Corporate Camaraderie

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

You're 20 feet off the ground, balancing on two small footholds and looking for the best way to keep climbing. Glancing down, you see co-workers slowly making their way up the rock wall. You might feel exhilarated by this test of strength, agility and endurance--or you might be wishing you were back on terra firma in your dull cubicle.

Welcome to one of the newest entries in corporate team building. Wall climbing, ropes courses, scavenger hunts--even cooking--are among the arsenal of activities that corporations are using to increase camaraderie and morale in the workplace.

Team-building exercises can be used to meet specific goals, such as improving communication, encouraging complex problem solving and establishing trust (think "trust falls") within a group. Other benefits may include increased motivation and self-awareness and a more social atmosphere between employees.

The economic downturn caused a general tightening of purse strings, and companies that specialize in corporate team-building programs saw fewer clients. "In 2009, we saw a drop. In 2010, we had a stellar year, I think because we went after it a lot harder because we had the drop in 2009," says Steve Butcher, who leads corporate events and programs for the Adventure Education Center and SuperGames. "I think that was commonplace for a lot of event companies last year."

More clients are starting to return in 2011. "It's not where it was pre-recession yet, but it's getting closer," says Mark Henson, chief imagination officer for sparkspace, which saw a 40 percent drop in business during the recession. The Arena District venue offers meeting space as well as team-building exercises. "It seems like almost everyone is saying, ‘We need to do this now. Now we have a little bit of budget or a little bit of breathing room that we didn't have before,' " Henson says.

Flexibility is key, says Tami Cecil, owner and chef at Woodhaven Farm, which offers corporate cooking classes. "I think what's really important in this economic climate is to be able to give people what they want in terms of a team-building event, but to be able to work with them, as well, to make sure it's going to fit into their budget. If it's going to stretch their budget, it's not going to be worth it for them," she says.

These days, corporate clients are looking for more creative experiences than the traditional obstacle and ropes courses, according to specialized staffing service the Creative Group, which surveyed 250 U.S. advertising and marketing executives to find unusual team-building activities. Answers included team skydiving, line dancing on the beach, a dog show, building a haunted house, jewelry making and a surfing contest.

While you can't hang ten at Buckeye Lake, Central Ohio does offer a plethora of team-building activities. Companies looking for a morale boost locally will find everything from ropes courses and workshops to improvisational comedy sessions and cooking competitions.

Fun and (Super)Games

Team-building exercises often ask participants to step out of their comfort zones, Butcher says. "You can see it in their face. They're thinking, ‘What is going on?' " The atmosphere is usually motivation enough for uneasy participants, he says. "It's a combination of the theme, the atmosphere we create and the staff themselves. Once we get into the flow of things, those people tend to follow."

Companies can use the 20,000-square-foot activity space at SuperGames or 40 acres leased from the Boy Scouts of America's Camp Lazarus. "We've got the traditional team building if you've got actual issues within your group or if you've got a project or a program that you're launching. Those programs are going to enable you to look at your team dynamics and use the activities to help see how you interact as a team," Butcher says. "Then, we've got the fun group bonding in a social setting, which is more of an event than a session."

Butcher books an average of four to five corporate events a month, as well as a handful of company picnics or festivals that include a team-building element. Programs cost $50 per person, on average.

Camp Lazarus has five high ropes courses, vertical climbing and a trapeze jump, as well as a ground-level area that includes about 15 different challenges used to explore group dynamics. "At the end of each activity, there's a discussion portion where you look at how you interacted, how you were successful and what were some things that maybe your group didn't do so well," Butcher says.

Clients can also play a game based on "The Amazing Race" TV show using a GPS unit to race each other while exploring the camp and completing challenges.

If the great indoors are more your speed, SuperGames' activity room can be customized to fit any theme. Popular programs include a duct tape fashion show, sports, casinos, go-carts and games based on "Family Feud," "Deal or No Deal," "Minute to Win It" and "Cake Boss."

The most popular program is based on "Survivor," where groups are split into tribes. "Those challenges are very team-oriented and really get the team working together. There's also that friendly, competitive edge. A lot of sales teams go for that one," Butcher says.

Cardinal Health held a 65-person event at SuperGames after a recent staff realignment. "The main purpose was not only to strategize and interact as a team, but to laugh and to connect as a team," says Brian Rudd, director of ambulatory care for the Fortune 500 company's Midwest region.

"We had a round-robin of events--six or seven--ranging from having one person wear a Velcro suit and another person hit a tennis ball and they had to catch it, to Survivor-type puzzles to put together," says Rudd. "[Butcher] worked with me to customize the experience. Not only did he mix and match a lot of different offerings to fit my group, but he also coordinated the food. All we had to do was enjoy ourselves."

"If you can play together and have fun together, you find you can work together a little bit easier. It releases the tension," Butcher says.

"Everyone talked about what a good time they had," Rudd says. "It set the tone for interacting and having fun as a team. ... The rest of our interactions were positive and light and with a different spirit about them because of that event."

Learn to Improvise

Comedy can certainly add levity to a long meeting or a boring workday. The four founders of Say What!?--Ryan Faber, Jeff Gage, Jay Hendren and Larry Ramey--believe a little training in improvisational humor can help strengthen the workplace, too.

"Improvisation is basically ensemble work and stage work, and it's about communication and connecting with your fellow players and with the audience," Gage says. "You can apply most of this stuff to life in general, so why not take it to the corporate level? Corporations are always looking for new ways to get their employees enthused about work, and they're always looking for new ways to connect."

Say What!? was formed in 2007 to perform for a variety of social events, including corporate entertainment. Team building was added in 2010. "We start off with games to get them into the spirit of play, so that they're less inhibited. Once you get into that intuitive state of play, that's when your creative juices start flowing because you're opened up, you're free to express yourself," Gage says.

