In this in-depth guide, we’ll cover everything there is to know about team building – theories, definities, strategies and actionable advice. I’ll share resources, discuss team building ideas and give you the knowledge you need to start building your teams.
Team, teamwork, team spirit – the ‘T’ word dominates the business lexicon of the 21st century. And rightfully so – modern businesses are built around teams.
It stands to reason that the better the health of your teams, the better the health of your business.
One way to make teams better is to invest in team building. Through a series of exercises, activities, and approaches, you can often take a group of individuals and turn them into an efficient, effective team.
To make things easier for you, we’ve organized this guide into multiple sections. Click on the right section below to jump straight to it.
Why is Team Building Important?
Although the benefits of team building are quite self-evident, some people might still doubt its necessity.
Part of the reason for this uncertainty is the subjective nature of team building. Given its broad scope, you can never really be sure what exact activities lead to better team performance. You wonder, “Did the team performance actually change after that weekend retreat, or was it just the boss being in a good mood?”
Further, since team building is a process, it seldom yields an immediate return. Your team doesn”t suddenly start working well overnight following a team building exercise; it takes time to see results.
All of this can make you question – “Is team building really worth the investment?“
The answer is a definite “yes”.
One meta-analysis of academic literature on team building found that:
“Team building has a positive moderate effect across all team outcomes“.
However, the effectiveness of team building isn”t the same across all functions and roles. The above analysis concluded:
“Team building was most strongly related to (positive) affective and process outcomes“.
Another meta-analysis found that “interventions emphasizing role clarification were more likely to increase performance”.
Beyond this academic analysis, team building has some major benefits for businesses:
1. It Helps Teams Know Each Other
As HBR notes, “to make a team more effective, find their commonalities“.
Finding these commonalities, however, requires that your team members actually know each other and develop communication lines.
Team building activities give your team an informal setting to socialize and network. This is where people across age, experience or skill-levels can get to know each other. The connections you make in a team building exercise might not be strong, but it gives team members the push they need to know their colleagues.
This is great for team bonding and intra-organization networking.
2. Develops Better Communication
Communication is the foundation of successful teams. But as Alex Pentland writes in Harvard Business Review:
Changing this “manner of communicating” isn”t something that can be compelled through protocols; it growth organically. And the only way to encourage its growth is by investing in team building. When team members get to know each other, it changes how (and how often) they communicate.
In other words, team building helps your team members develop the relationships that enable them to communicate better.
3. Identifies and Embraces Roles and Responsibilities
The success of a team depends not only on how its members do something (i.e. their skills) but also what they do (i.e. their roles and responsibilities).
Getting team members to work in well-defined roles, however, can be challenging. It”s not unusual for team members to have anxiety about their own responsibilities and a lack of trust in their colleagues’ ability to pull through.
This is where team building activities help.
A number of these activities revolve around getting team members to take up closely-defined roles. This helps team members build the trust and confidence they need to identify and embrace their roles within the team.
4. Improves Teamwork
A team works best not when its members do well individually but when they work well with each other. The more team members complement each other”s skills and personalities, the better the results of the team.
Think of the comic book movie where the superheroes win only when they start fighting with, not against each other. Or the sports team that does well when its players work in tandem.
Team building essentially helps teams develop the synergy needed for teamwork. Through a mix of communication, relationship-building, and activities, team building gives teams the foundation they need to work well together.
5. Improves Problem-Solving and Critical-Thinking
“Problem-Solving” refers to a range of approaches, activities and strategies for solving an issue. It isn”t just about throwing a ton of brain power at a problem. Rather, it is about utilizing your existing resources in the best possible way to achieve results.
Often, this means training your team in adopting different roles and approaches to a problem. This can be done through specific exercises or by promoting better communication and relationships between team members.
As you guessed it, all of the above is the domain of team building. As you invest in building the team, you also give them the tools, trust and knowledge they need to solve problems efficiently.
Beyond this, team building can also improve creative skills, leadership abilities and keep the team motivated.
Team Building Statistics and Trends
Overall investment and interest in team building has been on a steady incline in the past couple of decades. This interest coincides with the ascendance of teams and teamwork at the core of corporate culture in the early “90s.
There are a number of statistics that highlight this upward trend:
Teamwork and Team Composition Statistics
An average worker spends nearly 74 minutes on average just tracking down a colleague or a customer. Access to better communication channels or information via project management tools would cut this time drastically.
