Gone are the days of companies just having a nice dinner for their employees each year to go over the newest market projections and the annual budget report. Companies realized that these meetings were not fun, employees looked for reasons to get out of them and once the employees ate they were in a food coma and really were not paying attention anyway. Companies soon looked for other ways to pique the curiosity of their employees, from surprise meetings at the office to mini-destination events. While these increased the attendance and the attention of their employees, there was still a disconnect. Market Projects and annual budgets bring down the energy of any project, so employers came up with the idea of team building to increase excitement. This brought forth a new age in corporate culture, one that has changed how we do many different types of business.
The first generation of team building events was kind of thrown together by people who had the vision but did not have the experience working with groups or with actually building teams. These events ranged from “trust fall” exercises at the office for $1,000 an hour to improv classes at a local theater. These programs inspired employees to attend the meetings, mainly out of curiosity- but how often do you need to trust your coworker to catch you when you fall backward off of a desk or do you need the practiced skill of coming up with 20 uses of a broomstick and a dartboard in five minutes? The excitement was there, but the functionality was not. This led to companies spending millions on classes that really did not boost performance, but they did increase morale.
The second generation of team building events was the “Stay Away Events.” With the risk of child abuse scandals in the 1990s, stay away camps were having problems getting parents to send kids to their camps. As a result, there were dozens of empty camps around the United States and thousands of companies looking for ways to increase teamwork. It was not long before some enterprising genius thought that companies could have “retreats” at these stays away from camps. These programs were generally 4-7 days long and would cost anywhere from $1,500 to $10,000 a person. This, of course, included all the food, a place to stay, training and of course all the smores you could eat. These worked out well for companies as the 1980s kids wanted to capture the fun times of their youth; however, as the 1980s kids faded into upper management and out of the teams, the thrill of staying in the woods with a bunch of your coworkers lost its appeal. This, coupled with the facts that the camps started catering to adults just as party camps which increased the cost, made it less vague and a little too “campy” (excuse the pun) for companies to send their workers away like children.
We have arrived at the third generation of team building events in the United States. This is the era of destination events. Programs such as domestic travel, international travel, and cruises have come a long way since the 1990s, which makes them an ideal opportunity for your employees to get training while doing something enjoyable. Some companies are even opening these events up to the employee’s spouses and children (usually the employee has to pay for the spouse and kids). This has resulted in an environment where the employer has more control over the events (most camps had a standard schedule) and more control over the training (most camps you were stuck with the staff of the camp). Conversely, the employees have more control over what they do with their free time. If the team meets for four hours in the morning, the employee has about 8 hours in the afternoon and evening to spend with his or her family and kids. For instance, if an employer is doing a four-day cruise as a team building excursion, the cost of the “trip” is about $500 per employee (if they do not bring a spouse they get doubled with a co-worker). In this four day event (usually over a weekend) the company gets 16 hours of training time (4 hours each day) and the employee gets 32 hours of vacation/family time. Depending on how the training is done it could only cost the room rental (ranging about $50 an hour on many ships) or it could be the room and a trainer (most good trainers are about $1,000 an hour). If you have a team of 20 people, even if you hired an expensive trainer ($16,000+ room), you would still save approximately $14,000 on the trip. Further, employees could do activities such as snorkeling, SCUBA diving and touring new countries.
Destination events are also an excellent option for “upping” your team building game. Most companies use domestic events (such as going to the Grand Canyon, Nashville or Disney) as a vehicle for lower level employees, reserving international travel (Australia, Europe or India) for upper-level employees. I have had the privilege of setting up several trips where people have traveled internationally for business, and every person has celebrated the trip as one of the best experiences of their life (even though they were working most of the time). Business training does not have to be boring and at approximately $1,000 a person for a domestic trip and $6,000 a person for an international trip they are still less expensive than the stay away from camps. Once again, if you model the trips right, you can have 20 hours of employee training in a week and they can have 72 hours of vacation/family time.
Adventurous companies some times want challenging events for their teams. One of the best groups I led did whitewater rafting and diving on the great barrier reef on back to back days. This trip was a little different, we did two 8 hour days of training “bookending” the event days and a free day after the second training day. It worked out well because it allowed for two days after the dive to make sure that everyone got all the nitrogen out of their system before flying home to the United States. These types of programs really open up your team to new experiences (which has been shown to open new mental pathways) along with giving your employees stories to tell their families and friends. Job satisfaction is one of the main reasons that team members stay with a company, and taking people around the world is a great tool to boost satisfaction.
Companies are moving away from the job/life divide that plagued many industries for, well, hundreds of years. Companies now understand that work is part of life if you make it a part of life that people like- then you can keep the good employees around longer in the age of people jumping from job to job (the average millennial will have up to 15 jobs in their life). People leaving your team costs you money, so any company worth their salt knows that spending $5,000 or less a year to keep your good employees around is a good investment. Done right, companies can even frame this as a perk in the job. Imagine saying “Every other year we take a corporate retreat to work on team building. Employees are invited to bring their families with them and we have 4 hours of training in the morning and the rest of the day is theirs. Last year, we took the team on a cruise to the Bahamas, it was amazing and Jeff and Tina in accounting even renewed their vows. Next year, we are looking at a group trip to Disney World, learning about mass scale population flow management and inherent conflicts in international business systems.” It becomes easier to attract good employees if you have something like that you can “pitch to them.” The best part, if you do it bi-annually it only costs about $3,500 a year per employee- and that is one of the more expensive trips (the cruises are about $500 per employee per year). It is time for corporate America to up its game in looking at team building and training. Why spend tens of thousands of dollars to bring trainers to your office for an experience that the employees are going to forget within the week, whereas you can take your employees to new locations, to build new experiences and learn more about the world, through doing a destination event?
By Dr. Christopher W. Smithmyer. A Vice President of International Affairs in Brāv Online Conflict Management.
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