Team building: laying the planks for productivity?

What are the best – and worst – ‘team building’ activities that you have ever engaged in? And what made them work, or fail?

The idea for this Blog came about 30 seconds into one of my hourly planks.

We’re a small, tight-knit Communications team here at Ai Group, and of late we’ve instituted a new routine to improve our core strength: we all get down on the floor upon the hour, every hour, and assume plank position for a minute or two.

The benefits for my general middle-aged sense of wellbeing have been considerable. My dodgy back, my sloppy posture and the alarming slide in my form on the touch football field have each taken a turn for the better.

Even more pronounced, however, has been the upswing in our shared sense of camaraderie. We’re of vastly disparate standards of physical prowess, but when we’re down at ground level together trying to hold our form, we’re each pulling for one another to last the distance – and sharing the refreshing relief of a laugh away from our computer screens as well.

I can see all the Workplace Productivity Researchers out there rubbing their hands with glee. What a fantastic case study we would make if we could crunch the numbers on the boost this whole routine has surely given to our combined output.

As ‘team building’ exercises go, it doesn’t get much cheaper or less time consuming than this. So, statistical analysis aside, the return on investment has got to be pretty good.

For many big corporates, however, the concept of team building goes a hell of a lot further. According to the US Association for Talent Development, of the $164 billion spent by American companies on employee training and development in 2012, $46 billion went into the coffers of firms engaged specifically to provide team-building initiatives – that’s almost 30% of the training budget.

If you’ve been trapped in some of the classic team-building workshops, this probably seems like a colossal waste of money. Back when I entered the workforce in the 1990s, I frequently found myself in boardrooms, catching colleagues as they fell backwards towards me in awkward exercises illustrating the value of trust…

Since then, the team building industry has thrived, offering up activities that range from the ridiculous and the horrifying to the ones that really, truly don’t suck – but in fact seem equally ridiculous…

Regardless, the conviction persists that team building is the most important investment you can make for your people – but where can the money be best spent?

Given the aforementioned billions being invested into team building programs, you’d assume a mountain of research has been conducted into their power as a value-adder – but you’d be wrong.

Not surprisingly, however, CFOs have increasingly been demanding evaluations and evidence of bang for their buck, and researchers at the University of Florida responded in 2011 with a paper they aptly entitled ‘There’s a Science for That’.

The lead author, organisational psychologist Eduardo Salas, describes team building as “the largest human-resources intervention in the world”. In terms of the results it delivers, his key message is that team building approaches are most effective in situations where teams are experiencing “negative affective issues, such as a lack of cohesion… or process issues, such as a lack of clarification in terms of understanding roles”.

In other words, they work best in a situation where you need to fix something that’s broken, or at least a bit wobbly.

If you’re looking to foster the skills and knowledge needed to build teamwork from the ground up, more traditional team training approaches are likely to be more effective.

But as I’ve already suggested, there’s team building – and then there’s team building. It’s a funny old mixed bag of tricks. So if you’re heading in that direction, what type of exercises should you be doing (hourly planking aside)?

Stripping my exhaustive research back to the basics, the schools of thought can be summarised thus: one theory prioritises the morale-boosting properties of the pure bonding experience above any thinly veiled attempt to tie your activities back to lessons with practical application in your day-to-day business.

The other dismisses the folly of corporate ‘play days’ in favour of ‘real team building’, which requires “clear and specific business objectives”.

Clearly, there is some value to be gained from recreational experiences that simply break down barriers between staff members and develop their relationships outside of the work context. And supporters of this approach suggest that “activities that overtly aim to draw in leadership lessons or practical takeaways are less powerful”.

But how enduring are the benefits of once-off recreational experiences if you are not bringing back lessons or ideas that can be practised every day once you get back in the office?

Of course, games employed to get team members working towards common goals do not necessarily preclude the having of ‘fun’ – something that research suggests is an important catalyst for effective learning.

So, what’s your experience? What are the best – and worst – team building activities that you have ever engaged in? And what made them work, or fail? Is your team a monument to the success of bonding exercises? Or do you agree with Adelphi University Professor of Finance, Michael Driscoll, who described team-building exercises to Newsweek as “a management boondoggle – a waste of time”?

Please share your experiences by adding your comments below.

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Graham Turner is the former Editor of Ai Group's Industry magazine, which ceased publication in 2014. He now edits (and moderates) this Blog, together with Ai Group's weekly Email newsletter.


  1. julie toth

    Gee Graham, sounds like your team got off light! At one of my former employers, the joke with ‘team building’ training of any sort was that nobody was allowed to leave until (a) somebody cries (b) somebody threatens to quit and (c) we are all totally deflated! The single worst experience was when they sent us to a ‘surprise’ fencing class to teach us how to spear one another literally, at short notice. Highlight was me having to blurt out to my colleagues that I was pregnant so please don’t spear me today. Highly unfortunate since I wasn’t actually ready to tell anyone, let alone the whole team. So there, that’s my worst ever team building experience.

    1. Graham Turner (Post author)

      Thanks Julie,
      Just the sort of story we were after – you’ve certainly set the bar pretty high here for those that might follow. I’m just sorry you had to go through this experience in the first place!

  2. Anne Thornley-Brown

    Your approach is interesting and assuming plank position on the floor works well for your tight knit group. What would happen if someone who was in a wheelchair joined the company or someone with another physical disability? What if someone joined the company who was not physically fit? Here are a couple of other scenarios. Would a woman who is 5 or 6 months pregnant be able to assume plank position comfortably? What about someone who is even 50 or 60 pounds overweight? How would this play out for team bonding?

    It’s one of the reasons why very rugged activities are not appropriate to include in team building retreats. If some team members can’t participate or if they are made to feel left out, this hardly would be a positive environment for team building.

    The example you shared can hardly be considered to be extreme or overly rugged but some of the same issues are at play:

    Is there value in extreme team building?

    1. Graham Turner (Post author)

      Thanks for your comment Anne,
      Certainly, ours is a very informal ‘team building’ exercise at present – and one happened upon almost accidentally. It did, however, act as the spark for this particular Blog and hence got a mention. It certainly may not suit everybody, as you correctly point out. Many thanks also for your own Blogs, both those referenced in my article and the ‘Extreme Team Building’ piece you have offered here. It’s said we tend to retain the things we learn best when the lessons are cased in either “fun or fear”, but I agree the fun option seems the best bet!


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