Communication and Collaboration Statistics
86% of managers consider “teamwork skills” when evaluating candidates for promotions. Ergo, being better at teamwork makes you more likely to get a promotion.
Remote Team Building Statistics
Team Building Activities Statistics
The same CIPD survey also found that 88% and 72% of managers use coaching and mentorship schemes, respectively, to help build teams with stronger relationships.
All this data should give you a fair idea of the importance of team building.
In the next section, we’ll discuss the all-importance subject of how team building works.
Approaches to Team Building
What do you think of when you think of “team building”?
Do you think of boring corporate events and boring “team exercises”? Or do you think of a combination of coaching, mentorship and process-driven training?
In reality, “team building” lies somewhere in between. It covers both intentional activities – team building games, events, and off-sites – and process-driven approaches that such as developing better communication habits.
In the Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics Methods, organizational psychologist Eduardo Salas identifies four approaches to team building:
Let”s look at these in more detail:
1. Goal Setting
A team with a clear goal is a team that knows what it must do to be successful.
This is the basic premise of the first approach to team building: setting clear goals for both teams and individuals.
As per Salas, goal setting is effective when members of the team work together to identify:
How to achieve a specific goalHow to measure success/failure in reaching that goal
Goals, of course, must be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Ideally, they should be set in concert with team members, else you risk setting too unrealistic goals.
Goals should be set for both the team as a whole and for individual team members.
The purpose of goal setting in team building is to give everyone a sense of ownership and purpose. When team members have a way to identify targets and measure their (and the team”s) performance, they are more motivated and engaged.
Goal setting also gives managers the ability to zoom-in on individual performance. If a particular team member isn”t performing up to scratch, managers can set up interventions to assess and alter his performance.
2. Role Clarification
The second approach to team building is to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each person on the team. This approach is focused on helping team members:
Identify roles that align with their skills and personalitiesDevelop communication channels with regards to their respective rolesIntersect with team members in complementary rolesDivide responsibilities while also emphasizing the importance of each roleDevelop the skills necessary to fulfill a role
The goal is to reduce the amount of vagueness within the team. If team members know precisely what they have to do, it becomes much easier for them to do it.
Think of the football team where each player has a specific role. The running back knows exactly what he has to do, as does the quarterback and the wide-receiver. The lack of ambiguity makes it easier for players to delegate responsibility and train for their specific role.
Combined with goal setting, role clarification gives everyone on the team a clear sense of purpose.
3. Problem Solving
A team”s responsibilities can be categorized as either taskwork or as teamwork. As one paper says:
“Taskwork represents what it is that the teams are doing, whereas teamwork describes how they are doing it with each other”.
In other words, a team”s “taskwork” refers to technical challenges that align with individual team members” skills.
The team”s “teamwork“, on the other hand, refers to challenges that require an interactive and interdependent approach.
The third approach to team building – problem solving – targets this latter category of challenges, i.e. helping team members solve problems by working well together.
Often, team members encounter a problem and don”t know who can help them solve it. This might be due to poor role clarification or broken communication lines. In either case, it often ends in team members either stalling or seeking the manager”s help.
A problem solving approach to team building seeks to solve this issue by helping team members collaborate. This can be done through a number of tactics – involving team members in action planning, developing stronger relationships, improving communication, etc.
The goal is to give everyone on the team the tools and trust they need to find resources within and outside the team to solve a problem.
4. Interpersonal-Relationship Management
A team is an organic and ever-evolving entity. How team members relate to each other has a distinct impact on how well they perform. A team that lacks trust and open communication will usually suffer from performance issues.
Thus, the fourth and final approach to team building is to help team members develop better interpersonal relationships.
How you do this is highly subjective. You can take an interventionist approach and build trust through a series of team-focused activities. Or you can work to create a culture of trust and open communication in the team and across the whole organization.
Usually, you’ll adopt a mix of active and passive tactics to develop interpersonal relationships between team members, which I’ll cover below.
These four approaches only describe one framework for team building. There are several other frameworks besides this.
For example, there”s the popular Tuckman”s Model of group development, created by Bruce Tuckman in 1965. In this model, there are five stages of team building – forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning.
Each of these stages roughly translates to setting the stage, resolving conflicts, implementing projects, and closing down the team.
