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By Alyse Kalish – theMuse

“Team building” is a term you probably first encountered years ago. Maybe when you were in elementary school and your class had to work together to solve a puzzle. Or at camp when your bunk was tasked with completing a group scavenger hunt or catching each other in trust falls.

And yes, you’ve probably done team-building activities in the workplace, too. While they tend to get a bad rap—picture some mandatory HR event where everyone looks miserable and no one wants to go along for the ride—the right kinds of team-building exercises can bring people closer together, help teams work more effectively, and identify gaps and strengths in individual members.

Want to skip right to the good stuff? Here are our suggestions for:

Why Team-Building Activities Are Important

Besides offering up a fun and creative alternative to bonding over happy hour (which can make people who don’t drink feel left out), team-building activities provide companies and employees with plenty of added benefits.

At the base level, team building allows people to get to know each other—their interests, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they communicate, among other things. “Just like any professional sports team works and practices with one another to be at their best, teams at work can and should do the same thing,” says Muse career coach Al Dea. And just like you can’t jump onto the field with a team that has zero clues who’s playing what position, who’s passing the ball to whom, and who’s the best at handling XYZ situation, you can’t achieve anything if your team members don’t understand one another.

Team-building activities also build camaraderie and trust—one of the most important aspects of a successful team. “Building a sense of trust amongst teammates [allows] people [to] bring the full power of their skills, personalities, and who they are to work,” says Dea. “When people don’t have trust to do that, they hold back, thus sometimes limiting their abilities to be at their best.”

Finally, team-building activities can help remind people that work is never just about them—it’s about the entire group. When you’re encouraged to do something together, rather than solo, it brings to life the idea that the group’s success (and ultimately the company) should be a priority. This can be a particularly useful learning experience for teams that struggle with teamwork, are overly competitive, or lack unity and confidence as a result of a bad manager or hard times.

So what do these exercises look like? Check out some of our favorites.

Team-Building Activities to Do During a Meeting

Team building doesn’t have to be an all-day affair. In fact, taking 20 minutes out of the first half of your next group meeting can be enough to spark innovation and teamwork.

1. Solve a Puzzle

This can be a literal puzzle, like a 500 piece set (if you’re down to spend a few dollars on Amazon), or a brain teaser that requires thinking and brainstorming out loud. Toss one out to your team and, if you’re feeling overly ambitious, give them a time limit to complete the task. The key is that everyone has to contribute to the success of the project.

Once they’re done or time runs out, take a moment to reflect on the experience. Ask your team: What was your strategy to solve it? Who did what? Why did you make the decisions you did? Allowing everyone to think through their process might highlight unique perspectives or strengths in each individual—or at least lead to an eye-opening conversation.

2. Count to 20

This one’s super simple and great if you want to take a couple of minutes to bond.

Have everyone sit in a circle. Anyone can start the count off or say a number at any time, the goal being to count from one to 20. However, if two people jump in at the same time to say a number, the count starts over. This game requires team members not only to be cognizant of the group dynamic but to work together—with limited communication—to get to the end.

3. Try a Compliment Circle

There are different variations you can take on this to encourage your team to express appreciation for one another. One option is you can simply spend five minutes having individuals complement one another, whatever pops into their mind (if you’re the manager, you should start to get the ball rolling!). This can be as easy as saying, “I wanted to tell Gina I loved her proposal this week” or “Big shoutout to Danny for bringing in donuts last week when we were all heads-down to meet a big deadline.” Or you can go around and have each person address the co-worker to their right so that everyone gets a chance to shine.

4. Host a Brainstorming Session

Team building can absolutely be work focused, and oftentimes that’s the best kind. The key is to make these brainstorming sessions less about day-to-day accomplishments and more about bigger team goals. Maybe you want to outline your KPIs for the rest of the quarter. Maybe you want to hash out some new ideas for an upcoming campaign. Maybe your team’s strategy feels stale and you’re looking for ways to refresh it.

