I have tried pretty much every team-building technique out there. Some were successful; others met with rolled eyes and hushed conversations about kumbaya moments. (Note: Do not use paintball as a team-builder unless you are looking to engender a revengeful win-lose culture within your company.) But none were a perfect fit for our company, so we decided to try something different.
Instead of simulating situations that would create teamwork, we tried something that would force teamwork: a day-long project for the community. Finding the right project turned out to be surprisingly easy. We called the Social Services department in Boulder, CO, which 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.
Being a fun, mechanically oriented company, the idea of building a playground for a school in need seemed like it would work. Our offsite committee made a visit to interview the day care center and declared it a great fit.
The tasks included some landscape work, assembly, construction, painting and computer set-up. Our company contributed the money that would have otherwise been spent on an offsite meeting for the construction materials and the playground hardware. Our procurement department found that suppliers gave us a great price once they discovered the end use for the equipment.
On the day of the offsite, the day care center surprised us by really rolling out the red carpet, greeting us with tables of homemade food prepared by the parents and other refreshments. Our group started the day knowing 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 – the fear 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. 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; 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 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 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 to try out the equipment, and we got some great group photos of them with a bunch of tired employees.
My fondest memory of the day is of a group of worn-out folks, swapping stories over pizza and beer and not wanting the evening to end.
A week later, a package arrived at our office. Inside were hand-written thank you notes from the kids and a set of pictures from the day. The letter from the director was read to the company and brought tears to eyes. For weeks afterwards people kept talking about the “best offsite 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 preschool; we transformed a women’s shelter. Throughout the year, the employees would hunt for the next great project.
As with any process, there were lessons learned from the experience. A few to pass along:
- Look beyond the usual company problem solvers. This is an opportunity to recognize those that have more to contribute than you have given them credit for. 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 director's initial suggestion, ignored by six engineers with shovels for close to an hour.
- Don’t underestimate the simple things. You will be astounded by the difficulty of assembling playground equipment. Don’t worry about having enough to do. 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.
- Ask for input from others; we can't know everything ourselves. 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 it really fuels the process.
- If the project isn’t a great fit, the broad sense of accomplishment is lost, and the learning from “look at this incredible thing we did as a team” is lost. 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 hugely grateful.
- Make sure everyone has a way to significantly contribute. 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 over-organize. 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.
On paper you can argue this offsite reduced our annual profit by ½ percent. But it was money well-spent. 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 try it, and promise it will become a company tradition if you do. If you are considering doing something similar in your organization, send me an email. I would be honored to help in any way I can.