Why virtual team-building activities feel agonising

The words ‘team building’ may stoke fear in our hearts at the best of times, but during a pandemic, they often mean several extra hours on Zoom – something we could all live without.

 
 
 
 

A group of colleagues is standing in two rows, arms outstretched, waiting to catch their co-worker. They’re playing a trust game, and the man in question is currently dithering at the edge of a raised wooden platform. “I’ll go first,” he says, rather more confidently than he seems. Nothing happens. “Can I ask you… Are you going to catch me?” he half-jokes, half pleads. Oh yeah, they murmur together.

Finally, he throws caution to the wind. His rigid body plunges onto their arms. As he falls, it’s already clear that this is not going to plan. There’s an unnerving amount of shouting. Their tight-knit structure is beginning to break up. One woman, positioned at the front, leaps away, apparently realising she doesn’t want to be the sole person to break his fall. He hits the ground, headfirst. Great teamwork, folks!

This is something of a 'team-building' worst-case scenario, of course. But, nevertheless, these two words stoke fear and loathing in the hearts of many – the wholesome outdoor activities, the games that require you to physically touch your colleagues, the cruel flashbacks to the most embarrassing aspects of childhood, from school sports days to rounds of “two truths and a lie” that inevitably end up offending someone.

Arguably the most heinous team-building events involve 90s clichés such as trust falls, pseudoscientific personality tests and brain teasers. One example is the famous chicken-and-fox puzzle, which actually dates back to medieval times and was immortalised by the British TV series The Office: a farmer needs to get a fox, a chicken and a sack of grain from one side of a river to the other, but his boat can only carry one at a time. How can he achieve this, without ending up with a feathery bloodbath or an empty sack? Answers on a postcard, please.

 
Some argue that team building can provide the opportunity for teams to experience mutual hardships that could strengthen connections (Credit: Alamy)

Some argue that team building can provide the opportunity for teams to experience mutual hardships that could strengthen connections (Credit: Alamy)

But modern equivalents can be just as unappealing. There are the bizarre: luges have become popular team-building events, and one man reportedly attended a forklift truck derby for his. Next are the awkward: some Russian ‘banyas’ – nude bathhouses – are advertising themselves as suitable for groups of colleagues. And some are downright perilous: blindfolded driving, anyone? If you’re really unlucky, team building can provide a rare opportunity for your most extroverted co-workers to showcase their improv skills.

Could anything be less fun? Yes, as it turns out.

Amid the pandemic, companies are increasingly in need of ways to keep their teams focused and maintain a sense of cohesion;  as of March, many will have spent almost a whole year working remotely. So as everything else has moved online, including hiking trips and haircuts, team building has followed suit. But this has brought its own problems.

Whereas at least before the activities involved might have included a day ‘off’ work or a weekend away, now they entail yet more time at your desk, glued to your computer screen. As millions battle Zoom fatigue and – oddly – even longer working hours than before, virtual team building is arguably even more agonising than the real thing. It’s also inherently flawed.

Physical experiences are more bonding

Kieron Bowen, sales director at Eventurous, a team-building and corporate-events company based in the UK, says the pandemic has had a radical impact on the activities they can provide. Ordinarily, the business relies on providing experiences such as GPS treasure hunts, crystal-maze challenges and soap-box derbies (a kind of gravity-powered car race popular in the US).

Whereas at least before the activities involved might have included a day ‘off’ work or a weekend away, now they entail yet more time at your desk, glued to your computer

“They’re challenges that the teams take on together in a physical sense,” he says. Some of their activities are more obviously aimed at bonding colleagues together, like classic psychometric testing, but others use more organic, less structured methods, such as encouraging teams to work together in a competitive environment against the clock.

Since Covid-19, the company has been forced to focus more on events that can be done via video calls, like virtual escape rooms. During these live-hosted events, companies start with a background story – “so that there’s a bit of emotion and a bit of theatre”, says Bowen – and then task contestants with a series of puzzles that need to be solved within a set time frame.

But it’s much harder to achieve the same level of bonding when you’re not physically together; in the virtual world, there’s less scope for the unexpected or unpleasant to happen – things that you can recall later and giggle about. And this means it’s unlikely to be as good at forging a sense of solidarity.

In a 2018 study, groups who consumed raw chillies or did upright wall squats – painful experiences – had more supportive interactions among team-members and heightened collective creativity, versus those who were just asked to eat hard-boiled sweets or balance on one leg. So, as infantilising as organised fun seems, it can provide the opportunity for teams to experience mutual hardships that could strengthen connections, such as struggling through bad weather together, or even experiencing team-building #fails like dropping a colleague on their head (though not recommended).

It's challenging to replicate the feeling of in-person camaraderie in a virtual environment – which may be why Zoom happy hours feel pointless (Credit: Alamy)

It's challenging to replicate the feeling of in-person camaraderie in a virtual environment – which may be why Zoom happy hours feel pointless (Credit: Alamy)

When ‘fun’ feels like work

Effective team building is thought to require two things. The first is a change of scenery, which makes the activity seem more like a break and less like a continuation of your normal day. The second is a demonstration that your employer genuinely cares about your wellbeing – and perhaps the feeling that this is the purpose of the task. These principals were discovered by the researcher who is often credited with inventing the very concept.