Whatever your goal, try organizing your conversation using one of these suggestions:

  • An idea board: The simplest form of brainstorming. Give everyone an agenda ahead of time, and have them come to the meeting with three to five ideas. Talk through them, and have people contribute additional thoughts, questions, or concerns.
  • Fist to five: Have everyone brainstorm solutions to a problem, then go through them one by one by holding up a fist or a number of fingers up to five. A fist means you’re not on board and five fingers up means you think it’s a great idea. Then, have everyone state their case as to why they chose the fingers they did.
  • Went well, went OK, could have done better: At The Muse, we use this process for quarterly retrospectives and project post-mortems. Have everyone jot down on Post-it notes things they thought went well, things they thought went OK, and things that didn’t go well or could have been done better, and sort the Post-its into their respective categories. Once all the ideas are on the table talk through them and come up with potential solutions to the problem areas.

5. Have a “Show and Tell”

This can be a great way to get your team to brag a bit about their accomplishments and to encourage them to stay updated on what everyone else is working on.

One great example of this at The Muse is something we call “Sip it and Ship it.” One Friday of the month, our engineering team hosts an open meeting where anyone at the company has the option to take a look at and test out our latest “shipped” or completed products—while “sipping” on alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverages.

You can do this on a small scale, too. If you’re a team of two or three, spend a few minutes a week or once a month getting together and highlighting something each member is working on, and allow people to ask questions, give suggestions, and offer up positive feedback.

Team-Building Activities to Do During the Workday

These activities are great for longer meetings, or if you want to spend an afternoon or a few hours away from your desk.

6. Share Your Personality

Have everyone on your team fill out a personality test (here are some of our favorites), then get together and discuss. What you decide to do with this is really up to you—the key is to have each employee understand their colleagues’ strengths, weaknesses, and ticks. Maybe you group similar personalities together and have them chat about how their traits come out in the workplace, or have them complete an assignment like designing their “ideal” office based on their personality type and sharing it with the group.

Another option? Have everyone fill out this “user manual” and share their findings with the team.

7. Play Team or Board Games

You don’t need me to tell you that board games bring people together (just read this article on the benefits of networking over games). And there are some many great, office-friendly options out there!

There’s Apples to Apples (a SFW version of Cards Against Humanity), Code NamesPandemic, and Jenga—all games that require teamwork. There are also non-tabletop games like Celebrity or Heads Up (available on iOS and Android) that require nothing but a phone or a pen and paper.

It may feel silly to pull out some games in the middle of the office, but you may be surprised to find that doing so loosens your team up and forces them to work together in different and creative ways.

8. Create a Scavenger Hunt

Scavenger hunts can be great for new hires to get to know the landscape and their team—requiring them to identify things around the office and ask seasoned employees questions during their first week such as “When was [Company] started?” or “Who was our first client?” or “How many people work on the marketing team?”

But they’re just as effective with veteran teams. Maybe you set one up for employees to uncover X number of facts or artifacts by the end of the day together. Or divide the group into multiple teams and see who finishes first. However you choose to do it and whatever you choose for them to find, this will definitely encourage team members to work together on something far removed from their usual work and team of people.

9. Untangle a “Human Knot”

This is a camp favorite, but also a fun way to have team members come together to solve a problem. Have everyone squish together in a circle and grab hands with people not directly next to them. The goal, once everyone’s hands are interlocked, is to untangle yourselves without breaking the chain. You can make it even more challenging by not allowing people to talk or putting a time limit on it. It requires a bit of leg room to crawl over each other (not to mention an office culture where people feel comfortable holding hands—tread carefully with this one), but if you feel up to it it can make for a fun puzzle.

10. Give Out Blind Directions

Pair team members up and have one put on a blindfold—it’s then the other person’s job to direct them in making moves as best they can, whether that’s getting them to the other side of the office or having them complete a task like moving an object or drawing a picture. Have individuals who normally don’t work as closely together do this exercise, and it’ll help them practice communication and build trust.

11. Do a Silent Line-Up

Set a timer, and have people line up in various orders say, by height, birthday, or company tenure—without saying a word. Your team will learn a bit about each other while overcoming an unusual challenge.

