By David Thomas

As we emerge from recession, is has never been more important to have a united, motivated team to help meet business growth targets. But after a period characterised by job losses, pay cuts and financial struggle, you can’t expect employees to feel inspired about the future. Taking action to stimulate and engage staff could make a big difference, according to Dave Thomas, founder and managing director of the UK’s leading espionage-themed team-building specialist, Spy Games.

Never mind the old clichés of a rainy day of raft-building in a remote forest. The best of today’s team-building programmes are exciting, engaging and infused with key messages that can be tailored to the specific objectives of the business.

That’s a very powerful tool. When you combine a compelling hands-on activity with objectives that relate to day-to-day working, and align those two elements correctly, you have a far greater chance of your messages being absorbed by employees and put into action.

As our own client feedback attests, the subsequent improvements in working practices and performance are proven time and again.

So why isn’t teambuilding at the top of every company’s agenda? Apart from some of the unfair perceptions mentioned above that need to be overturned, there are the obvious constraints of austerity. But teambuilding doesn’t have to mean a big budget. A lot can be achieved by taking a couple of hours out of the day to do some teambuilding in the office with a very modest outlay.

Another problem is timing. Too often, businesses invest in teambuilding when times are good. But tough times are when teambuilding is needed most. What I keep hearing is that staff have been working extremely hard during the recession but nobody has been getting anything back. Revenues are down, profits are down and salaries are suffering, but staff are still working at a punishing rate. That’s when there needs to be an incentive.

But there’s a vast gulf between teambuilding that works, that is meticulously planned and executed in order to meet a measurable goal, and teambuilding that fills time but fulfils very little else.

So how do you ensure your teambuilding programme is the kind that’s successful and rewarding?

Firstly, establish some clear objectives. You’d be amazed how many companies steam ahead with plans for a teambuilding exercise without stopping to consider exactly why they are doing it. But how will you achieve anything if you don’t even know what you’re trying to achieve?

By working with a good teambuilding company, you can get a sense of what’s achievable and let them develop a programme that meets those criteria. The events we run at Spy Games, for example, are tailored to focus on specific areas such as communication, leadership, teamwork, planning or particular company policies.

The next step is to agree upon an activity that both meets the company budget and suits the group. If you’re considering an extreme weekend survival course, remember that skinning wild animals on a Welsh hillside is not for everyone. Equally, some people see golf as great while others would find it a thoroughly grim experience.
And in any case, if it exceeds the predetermined budget, it’s out of the question.

At Spy Games, all our activities have an espionage theme, but there are options for all ages, interests and abilities, from cracking codes around a table to breaking into a criminal hideaway with weapons.

What unites all of those activities, we hope, is that they offer a unique experience. Familiar or ordinary activities cannot generate the excitement and focus that are necessary to command the commitment and attention of the group.

Putting people in a completely new environment, presenting them with unfamiliar challenges, or a combination of the two, immediately helps them to break free of the habitual thinking that might hamper their daily work. Activities that demand fresh thinking, positive collaboration and unified action to meet an urgent need can help them reassess the way they work and, importantly, demonstrates the effect of this on the ultimate result. In addition, when people are enjoying themselves, they are more open to learning and taking messages on board.

Creativity on the part of the organiser is crucial but never overlook logistics. Attention to detail can make or break a teambuilding event. How do you access the toilets at the site? How will you involve each of the 150 people in attendance? And what about a contingency plan? Whether it’s bad weather, transport problems or a volcanic ash cloud, you may have to adapt quickly.

During the event itself, there’s sometimes uncertainty about who gets involved. I always recommend that senior staff — be they managers, directors or chief executives — take an active role. Far from looking silly, managers will gain respect from employees if they go through the same experience as their staff. Once respect is established, trust will follow and this inevitably leads to better joint working practices.

Afterwards, depending on the primary aims of the teambuilding programme, a business might regroup with the participants and talk through what they learned and how it translates to the workplace. At other times, the lessons are obvious.

What we’ve found is that if the experience was unique and engaging, it will be memorable. It will be talked about for weeks or even months.

A common theme for example, is lack of understanding within teams or between different teams, which can cause jealousy, personality clashes, general animosity and a breakdown of communication. The right event will force them to integrate with each other, understand their differing roles and responsibilities and communicate.

Two colleagues who hadn’t connected before, will later strike up conversation around what they did on the day. There’s also a social element in coming together and learning more about each other’s lives, and therefore why they might behave in a certain way at work.

The benefits of teambuilding, coordinated correctly, are undeniable. And if nothing else, staff will no longer be tardy with their expenses once they’ve seen Andy from accounts wielding a sniper rifle.

Find out more at www.spy-games.com

David Thomas is the managing director of Spy Games, an innovative teambuilding company that provides bespoke espionage-themed corporate activities for major companies in the UK and overseas. A former SAS instructor, David drew upon his professional experience and passion for training and motivation to set up Spy Games in 2001. The company has achieved phenomenal growth and now counts Microsoft, Tesco, Ernst & Young and EasyJet among its many clients, but big teambuilding doesn’t have to mean big budgets.