The team that plays together works together


Team games as bonding exercises are increasing in popularity, writes Gabrielle Monaghan

Building a makeshift bridge in the driving rain or recreating the Survivor television show in the Wicklow woods may not be everyone's ideal way of bonding with colleagues but employers are sending staff on team-building exercises in their droves in an effort to boost morale and productivity.

Nokia, Diageo and Arthur Cox are just some of the organisations that have hired Ireland Xtreme to get their staff working together outside the office. The company offers activities ranging from treasure hunts and high-rope courses to helicopter adventures and 4x4 driving.

Company Occasions, which organises rocket building, quad biking and games based on the Apprentice, counts Microsoft, Baileys and O2 among its previous clients. American Express even booked the company to develop a Mission Impossible event for 360 employees attending a European conference.

The game involved kidnapping their boss and closing the hotel car park for two days in advance to park 36 mini-coaches for the employees.

The American Express staff were divided up into teams and monitored by 15 "controllers" in the hotel who provided them with passwords as they moved through each challenge. Sixteen actors were placed on the street to play characters for the game. Clues were recorded on tape and translated into 11 different languages.

"There are more and more of these team-building events popping up all the time," says Paul Mullan, managing director of HR solutions provider Measurability.

"Team-building in Ireland used to take place in the pub. This way you're less likely to go on the lash and tell your boss to feck off."

With companies fighting harder than ever to recruit and retain talent, businesses are turning to unorthodox games to promote closer working relationships and encourage loyalty.

"Team-building games have a positive impact on the organisation in the sense that the company is seen to be looking after their staff," Mr Mullan says.

"Initiatives like this will improve an employee's experience of working at a company and happier employees are more productive employees and are less likely to be sick and take time out."

Outdoor pursuits involving both managers and employees are also becoming a more effective method of interaction than after-work drinks, which can be difficult to attend due to strict drink-driving laws and family obligations.

"Many people don't get the opportunity to stay behind after work to drink with colleagues and managers, what with longer commuting times and traffic congestion," Mr Mullan says. "Most interaction is typically done at the Christmas party. These games give management an opportunity to interact with employees outside the work environment."

Some companies are prepared to spend up €900 on each employee on a treasure hunt across the east coast that involves teams searching for clues by helicopter, according to David Basset, a founding director of Ireland Xtreme. The usual cost per capita of activities is €80-€200.

"The most unusual request was getting employees to do bungee jumps out of a helicopter, but we declined," asset says. "However, there must be tangible benefits accruing to our clients or they wouldn't be coming back time and again. They are not doing this just for a jolly."

Activities provided by Ireland Xtreme and its growing number of competitors are often used as a motivational tool for sales teams, especially at the start of a new quarter.

No doubt many of these motivational activities have been inspired by practices in the US. Wal-Mart staff, for instance, are encouraged to join in "huddles" and engage in the daily cheer, "W-A-L M-A-R-T", punctuated with a Chubby Checker-like twist they call a "squiggly". Ronan McCabe, founder of Company Occasions, believes many of these practices wouldn't be popular with Irish workers.

"Irish people don't like jumping up and down and high-fiving each other - they find it a bit embarrassing," he says. "Some US companies we've worked for over the years bring their top executives over and they treat their Irish employees as they might treat staff back home. That doesn't work well here."

Team-building games comprise about 80 per cent of Company Occasions' business. One activity is based on the Apprentice, with a character called Alan Salt playing the part of Alan Sugar and ordering teams to form a pretend company and complete tasks such as inventing or selling a product. He rates the teams and the winners get "hired".

Another popular game is getting participants to shoot a documentary on a certain location or to advertise a product. Company Occasions equips team members with ideas, cameras, props and shuttle buses. The finished products are watched at an "award ceremony" that night.

Rising demand for team-building exercises is boosting competition in this market and requires organisers continuously to devise even quirkier games to retain the attention of large clients.

"We try to reinvent our activities each year and come up with new ideas to keep ahead of everyone else," Bassett says. "We are always looking at what's happening in the US and New Zealand to see if we can bring them to Ireland."

Ireland Xtreme began catering for company outings shortly after it was created in 2003 as an organiser of 4x4 driving events.

"A lot of high-end customers began asking for team-building events and would then ask if we could provide something different the following year," Bassett says. "We went to other places around Europe to see what they were doing. People thought it couldn't be done in Ireland because of the weather but that's a cop-out."