We are often approached to support firms with Team Building. Why? Well, for many in this hybrid world, the team away day is the first opportunity in many months for all employees in a firm, or a subset thereof, to come together. Leaders want to make that time count. In this article, we explore what can be achieved in an away day, why you need to have them, and why you also need to rethink your approach to them.
The team away day: what are we talking about
What most people mean when they talk about team building in the context of an away day, is an activity to bring together all the individuals who work in a firm. The term ‘team’ is used to mean ‘people who work together’. We will come back to this definition later.
Leaders are clear what they want out of a team day. They want something that helps individuals get to know each other better. For many it is the first time of meeting ‘IRL’ and it is an opportunity to ‘break the ice’. They want an activity that is fun and inclusive.
Others want to go further and use their away day to think about the firm’s purpose, values, or behaviours that they want to see going forward. They want some kind of “deliverable” or output from the day. Perhaps a charter or a behaviour contract.
These things are laudable and needed. But, do they go far enough?
What are the benefits of team building
There are many benefits of team building. It can help improve collaboration, it can boost morale, and it can build trust. It can also be used to increase creativity and communication. All of these things can help when employees return to the 'day job'. They know a little bit more about those they work with.
Team building days often include an element of fun – of play. Play has been shown to be the portal to neuroplasticity. In other words, it unlocks new ways of thinking and helps us learn. It is the scientific reason why we see some of the benefits we have listed above.
Why do we need away days?
We are fundamentally social beings. We have evolved to be in groups – social bonds helped humans survive. Margaret Heffernan describes social capital as the element necessary to build “effective and efficient organisations.”
What is social capital? She asserts that it is “the trust, knowledge, reciprocity and shared norms that create quality of life and make a group resilient. In any company, you can have a brilliant bunch of individuals — but what prompts them to share ideas and concerns, contribute to one another’s thinking, and warn the group early about potential risks is their connection to one another.”
Team building helps build social capital and “social connectedness plays a critical role in making individuals and companies more resilient, better able to do conflict well.”
With hybrid working, firms and the professionals in them have lost some social capital – this is felt and seen in many guises. It is why we now so often hear "this is the first time we have all come together" or "we need to understand each other more." That is why we need in-person away days. It is though also, paradoxically, why we need to think beyond them.
What are we missing doing it in a day?
Groups of people can be teams, and groups can become teams, but when we start to explore what a real team is, we can see that it is often removed from the reality of an away day.
Meredith Belbin defines a team as "a limited number of people selected to work together for a shared objective in a way that allows each person to make a distinctive contribution. By contrast, a group is a number of people who are brought together for a common purpose, but who are too numerous for Team Role relationships to form".
This is important, because when we are asked to support with team building, what we are really often speaking about is groups. Actually, as soon as you move beyond 8-10 people you are likely speaking about a group rather than a team.
Now, this is not to say that we should stop speaking about teams when we really mean groups. There are benefits to using a word to speak collectively about the whole – something that the word ‘team’ does well. However, if we are not clear about what we are dealing with we miss two important facets of what we are trying to do:
1. We need to think about social capital more broadly
2. We need to think about true team building outside of group away days.
We need to think about Social Capital more broadly
Social capital is about the value of social networks, bonding with similar people, and bridging between diverse people (Dekker and Uslaner 2001, Uslaner 2001). Put another way it is the “combined value of people, their networks, and their interactions.” McKinsey describes it more simply as “connectivity in the workplace”.
Historically social capital was built in those incidental meetings in the office. The ‘watercooler moments’, the meetings in the lift, the drinks after work; those moments that have been lost or reduced by being remote or hybrid. Yes, we communicate with our immediate teams (in the truest sense of the term ‘team’) – what we do less of is speak to the broader group of professionals in our firms. Our wider internal network.
We need to be more deliberate in how we build social capital given the way we now work. We need to understand the value it brings. Team away days are a great moment to reflect on what social capital is. However, this deliberate act of bringing together once a year can no longer achieve the connectedness of the past. Social capital cannot be left to one-and-done away days. Leaders need to think about how they can build social capital outside of their away days in order to continue to grow the social capital banks of individual employees.
We need to be more deliberate in creating time for social capital. Away-days are one way - we would argue a necessary way. They cannot be the only way.
We need to think about Team Building differently
Sometimes what we are asked to achieve isn’t about building social capital. Sometimes what we are asked is to help a team be more efficient, or to be put another way to be “more high performing”. Given the importance of the team to achieving organisational aims this isn’t surprising. These away days are for teams not for groups.
There is a whole body of research about how focusing on high-performing teams is the wrong approach – what we instead need is to focus on high-value creating teams. This is more in line with the move towards purpose-driven organisations and B-Corps that operate for more than just profit. It is an approach we ascribe to.
Here comes the problem, this focus requires more than just a one-and-done away day too. This is the remit of Team Coaching. This also needs to be intentional and it is a journey that might take a firm many months to complete. However, the benefits of team coaching are proven.
The ICF defines team coaching as partnering in a co-creative and reflective process with a
team and its dynamics and relationships in a way that inspires them to maximise their abilities and potential in order to reach their common purpose and shared goals. Often when we are asked to team build, what clients really want is team coaching. However, there isn’t the intent to spend the time with the process. All learning and behavioural change takes time.