The important thing to note is that there is no “right” way to approach team building. Every team and organization is different. Strive to use best practices for communication and collaboration, then adopt specific activities to address shortcomings.
Active and Passive Team Building
All approaches to team building can be broadly divided into two categories:
Active team building through various activities, tests, training programs, assessments, etc.Passive team building by developing stronger team culture, adopting better communication practices, using the right project management tools, etc.
The first category describes actions taken explicitly to build the team. Think of a company off-site filled with team building activities or a training program for improving collaboration.
The second category describes actions you might take to build a better business, but which also have a positive outcome on team performance.
For example, if you want to build a healthy business, you’ll want better communication. And one of the side-effects of better communication is stronger teams.
Ideally, you’ll use a mix of both active and passive team building. The latter will lay the foundation of a strong team while the former will help address specific shortcomings.
So what are some of these team building activities?
I’ll cover a few below:
Passive Team Building
Passive team building is when you adopt management practices for building a better business, but which also have an outsized impact on the strength of your team.
Think of a business that makes communication a priority across its entire organization. Its recruiters prioritize communication skills in hiring, its managers adopt cutting-edge communication tools, and its leaders convey their ideas clearly and frequently with everyone.
Given the importance of communication for team building, you can expect that this business would also have strong teams.
For the purpose of team building, there are a few ‘passive’ tactics you can adopt:
1. Focus on Communication
Communication is one of the foundations of strong teams. Unless your team members are communicating clearly and enthusiastically, they”ll never develop the bonds necessary to produce great results.
Research at MIT”s Human Dynamics Lab found that strong teams display distinct communication patterns:
Their conversations are energetic, yet roughly uniform in tone and length.Members communicate not just with the team leader but also with each other.Team members often have several back and side channels of conversations open across the team.
Your business can promote such communication by:
Adopting communication guidelines that emphasize clarity and frequency.Making communication skills a core part of hiring and onboarding.Adopting tools that make communication easier, such as project management toolsRewarding strong communication and encouraging team members to communicate freely
Your goal should be to make communication one of the core tenets of your business. The more diverse your teams, the more you”ll want to invest in communication.
From a manager”s perspective, your communication should be concise and consistent. A project’s success is contingent on the goals and expectations you set for your team. The best leaders communicate clearly. Having a defined set of expectations, including the scope of work and your ultimate goals, is the first step to ensuring a successful project.
Clear communication practices apply across the team as well. Encourage transparent dialogue across your team. Don’t wait until annual review time to sit down with your team members.
You want to foster an environment that values consistent, open dialogue. In other words, you want to build trust across your organization
2. Culture Development
Culture is that hard-to-define, hard-to-categorize thing that pervades your entire organization. A company culture that emphasizes collaboration and teamwork will invariably have stronger teams.
There are several ways you can create a culture of teamwork:
Get top-level leaders to embrace teamwork and collaboration as the expected norm across the organization.Accept teamwork as one of your company”s topmost values. Enshrine it in your business philosophy.Institute policies that recognize and reward teamwork and collaboration.
Your goal should be to empower your team members.
This is particularly important in the creative realm where it can be tough to put aside egos—especially when it comes to working with big clients and on illustrious campaigns. But it’s important to not only value your team members’ talents, but also to give them the tools to take the proverbial wheel.
Don’t let outdated conventions drag your project down.
Here”s further reading on the topic of culture development:
3. Make Collaboration a Priority
Organizations that are collaborative by nature often find that their teams are more cohesive as well. If collaboration is prioritized from the top-down, it trickles to every part of the organization, including individual teams.
The prescription for improving collaboration varies from organization to organization. However, the following are known to help:
Get executive buy-in for collaboration. Reduce or remove silos and get top leaders to work together and develop informal networks across the organization.A London Business School study found that having collaborative skills is more important than developing a collaborative culture. Prioritize these skills while hiring.Encourage HR to foster a sense of community across the entire organization. This can be done through both formal (such as an intra-organization entrepreneur”s network) and informal (such as encouraging communication outside of work) initiatives.
You can write a whole book about collaboration in the workplace (and plenty have been written already).
For further reading, here are a few resources:
4. Adopt the Right Tools and Training
How your people communicate and collaborate isn’t just a matter of culture and competence, but also of the tools and training they have access to.
