Small Business: Off-site team-building

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Melville law firm employees, from left, Diana Choy-Shan, Melville law firm employees, from left, Diana Choy-Shan, of Sound Beach, Daniela Frazier, of Huntington, and Jennifer Cona, of Cold Spring Harbor, get ready for a team scavenger hunt earlier this month at The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. (Aug. 2, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

Cris Barcia, a senior paralegal at Genser, Dubow, Genser & Cona, doesn't normally work directly with Paul Hyl, a partner at the Melville elder-law and estate-planning firm.

But for two hours earlier this month they teamed up to outwit their co-workers in a scavenger hunt at The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook.

Five teams of six -- each with a mix of both staff and partners at the firm -- had to solve riddles and puzzles throughout the museum, working cooperatively to accumulate the most points.

It was the first scavenger hunt for Genser but the firm's eighth team-building activity. And although Barcia's team didn't come in first, she didn't seem to mind.

"We had a blast," she says. "It helped bring us together. We had to really listen to each other."

While off-site team building activities like this may seem like just an excuse to ditch the office, if done right they can be valuable tools to build camaraderie and foster strong working relationships, say experts.

For Jennifer Cona, managing partner at Genser who orchestrated the hunt through Manhattan-based Watson Adventures, it accomplished both.

Mixing styles. "It helped us understand each other's different styles," says Cona, who was part of a team, The Over-Thinkers, that took second place in the scavenger hunt.

Taking staff outside of their typical office environment helped eliminate barriers and foster interaction, she says.

"Off-site gets people into a different mindset," explains Cona, adding she'd like to do another scavenger hunt next year.

But simply being off-site doesn't guarantee a successful experience, says Ed Scannell, co-author of "The Big Book of Team Motivating Games" (McGraw Hill; $25) and director of the Center for Professional Development & Training in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Everyone has to buy in, or it won't work, he notes.

"Team building is not a spectator sport," says Scannell. "You need to get everyone involved from your top people to the newest hires."

That's why it pays to get an outside facilitator to run the event so everyone's involved, even the CEO, he notes.

It helped having Watson Adventures facilitate Genser's scavenger hunt, says Cona, so she could actively participate.

Watson conducts scavenger hunts in various locations including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says Julie Jacobs, chief development officer at Watson. Costs for a typical hunt run from about $40 to $70 per person, she says, adding that business is up 46 percent year-over-year nationwide and 20 percent in New York, which covers New York City and Long Island.

Team-building activities work best when management allows the entire team to participate and doesn't try to take a dominant position, says Jacobs. She suggests planning teams ahead of time and putting different personality types on each team.

Follow-up is key. Cona tried to organize teams with employees who don't normally work together or perhaps those who aren't communicating well.

"Most of the teams were designed to be people that don't interact that much," noted Hyl, team captain of Sherlock's Curators.

To optimize the experience, it pays to brief employees in advance on what you're trying to accomplish and also debrief them at the end to see what they've learned, says Scannell.

That's what Cindy B. Ryan, coordinator of Corporate CARE in Amityville, tries to do.

The program provides team-building opportunities for organizations and companies through adventure workshops on a challenge course on the grounds of South Oaks Hospital. After each activity at the facility, which includes a climbing tower and tandem zip line, staffers debrief participants to allow them to reflect on the outcome, says Ryan, noting the program can customize activities including the level of physical difficulty.

"Follow-up is extremely important," she says.

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

IDENTIFY the goal of the activity and share it with your team.

INVOLVE all staff members, from top level down.

CHOOSE a location and activity that doesn't exclude certain staffers, for example, older workers.

CONDUCT follow-up after each activity to identify successes and failures.

CONSIDER doing a team-building activity every six months.

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