Andrew Baxter interviewed in the AFR on how to make corporate team-building days effective

by Hannah Tattersall, 29th November 2018, in the Australian Financial Review

A few years ago, Publicis Mojo chief executive Andrew Baxter was concerned his teams in Sydney and Melbourne hadn't spent much time together. A staff conference was organised on the Gold Coast and Baxter arranged for Grammy-nominated songwriter Ciaran Gribbin to perform and lead a team-building session on the importance of group synchronicity.

"It was about building mental resilience and getting a team from a seven out of 10 to a 10 out of 10," Baxter says. "We were keen for people to understand that it takes a bit of mental toughness, resilience and strong-mindedness to make that happen."

With his organisation Rock and Roll Team Building, Gribbin works with large corporate audiences such as AMP, Diageo, Schneider Electric and Tourism Australia. At these events he shares stories about growing up during the Northern Ireland conflict, working with artists such as Madonna, U2 and Paul McCartney, and his time as a singer with INXS. He calls for volunteers to dress up and go backstage to practise harmonies, before writing a company song and getting everyone to sing along.

"You’re dealing with conservative corporates to trendy tech companies to pharmaceutical companies to finance, but essentially everyone is human and music is a wonderful connector to shaking people alive," Gribbin says.

"I’ve seen it so many times where people's body language is not great and they're uninspired by their work. You can have the CEO of a company dressed up like a leprechaun jumping up and down on stage or someone who's never had the chance to stand on stage before close their eyes and pluck a melody out of the air. It's an innovative way of getting people to come out of themselves and get teams together. Their colleagues are thinking, 'I had no idea John from accounts was such a great singer'."

Wanting people to come out of their shell at work and form more meaningful relationships with their colleagues is a common theme for companies that sign up to team building. From boating to Sydney's Bridge Climb, cooking classes, wine tasting and outdoor challenges, corporate bonding activities have been around for decades. But with newer, wilder additions such as horse whispering and Survivor-like jungle challenges, they're very much back on the corporate agenda – and it seems the wackier the better.

Business Events Sydney says team building is a growing industry, not just locally but also with overseas markets. Asian delegates are frequenting Australia to take part in cruises, diving, jet boating, surfing, dolphin watching, abseiling and quad-biking on sand dunes.

"We’ve seen 20 per cent year-on-year growth over the past decade in the value of events secured from Asia, and this market now accounts for almost half of the business we secure and deliver each year," says chief executive Lyn Lewis-Smith.

Those who partake say that such activities improve collaboration and inclusiveness, increase engagement scores and motivate staff. As Baxter puts it: "They highlight the importance of teams and the power of the collective and how you can work closely together and collaboratively – and have fun at the same time."

But for all the fuss – and finance – involved, are they worth the trouble?

Rosemarie Dentesano, executive director of culture transformation company Walking the Talk, says there are many triggers for team building, including hiring a new CEO or a new intake of staff. There also could be remedial reasons: where a team might have something that needs fixing such as low trust or disengagement. "I've also seen organisations where they already have a well-performing team but they want to get it to another level."

Dentesano says it is important to identify a purpose for team building, rather than just doing an event for the sake of it. "What's the challenge or the problem you're trying to solve, then what's the best activity to get the team to engage with each other?"

Organisations should also follow up with some key performance metrics to get a clear sense of what they're trying to achieve – and reward the team when they achieve it.

Jennifer Overbeck, an associate professor at Melbourne Business School of Management who specialises in the psychology of management and group dynamics, says the success of team building will also depend on how receptive staff are to the idea.

She cites the infrastructure division of Metro Trains in Melbourne, which was going through big cultural change a few years ago. The company introduced a high-performance training program, called Performance at the Limit, to challenge staff with a Formula 1 pit stop challenge. It focused on four key areas: open and constant communication; fostering a "no-blame" culture; building an organisation around informal processes, networks and relationships; and demonstrating how a team working together will achieve better results than an individual working alone.

"What we do know is that going through an activity, especially when that activity involves as many of the senses as possible so it’s deeply immersive in some way, is a praising experience that sort of jolts people out of their complacency and produces deeper learning," Overbeck says. "So there are a lot of reasons to think these kinds of things can have value."

Metro Trains was "forced to confront how much they were not working as a team and how much they had to be sensitive to each other and co-ordinated with each other to truly work as a team", Overbeck says, adding that the type of activity selected is important for team building to be effective.

"My impression was that they walked in and people had their arms folded and their brows lowered and were like, 'what are you gonna make me do?' and 'I'm not ready to listen to you'. I think playing with Lego or cooking might not have gone over with that group the same way that a race car went over."

Roger Perry, the managing director of business management consultants Bevington Group, agrees that the context needs to be right and warns that corporate bonding works only in the short term.

"When the teams are re-immersed in their corporate context they revert to type," he says, suggesting that team-based coaching is probably a more effective way to engage staff in the realities of team behaviour in an office context.

Despite the scepticism, the market does appear to be growing, with companies allocating significant budget to off-site or activity days. There was some drop-off 10 years ago during the financial crisis but now that times aren't quite so tough, interest has picked up again.

"When we have times of economic insecurity, these things tend to be less popular because they tend to be quite expensive and companies are generally looking for a really direct and immediate return on any kind of expenditure," Overbeck says.

Another reason for the surge could be that companies are looking for creative ways to incentivise staff. Merilyn Speiser, principal consultant at Catalina Consultants, observes: "With such flat wage growth over the past few years, I think businesses are trying to look at some non-financial rewards and benefits.

"While it's not going to correlate to a pay rise, it will assist in building the team spirit and the culture, and obviously then the retention of those people. As long as the activity is something that's going to engage as many people as possible, then it's going to be very worthwhile."

Speiser agrees the work needs to go in at the front end to understand the team's objective in undertaking the activity. "It goes back to what kind of culture you have and what kind of things people enjoy and are going to be motivated by. To some people it could be just as simple as having a lunch or a dinner together … rather than something a little bit more formal.

"Abseiling is going to probably turn off a whole bunch of people, and cooking is going to be really good for some and not for others. If you alienate part of the group, it's probably going to make things substantially worse. You need to be able to sit back and say, ‘well that was a good use of money and it achieved what we wanted it to'."