For example, in a survey of project managers, 52% of respondents said that using a project management software improved team communication. Another survey found that 87% of high-performing teams use project management tools.
As part of your passive team building tactics, consider implementing solutions that improve team collaboration and communication.
Ideally, your project management tool should have collaboration and communication features built right into the software – like vietfriend.vn. This turns the PM software into your team”s “home base”, giving every team member clear insight into the project and task status. It also acts as a central hub for all communication, improving team cohesion.
Beyond this, you can also invest in training your people to collaborate and communicate better. You can choose from a number of frameworks and systems (see below) to make your team more collaborative.
5. Adopt Engagement Strategies
Every manager has experienced the mid-project hump.
The trajectory is usually the same. You start the project with a ton of enthusiasm, but mid-way through the project, your team starts getting a bit bored. Enthusiasm tapers off as the early energy is replaced with jaded routine.
Adopting a few managerial practices can help revitalize your project team at such times:
Humans work better when motivated by a reward. And while monetary rewards are certainly appreciated by your employees, and are appropriate in the right situation, it’s important to motivate employees in intangible ways as well.Consider the following intangible methods of rewarding employees:
Appreciation – As project manager, it’s important that you value your employees. Small gestures such as birthday cards, Monday breakfasts, and Friday happy hours go a long way. Appreciation promotes self-encouragement, which in turn helps your team generate ideasRecognition – Aside from cash, praise and recognition may be the most rewarding things you can give your employees. Openly acknowledge when your employee’s perform above and beyond.Empowerment – Employees want their voices to be heard. Give them the opportunity to become part of the decision-making or creative processes. Empowerment encourages growth, development, and creativity.
Mix things up
Workplace diversity is crucial—after all, an agency filled with people from different cultures, experiences, and specialties only broadens your capabilities. The more diverse your team’s knowledge and backgrounds are, they more diverse your ideas and solutions will be.Rather than stick to the same project teams, consider mixing things up a bit. For example, pair a junior level copywriter with a senior level art director. Seniority may count for something in the office, but when it comes to creativity, everybody has their own ideas to contribute.
Reconsider your brainstorming techniques
Brainstorming is certainly an important part of the creative process. But often, brainstorm sessions turn into tedious, unproductive, time wasters that decrease creative output.
Rather than allow the ideas to flow freely without constructive criticism and debate, it’s important to ask the simple questions of why and how. Without questioning your team’s ideas, your employees are less likely to devise innovative alternatives.Create an environment of candid discussion—and allow your employees to push their own creative possibilities.
Pay Attention to Environment
Still working in a traditional agency environment? Come on, it’s 2016, people! And no matter your office’s preference, it’s still possible to create a positive work environment. And as we know, stressful or stuffy environments can stunt creativity and employee accountability.Allowing your employees to relieve stress can lead to enhanced creative output. Not every agency needs ping-pong tables and kegs of beer—there are healthy alternatives such as giving employees private time and space. Allowing your workers to relax and clear their minds can lighten the mood of your office and encourage interaction.
Sometimes, passive team building strategies won”t be enough – you”ll also need to jump in and try team building activities and games.
Active Team Building Tactics
Investing in tools, building a collaborative culture, making teamwork a hiring requirement, etc. are all ‘passive’ tactics to build your teams.s
I call them ‘passive’ because you don’t have to actively carry them out; once adopted, they become a part of your organization’s structure.
While these tactics lay the foundation of a successful team, they can’t address specific shortcomings or improve the cohesion of an existing team.
For these, you will have to invest in ‘active’ team building tactics.
This is where you undertake an activity specifically for building the team or addressing its shortcomings.
Some such ‘active’ team building tactics are:
1. Team Building Activities and Games
Any activity undertaken specifically to build a team would fall under this category. This includes everything from annual company retreats to weekend team games.
You can pick from a vast range of team building activities to address specific shortcomings within a team.
If your team has poor communication, for instance, you might get them to do ‘back-to-back drawing’.
If the team lacks a cohesive identity, you might get them to draw a “team emblem”.
There are also activities that promote the general cohesion and well-being of the team. An annual team retreat where people can get to know each other in a relaxed environment is one example.
Team building activities become particularly important in diverse or remote teams. The less there is common between team members or the less face-to-face time they have, the more you’ll want to invest in targeted activities that bring them together.
