Mention “team-building” in any office, and you’ll likely hear some groans. In fact, a 2012 survey of over 1,000 British employees found that more than half believed team-building activities didn’t help them work better with their coworkers. However, when done right, the benefits of team-building include enhanced team effectiveness and improved performance.
So, how can training and HR managers avoid the duds and find team-building programs that will encourage participation and positive outcomes?
Brad Albright, managing partner of Escape Entertainment, says traditional team-building activities tend to fall into one of two categories: They’re either “pure enjoyment,” with no learning, or they’re “intensive classroom” activities with little to no enjoyment. The solution, in his mind, is “gamifying the training experience” to combine “the best of both worlds.”
Escape Entertainment’s form of team-building games is an escape room, which creates an immersive mission that teams must solve. Whether it’s a “James Bond-like spy mission,” a prohibition era speakeasy game or a time travel game, Albright says Escape Entertainment’s Game Reward Framework requires participants “to take into account the core principles of … effective teamwork.”
Similarly, The Dinner Detectives uses a mystery dinner theater to encourage group problem-solving. According to founder and executive producer Scott O’Brien, this format allows team members with a variety of personalities, including introverts and extroverts, to “be part of a real team where everybody is on an equal playing field.” At The Dinner Detectives, players select an alias, which empowers them to “come out of their shell.”
“It’s almost like Clark Kent’s glasses,” O’Brien says. When he takes them off and becomes Superman, “it’s like he’s a totally different person.” Having an alias encourages participants to take down defense mechanisms and be more creative.
Both Albright and O’Brien say feedback from participants indicates that the lessons learned from these experiences create positive results back at the office. For example, Google’s Santa Monica offices improved their internship program after hiring Dinner Detectives actors to play “the worst interns we’ve ever seen.” Discussing the fake intern behavior and employees’ responses to them helped the team identify ways to improve the intern hiring process as well as how they teach interns “the [office’s] true, core values and … strategies and goals.”
Albright says that the escape room activities have boosted morale and productivity at participating companies, since the activities require skills like cooperation, problem-solving, allocation of time and resources, and communication.
What team-building lessons can training managers learn from immersive theater and escape rooms? Here are a few.
1. Plan activities strategically.
Both Escape Entertainment and The Dinner Detectives use input from participating companies to plan activities carefully. O’Brien says his team incorporates “strategy and directives” from HR or the participating team into the show, and Albright’s group provides a debriefing and recommendations for improved team performance based on the escape room experience.
2. Change it up.
One thing O’Brien says he hears from a lot of participants is that they appreciate the fresh approach The Dinner Detectives takes to team-building. In fact, he says that’s the most consistent comment they hear from teams. It also helps remove the “stigma” that causes poor turnout to a lot of team-building events. “When they find out that it’s a murder mystery,” O’Brien says, people get excited. Some of The Dinner Detectives’ clients have seen “a double-digit increase” in participation.
3. Debrief and follow up.
An important component of Escape Entertainment’s custom programs is the debrief. Team-building experts observe the team during the game and make note of their observations. Then, there’s an “extensive debriefing” where they share those observations, extrapolating from the observed behaviors to make recommendations on similar team behaviors in the workplace. They send a written summary soon after the event.
Team-building can be more than a buzzword. It can be an effective approach to building skills and helping teams work together more successfully. But it takes imagination and strategic thinking to do it right. Whether you’re planning a fully immersive experience like dinner theater or escape room games, or a brief activity in between meetings, using these tips can mean a more engaging and impactful experience.