity to this, some teams choose a different question each week and go around the group taking turns to answer it. For example, you could ask things like;
- “What did you have for dinner last night?”
- “What was your favorite holiday?”
- “What’s one personal goal you have for this year?”
- “What are you watching on television at the moment?”
- “What’s the most recent thing you bought for yourself?”
You could even take it in turns to come up with new questions.
Spending 5-15 minutes at the start of each meeting on these kinds of discussions can seem like a waste of time, but it pays off in dividends. It’s really nothing compared to the time that would otherwise be spent if you were to organize in-person events.
3) Set Clear & Motivating Goals
Team building might conjure up ideas of the warm and fuzzy aspects of working together, but clear goals are just as important.
When the team has a common purpose that they are inspired about working towards, it brings people together and unifies them on a common mission. Then, when goals or milestones are achieved, there’s that feeling of “we did this together” that further strengthens the bonds between people.
Usually it’s best to have one, clear over-arching goal as the more goals you have, the more diluted they become. Team members should feel a personal connection to the goal too – something they can relate to, an enemy to fight against and hopefully conquer, or to somehow help a group of people they feel are deserving.
4) Construct Opportunities to Work Together
Putting people in groups or pairs that they wouldn’t normally be in is another great way to build stronger teams. This can be for normal work assignments, or it could be a special project that is outside the scope of normal work.
For example, you could assign a sub-team to design a new meeting agenda, define the team’s values or vision, or create a roadmap for the next year.
5) Create a Place for Social Interactions
In traditional workplaces, the water-cooler, coffee machines or lunchrooms are the natural mingling places. When teams work remotely, obviously these don’t exist – but you can create places for these conversations by using designated channels in your chatting tools. For example, many businesses have a Slack channel called #watercooler, #funny or even #shenanigans. Encourage team members to post something here regularly so that others can get to know them. (As the team leader, you will often need to lead the way on this.)
You might also want to have a “question of the week” or “theme of the day” to stimulate conversations. Some ideas could be;
- “Weekend updates” – tell or show us how you spent your weekend
- “Throw-back Tuesdays / Thursdays” – share something from your past
- “Share-a-meme” – share something funny you find online, something either you or someone in the team will relate to, or
- “How-I-work” – encourage team members to share something weird – like photos of their footwear, what they see from their desks, a photo of their desks, their Spotify playlists, etc
6) Mix Up the Conversations
Help coworkers get to know each other by having them meet in different groupings or pairs. These can be either work-related, or purely social.
When new team members join the team, it’s a great idea for them to set up 15-minute calls with each of the team members. But this shouldn’t just happen for new employees.
You can (and probably should) encourage team members to have one other random, non-work related conversation per week. There are even several Slack-apps which actually facilitate random meet-ups between team members (eg Shuffl, Donut or RandomCoffees).
7) In Real Life Meetups
Even if your business is completely remote, it can be extremely beneficial to organize annual or bi-annual meetups. These are occasions where the team comes together in-person for a multi-day conference, project, and/or team activities. Of course, depending on your team members’ locations, this can be expensive, but there are also many benefits to be gained.
Having a meetup in a desirable location can be something that team members look forward to for months beforehand. The experiences team members share will usually be talked about for months afterward as well. The difference it can make to helping people work together better can be phenomenal.
Hopefully, you’re convinced that team building is not just for HR departments with too much time and money on their hands. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be time-consuming or expensive. If you want a high performing team, it’s extremely important to factor in team building. Both one-off and ongoing team building are important to include in the structure of the team and the default ways of working together.