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Team-building exercises may take a toll on employees if they're not voluntary

Many people feel like these types of activities aren’t benefiting their work experience

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Photo (c) Yuri_Arcurs - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Sydney found that many employers’ efforts to build morale and boost feelings of camaraderie can actually hinder their workers’ performance

The findings suggest that the intention behind team-building activities can be lost when employees feel like they’re being forced to complete them. While these exercises can be helpful in bringing colleagues together, they can actually have the opposite effect when they’re mandatory.

“Since publishing our previous research on team-building exercises, many workers told us that they despise team building activities and see them as a waste of time, so we decided to look more in-depth at what’s behind this,” said researcher Dr. Petr Matous. 

Are there benefits?

The researchers were most interested in seeing what kinds of team-building activities were most beneficial to workers. They put the study participants through several self-disclosure sessions to gauge what they thought were effective and ineffective team-building strategies. 

“Almost every day at work, workers are subjected to interventions that are implicitly or explicitly designed to change our networks of working relationships,” said Dr. Matous. “Teams are formed, merged, and restructured, staff are relocated, and office spaces are redesigned. We are expected to participate in drinks after work and team building events. All this is done with the aim of improving workplace effectiveness, efficiency, collaboration, and cohesion -- but does any of this work?” 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that activities designed to build rapport among colleagues are hit or miss. The participants expressed the most frustration with these exercises when they felt forced to be involved. Many of these sessions feel inauthentic to employees, and several of the study participants reported feeling uncomfortable sharing so many personal details with their bosses and co-workers. 

This is important because when employees are consistently mandated to attend and participate in these events, it can impact how they feel about their jobs and hinder their overall job performance over time. 

“Many people do not want to be forced into having fun or making friends, especially not on top of their busy jobs or in stressful, dysfunctional environments where team building is typically being called for,” said researcher Dr. Julien Pollack. “These activities often feel implicitly mandatory. People can feel that management is being too nosy or trying to control their life too much.” 

How should companies approach this?

Though the researchers found that many team-building activities can be a source of stress or discomfort for employees, they also learned that not all exercises are the same, and there are beneficial ways to engage groups of employees. The biggest takeaway from this study is that employees want a choice; having the ability to opt out makes workers feel more in control, and giving employees the choice of who to work with in these activities can make them less uncomfortable. 

Team-building can be effective for employees and their bosses, and the researchers hope that more companies take these findings into consideration when it’s time to plan them. 

“With caution, many relational methods to improve teams and organizations can be borrowed from other fields,” said Dr. Matous. “The question is how to apply them effectively to strengthen an entire collective, which is more than just the sum of individual relationships, and that’s where analyzing methods using network science makes the main contribution.” 

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