Want a quick snapshot of the current state of corporate America (and society at large, for that matter)? Look no further than your local team-building organization.
A common mantra is being heard from the corner offices of the executive suite to the meeting planners and conveyed to team-building professionals: “Do more with less. Watch every dollar and think twice before spending it. Focus on quality, value and what really matters. Be more creative. Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this?’ And … get back to basics.”
Those team-building basics include being responsive, cost/time-efficient, delivering value and, above all, being innovative, focused on business objectives and responsible. Feeling pressure from the federal government to be more economically sensitive and socially responsible, companies are in a “giving back” frame of mind. Planners are asking for the same traditional team-building results — greater teamwork, boost in morale, increased productivity, nurturing respect, etc. — but eschewing the lavish programs of the past in favor of programs rooted in community service and the green movement. These socially responsible programs not only resonate with the altruistic nature of Gen X and Y workers, they also may offer distinct tax advantages for companies, since team-building can be classified as a training expense.
“Corporate social responsibility is going to be hot for the next few years,” says David Goldstein, founder of TeamBonding, a Boston-area team-building company in business since 1998. “We recently did a program in the [Washington] D.C. area with 600 people that was designed to give back to the community. So we built a miniature-golf course with local kids, using 2,400 canned goods and carpeting that, at the end of the day, were donated to various local charities. It was a great day for everyone involved — the client, the kids, the attendees, the charities and us.”
Build-a-bike and furniture-building programs — in which teams shop for, buy, assemble and donate these items to local charities — have been popular for years, but even these programs have been adjusted to accommodate tightening client budgets. Whereas a group might have gone off-site to a warehouse for a build-
a-whatever program in the past, now they’re remaining in the hotel ballroom and combining the activity with a social event, eliminating the need for ground transportation or extra venue rental costs.
“We did a program called ‘An Evening of Giving’ for a client that took place entirely in a ballroom,” says Sharon Fisher, CEO and “Idea Sparker” of Orlando-based Play with a Purpose. “Budgets were tight, so we did a themed party with stations around the room featuring ‘give back’ activities like putting together doghouses for a local animal shelter, building bikes, assembling ‘care kits’ for local shelters, stuff-a-bear for a kids charity and some others. We had a DJ, a buffet and bars around the room, so you could socialize and network while taking part in the various ‘give back’ activities.”
David Lengyel, co-owner of Phoenix, Ariz.-based team-building firm Venture Up, in business since 1983, says “things have really changed. Two years ago, we saw more personality problems that needed to be addressed through team-building programs. There were antagonistic-type issues and [clients needed to] get people to work together better. These days, what the economy has done is shift people’s attitudes. Even though most people in America still have jobs, there’s a greater trend towards appreciating what you do have. Now, team-building programs are more focused on helping the community and [answering the question] ‘how can I be better at what I do?’ than focusing on [solving] situations where people were finding fault with others. And that’s a good thing.”
Lisa Jennings, Chief Experience Officer of Wildly Different, a Central Florida team-building company in business since 2003, created an art-based community service program that was highly successful. “We had teams hunt for pieces of an art mural based on clues and work together to solve them,” she explains. “At the end, when each team had located their pieces of the mural, we came together as a group, assembled the mural then donated it to a local Boys & Girls Club. The client specifically said they wanted something art-based so we said, ‘This is what the
client wants. How do we make it happen?’ After these types of programs, we often hear our clients tell us, ‘Oh my gosh, that was so much fun in a time of doom and gloom. Thank you!’ These days, everyone in the team-building business has to find ways to offset things like people worrying about their jobs, pay cuts, you name it.”
Kevin Prentice of The Ant & The Grasshopper, a 15-year-old team-building company based in Manchester, Mass., says client needs have caused them to become more innovative and offer programs no one else is offering. Recently, they did a green team-building activity tied directly to a major yogurt company’s new environmentally friendly product packaging. “We created a green scavenger hunt called ‘Incredible Green Race,’” Prentice says. “Unlike most scavenger hunts, participants didn’t focus on clues and finding objects. We had them doing a variety of green-based activities like shooting a green commercial, finding a means to reuse a discarded item, creating recycling stations, and more. They were doing good things for the environment while focusing on cooperation, working together and having fun.”
In an economic climate laced with concern and cutbacks, some would argue team-building programs are more important now than ever before. As Fischer says, “My Dad used to tell me, ‘When times are good, people do business with people they like. And when times are bad, people still do business with people they like.’ We’re focusing on relationships, serving the clients, and helping them achieve their goals, so they’ll keep coming back. And we’re giving back.” And that focus on community, service and environment is something most workers and companies can get behind.