12. Host a Lunch and Learn

Your team is probably full of unspoken talent—use those strengths as a way to bring everyone together. Maybe someone’s a great knitter, or speaks another language, or is a pro at using Excel. Have them host a “lunch and learn” where they teach the rest of the crew a new skill over your midday break. Your employee will practice mentoring and giving presentations, and your team will learn something new and exciting about their peers.

13. Have a Hack Day

Hack days are big in the tech and engineering sphere, but they can be beneficial for just about any team.

The idea is simple: Have everyone drop what they’re working on and spend the day completing a special project that benefits the team or company. If you can, have multiple departments (if not the whole company) participate and require employees to work with people on different teams. The point is to have people think outside the box by creating something that requires a new set of skills or way of thinking.

Maybe you spend the day rethinking your onboarding document for new hires, or brainstorming a new sales pitch, or building a new feature into a product—whatever it is, it should cost $0 to create and be something you can make (or conceptualize) in a workday.

14. Put on a Contest

For example, you could host a department desk decorating face-off (this is a big hit in The Muse office on Halloween), or plan a cookie or guacamole-making contest, where employees bring in their best recipes and the team judges their favorites (plus, who doesn’t like food during the workday?). It creates a bit of healthy competition, while encouraging employees to spend time together and bond over a common hobby.

Team-Building Activities to Do Outside the Office

It’s certainly trickier to have people hang out outside of work, but if you can get everyone together (or can take the afternoon to go on an adventure), these can be great activities for team building.

15. Complete an Escape-the-Room Challenge

Everyone’s doing them these days, and it’s no wonder why: Trying to escape when you’re “trapped” in a room with people (in a set time period) is a team effort. If you live in a city that offers them (some options here and here), you can find an assortment of escape-the-room challenges, including a submarine, jail cell, or even an office (how ironic!). Per person it may cost you around $30, the same price of say, taking your team bowling or paying for a few drinks at happy hour.

16. Take a Cooking Class

Cooking classes are a great way to help teams bond because they’re not just an individual activity—often what you’re making requires multiple sets of hands. CourseHorse and Groupon are great places to find these kinds of opportunities, for cheap.

17. Take an Improv Class

A lot more interactive than cooking classes, improv classes can teach you a lot of valuable skills for the workplace—including how to communicate with others and overcome various challenges as a team. Plus, they force you to get out of your comfort zone and have a laugh with your colleagues. You can check out sites like CourseHorse for options, or do a quick Google search to find the best comedy cellars near your office.

18. Sign Up for Trivia

Who doesn’t love trivia? Besides the fact that it allows employees to flex their history and pop culture muscles, it’s also incredibly team-oriented. Go together to a local spot’s trivia night, or bring in a host to your office and split the department into teams to battle for the winning title.

19. Volunteer

If your team is passionate about a certain cause or initiative, consider taking the day to do some community service. Not only will you bond, but you’ll come out feeling great and making a positive impact on your community. Here’s how to bring volunteer opportunities to your office, and some tips on various volunteering activities you can do, depending on your level of commitment.

20. Start a Book Club

Grab a book related to your field and have everyone read it over a few weeks. Then, set aside some time to sit and chat about it (over snacks!). You’ll spark interesting conversation, encourage colleagues to share ideas, stories, and input, and help everyone learn a bit more about their role within the team.

Check out our best reads if you need inspiration.

21. Tackle a Ropes Course

This is a bit more ambitious, but it’s a great day trip or retreat activity to get your team outdoors and still working together. Ropes courses require teamwork in so many ways, whether you’re encouraging a teammate to overcome an especially challenging part or trying to get through a maze as a group. Just make sure everyone on your team is on board with this before moving forward (for example, ensuring no one’s afraid of heights or has mobility issues)—if they’re hesitant you may have more success trying something else out.

22. Form an Intramural League

If your team is full of athletes, this could be the perfect option for bonding outside the office.

It doesn’t have to be a tiring sport, either! Plenty of cities offer opportunities to play things like skeeball, bocce, or cornhole. If you want your efforts to go toward a cause, consider signing up to run (or walk) a 5K for charity together.

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