"I've worked in a big company, and when you get a lot of departments, you'll see people who you recognize but don't ever talk to because they're not really in your department," Faber says. Splitting up those departments to form new groups forces employees to communicate with new people.

"It helps build intra-departmental teamwork," Faber says. "It really helps build that sense of friendship and unity. Once you get into the improv and get into that spirit of play, you experience that sort of self-awareness."

One of the most important elements of improvisation is to reply with, "Yes, and ..." which can be applied to communication back at the office, Hendren says. "We teach them not to block out people's ideas. Sometimes you go to a meeting and you think, ‘This guy is going to say A, B and C and I don't even want to listen to that.' Whereas we teach people to go in, listen to that and say, ‘That is a good idea, but what about if we try this?' "

SayWhat!? clients include Nationwide and Ohio State University. All shows are G-rated, and sensitive employees can be declared off-limits to teasing. Average session costs range from $2,000 to $3,000.

Mapsys Systems & Solutions partnered with Say What!? to hold its annual sales meeting at the Columbus Funny Bone comedy club. "They took some time to know our business and incorporated that into the performance, which got a lot of laughs" says Chris Heiberger, account manager at Mapsys. "They kept it clean. Improv can still be funny without being inappropriate. It was a great diversion from a five-hour meeting and a great way to cap it off."

Lighting a Spark

Staff development is an ongoing process. Engaging in one activity a year won't fix all the problems. "That's one of the myths of team building," Henson says. "There's immediate change usually in the first couple of follow-ups. In the long-term follow-ups we tend to hear, ‘We're slipping back into some old behaviors.' I don't think you necessarily have to go and spend money at sparkspace or anywhere else every week or month or even six months, but you do have to realize that team building is only effective if it's a continual process and not a one-time event."

The venue, which opened in 2000, changed its team-building offerings in 2009 in reaction to the economic downturn. "What we realized people needed was to learn to be positive in their companies again. Our programs generally focus on creating a positive work environment," Henson says. Three programs are offered: Creating a Positive Charge, Crazy Good Service and Urban Adventure.

Four to five team-building events are scheduled each month, and sparkspace checks in with clients one, three and six months afterward. Prices range from $2,500 to $5,000, Henson says. Repeat clients make up 60 percent to 70 percent of all sparkspace's business, including conference room rentals.

"Creating a Positive Charge is all about getting people to understand how much power and control they have over their environment and that it's not really out of their control and in their bosses' hands," Henson says. The program is structured for companies struggling with morale because of downsizing or drastic changes to their organization.

Crazy Good Service focuses on boosting customer service. For about 150 employees of COSI, the program used an obstacle course of chairs as a metaphor for the obstacles between employees and customers. "Everybody gets engaged in guiding the blindfolded person through the course. Then, they take off the blindfold and see the difference. You can see them, but you have to experience moving around them," says Andy Aichele, director of COSI University, which coordinates professional development and training for the science center's staff.

"[Henson] took the five elements of super service and customized them for our environment, using a lot of the same vocab and words that we use as a center of science and a community organization, and applied that to serving our customers," Aichele says. The results led to new policies and procedures throughout COSI, including a speedier entry process for members.

Urban Adventure uses the Arena District, the Short North and the North Market as a backdrop for team missions. Groups learn brainstorming tools before exploring an area. Afterward, they think of ways for the location to gain more publicity and visitors.

Creative Cooking

The drive through Johnstown to the 10-acre Woodhaven Farm includes several miles of sprawling fields and open skies. A narrow, gravel road leads visitors to the property, which includes a house, a large barn where team-building activities take place, a garden and pond.

"Part of our charm is that we're in the country. We're 20 minutes from Polaris and 20 minutes from Easton. We want them to step out of the corporate box and step away from their technology," Cecil says.

Cecil offers cooking classes and programs for both corporate and social events. "Each team is unique in terms of what they're interested in coming away with," she says.

Frequently, clients want a cooking competition along the lines of TV's "Iron Chef." Participants are given specific ingredients and must use them to build an appetizer or side dish. Other games include identifying a basket of mystery items, food trivia and garden scavenger hunts.

"The cooking itself is the cornerstone of what we do," Cecil says. "I give them a window of opportunity to ask questions at the outset and tell them to read through the recipes and make sure we're on the same game plan, because from then on I limit my answers. Sometimes they say, ‘I can't believe you wouldn't answer that silly question,' and I say, ‘Well, talk to your team! Talk to your team!' "

The price tag of Woodhaven's programs varies according to the number of guests and the curriculum, but an average lunch party of 20 runs $50 per person. Cecil declined to divulge client counts, but says 2010 was Woodhaven Farm's best year. "We're up at least 20 percent this year from where we were last year at this time," she says.

Nationwide brought management teams for two international financial groups supported out of its Dublin office to Woodhaven Farm. "I think it allowed some people to get to know their co-workers a little bit better," says Beth Ryan, Nationwide's financial information technology operations coordinator. "You learn about the people you work with. Some people might measure a teaspoon of salt and others might pour the salt straight out, stopping when they think it's a teaspoon. You learn about peoples' styles outside of the office."

Employees used ingredients won during a food trivia game, along with a loaf of bread, to create a dish corresponding to the company's brand. One group used the bread to form a frame modeled after Nationwide's blue square logo. Another made sandwiches representing the company's layers--customers, producers and associates.

"We really try to identify what the needs of the team are and what they're trying to accomplish as a result of the team-building experience," Cecil says. "We always want them to come away learning something about each other on a more personal level that can then be translated into better productivity when they get back to the office."

Michelle Davey is an editorial assistant for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the August 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.