Elton Mayo was an Australian psychologist based in Illinois, who conducted his research at the Western Electric Company in the 1920s and 30s. He suspected fatigue and monotony was affecting the efficiency of the workers, and wondered what could be changed to relieve it. To find out, he set up an experimental room at the factory, and spent years siphoning employees off in small groups to investigate the impact of different conditions, from lighting to breaks.

When Mayo analysed his results, he found something surprising: no matter what he did, the productivity of the workers improved. Crucially, Mayo realised that the participants were responding to the fact that he was changing their environment full stop – what those alterations were was relatively unimportant.

Instead, the benefits that he was seeing were down to the fact that they were revelling in being studied, which made them feel special, like their employer was making these adjustments for their own benefit – though in reality, they were aimed at maximising productivity. And most importantly, the experiments provided colleagues with a shared identity and opportunity to interact

It’s nearly impossible to provide specialised attention on a group video call to make people feel like they matter

But virtual team-building fails spectacularly at both of Mayo’s central tenets. First, it’s nearly impossible to provide specialised attention on a group video call, to make people feel like they matter. And if you’re attending a team-building video chat from the same place as your regular meetings, it’s hardly going to feel like a change of environment.

Bowen agrees that it’s important that team-building activities don’t feel like work – and even he concedes that “it’s very difficult to replicate that in a virtual medium”.

The whole concept is controversial

Another school of thought is that virtual team building isn’t the issue – it’s the entire concept of these activities that’s fatally flawed.

Some experts are sceptical about the efficacy of any kind of ‘fun’ team building that’s not strictly relevant to a team’s set of job descriptions. Bill Critchley, an organisational psychologist based in London, says the evidence shows that ‘simulated development’, such as outdoor trust falls, doesn’t actually transfer from that forest back to your meeting room.

Can team-building activities that don't relate to actual work tasks forge bonds? Not necessarily, say some experts (Credit: Alamy)

Can team-building activities that don't relate to actual work tasks forge bonds? Not necessarily, say some experts (Credit: Alamy)

So, attending a forklift truck derby with your colleagues or watching your teammates mix cocktails in front of their cameras might help you to forge new connections in the moment – but unless you happen to work on an industrial site or at a bar, these experiences won’t necessarily help you later. Critchley explains that team bonding is inherently tied to the context it occurs in. When you arrive back at your desk the next day, the inherently political and complex nature of the workplace means people “revert to their normal way of behaving”.

Critchley gives the example of a “major retailer” he once worked with. “They had a number of away days and they really improved dramatically,” he says, citing their ability to work together, communicate and address big issues. “I thought we'd done the job. I then went and then attended one of their normal everyday meetings...” In their usual context, they had returned to the dynamic they had before. “They all kind of raised their eyebrows and said, ‘yes, we know, Bill, we're doing it again.’”

In place of doing activities, Critchley usually works by taking to each member of a team to find out what their issues are and where they came from. Then, he’ll meet them for a day to observe their realities first hand, and develop ways for them to do things differently. Finally, he follows up to make sure everyone is sticking to their promises.

However, the delicate choreography involved in even this brand of team building is – like every other kind – harder to achieve in a virtual environment. “It’s to be avoided,” says Critchley, speaking of all such online activity. “Because human beings resonate with each other physically in the room, that’s how empathy works – at least they can feel how they're going to impact on each other. That important dimension is missing, virtually.”

A break from trust falls

So, is all online team building pointless?

Bowen argues these activities have their place, as long as businesses feel like they’re fulfilling their goals, and they can find a way to make them genuinely enjoyable. “We know virtual events aren’t quite the same as in-person events, and so do clients,” says Bowen. “I think when the circumstances and restrictions allow, the majority of clients will revert to in-person away days and events.”

Not many people will tell you this, but the unpalatable truth is that not many team development exercises actually work – Bill Critchley

In the meantime, the challenge is to simulate the tactile, physical experience of a team-building day trip, from the comfort of a home office. “We organise virtual cocktail-making masterclasses and cookery classes,” says Bowen, “we send out a load of equipment and consumables in a box to the delegates pre-event, and then we set up a studio and stream an experience with a baker or chocolatier or mixologist.” This may be the reason why those Zoom birthday parties and lectures spent sitting in the same desk chair you do all day fall short.  

Meanwhile, Critchley is not quite so confident. “Not many people will tell you this, but the unpalatable truth is that not many team development exercises actually work,” says Critchley. “A lot of facilitators love developing really complicated exercises, and everyone quite enjoys them because they feel they're doing something, but I'm afraid they don't work.”

No matter which side you’re on, there be may be one upside we can all agree on: no one is going to be expected to trust fall into their colleagues any time soon.


James Sprag

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