Employees roll their eyes. Dilbert strips and “The Office” episodes are discussed. Kumbaya is spoken of in hushed ridicule.
I have tried pretty much every team-building technique out there. Some were successful, others less so (do not use paintball as a team-builder unless you are looking to engender a revengeful win-lose culture). After we had tried many, we tried an experiment with our own idea. It worked.
Instead of simulating situations that would create teamwork we tried something that would force teamwork: Spend the investment for a day-off on a day-long project for the community. Being a fun, mechanically oriented company, the idea of building a playground for a school in need seemed a perfect fit.
Finding the right project turned out to be surprisingly easy. After a couple of dead ends, we called the Social Services department in Boulder, who quickly found a recipient. There was a day care center in a nearby town that supported lower income families, was short on improvement funds and was desperate for playground equipment. Our off-site committee made a visit to interview the day care center and declared it a great fit.
A couple more visits were made by the off-site committee to line up what needed to be done and what materials would be needed for the work. The tasks included landscape work, furniture assembly, purchasing and installing playground equipment, painting and computer set-up. The company contributed the money that would have otherwise been spent on the off-site for construction materials and the playground hardware.
On the day of the off-site we were surprised by the daycare center really rolling out the red carpet, greeting us with tables of homemade food prepared by the parents and refreshments. This set a great context for the day, letting the group understand their help was truly appreciated. There was a tangible shift in the company as they realized the impact the day would have.
An original concern, that putting 50 people on a project, without much organization would be chaotic and unproductive turned out to be unwarranted. The group quickly self organized into work teams and split up to take on about ten tasks simultaneously. The great thing was that a different work structure spontaneously developed, with people that were skilled in particular tasks (such as patio laying or carpentry) taking the lead while helpers organized around them. This structure was independent of the company work structure so that in many cases company managers were directed by those that normally worked for them. People had a chance to demonstrate effective leadership in ways that normally didn’t happen at work. There were enough tasks to take on that as a person finished their job, they could pick up a paintbrush and begin work on something else.
An astonishing amount of work happened that day. We were surprised to find that pretty much everything that the center had come up with for us to do was completed, including substantial tasks such as laying pavers for a patio, building shelves into an empty closet, programming computers and assembling two sets of playground equipment. At the end of the day the kids came out to try out the equipment and we got some great group photos of a bunch of tired employees with some excited kids.
We capped off the day with a dinner in a local brewpub. My fondest memory of the day is of a group of worn-out folks, swapping stories of the day over pizza and beer, and not wanting the evening to end.
As with any process, there were lessons learned from the experience. A few to pass along:
- Remember those old-style monkey bars we all used to swing on? They are cemented in holes that reach down to China. Take our advice. Do Not try to dig them out. Lop them off with a Saws-All (this was our HR directors initial suggestion, ignored by 6 engineers with shovels for close to an hour).
- You will be astounded by the difficulty of assembling playground equipment. Don’t worry about having enough to do, even the simple sets take lots of time to assemble. We opted for some “simple” polyethylene Tiny Tots equipment and it brought a half dozen technicians to their knees.
- Pick an activity that matches what the company or group does for work. Assembling things turned out to be perfect for a company that builds space mechanisms.
- It is not at all difficult to find a worthy cause. With a few phone calls you should be able to find someone in Social Services that is aware of organizations or people in need. Once you find these people the momentum builds.
- Interview candidate organizations and don’t settle for anything other than a great fit. It is important that the work is badly needed, what the need is what your company can do well, and that the organization will be grateful.
- Have a large variety of useful things to do, some of which don’t need much direction. As people free up, they will want to have something to do. Make sure that some of the work is not too physically demanding.
- Don’t fully organizing the group. Value comes from the team self-organizing. It is helpful however to select a lead for most of the tasks (preferably people that are not normally in a leadership position in the company to mix things up a bit).
- Cap it off with a celebration near-by to close-out the day.
A week after the off-site, a package arrived. Inside were hand written thank you’s from each of the kids and a set of pictures from the day. The letter from the director was read to the company and brought tears to many eyes. For weeks afterwards people kept talking about the “best off-site ever”. For some folks in the company, it was their first taste of being in service to the community. From a team-building aspect it was a slam-dunk win. After that first experiment there was no going back to trust-falls. It became a part of the culture of the company that once a year we would pick a cause, stop work, and help. We found another pre-school, we transformed a women’s shelter. Throughout the year, the employees would hunt for the next great project.
Was it expensive? Yes. On paper you can argue it reduced our annual profit by ½ percent. Was it money well spent? Absolutely. I believe that the ½ percent came back many times over in retention, company pride, teamwork and the intangible return of a company giving back to the community.
I challenge you to give it a go in your company, and suggest it will become a company tradition if you do. If you are considering doing so, send me an email. I would be pleased to help if I can.