You can learn more about team building activities here.
2. Team Assessments
How cohesive is your team? Does it have any shortcomings that you can objectively measure?
Finding answers to these questions is the goal of team assessments.
Think of these as tests your team members can take to assess their cohesion, communication skills and level of bonding.
There are a number of frameworks for team assessments, such as:
Organizations often combine these with personality assessments for individual team members to find and plug shortcomings. There is a growing trend of companies using personality tests to evaluate team members and pair them up with matching personalities (more on this below).
3. Team Selection
Who (and how) you select to be a part of the team will impact the team’s success. If the team members’ skills or personalities don’t align, the team’s performance will suffer as well.
There are two things you need to consider when selecting your teams:
Skills: Successful teams have people who excel at their core skill, yet complement their teammates skills. Match up members in a team such that there is no skill deficiency. If you can’t find people to fill a specific skill shortage, give the team access to outside freelancers.
You can read more about team selection below:
In the next section, I’ll discuss one of the biggest challenges in modern team building: working with remote teams.
Remote Team Building
There is no question about it: remote work is on a sharp rise across the world. By 2020, nearly 50% of the workforce will be working remotely in some way.
The number of people who predominantly work remotely is also on the rise. Between 2012 and 2016, the percentage of knowledge workers who worked four-five days a week remotely rose from 24% to 31%.
For leaders and project managers, this brings up a unique challenge: how do you build a cohesive team if your team members aren’t even in the same city, let alone the same office?
While the cost and productivity benefits of remote work are undeniable, it can impact team strength negatively. According to a survey of 1,100 workers, remote workers feel left out and shunned compared to their office-going peers.
At the same time, managers have to balance out their remote team building efforts with the needs of their on-site people. Getting a remote-team-only video conference organized is hard enough; getting your on-site people to join in is doubly challenging.
Most approaches to solving the remote working problem focus on:
Adopting collaboration and communication toolsAdopting good managerial practices.
Let’s look at some of these approaches in more detail below:
1. Hire for Collaboration and Communication
When you’re hiring people for remote roles, prioritize collaboration and communication skills above all else.
Self-starters who need limited oversightPeople who are comfortable with working alone, or have a social support system (family, friends)A history of remote work – as entrepreneurs, consultants and freelancers – is a big plus.
It is much harder to train for these skills than to pre-select for them. Make this a priority while hiring and you’ll make managing remote teams much easier.
2. Check-in Frequently
In the survey mentioned above, 46% of the 1,100 remote workers said that the most successful managers checked in frequently and consistently with remote teams. The cadence of check-ins itself varied from daily to biweekly, but they were always regular.
Consider adopting communication tools that make checking-in easier. Daily check-in emails can be disruptive; a collaboration or project management tool that will let you get an update without interruptions is recommended.
3. Invest in Remote Team Building
Just because a team isn’t in the same location doesn’t mean that they can’t take part in team building activities. Even something as simple as a weekly team-wide video call is beneficial.
Pick some of the remote team activities listed here to get started.
4. Meet Face-to-Face
While virtual meetings and chats are great, it is also important to get the team to meet face-to-face at least once and as soon as possible.
As this article notes:
“Face-to-face communication is still better than virtual when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust”.
Another article in HBR notes:
“35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members.”
A company retreat is a good way to get this face-to-face time.
Barring that, at least make it easy for team members to communicate face-to-face via video chat.
5. Develop a Communication Plan (and Commit to it)
Communication plans aren’t just for clients; they can also give your team direction when communicating.
Consider creating a communication charter that outlines:
What to communicate and on which channelsWho to communicate with and how oftenHow to categorize issues and communicate them with stakeholders
Most importantly, commit to this communication plan. Make it a core part of the way you work.
You can start by applying the takeaways from this post to create your communication plan.
HBR also recommends creating a “virtual water cooler” using messaging apps to encourage relationship-building.
6. Clarify and Track Commitments
When team members aren’t in the same room, it can be difficult to hold them accountable to each other.
One way to improve accountability is to get team members to publicly commit to a task, then make it visible to everyone on the team. In this classic HBR article, the authors say that all team members should know:
Who is working for whom?What is the task?When is it due?
The authors go on to recommend creating a “deliverables dashboard” where team members can see all of this. This is something you can easily do with a project management tool.
Combine this with regular status meetings to give everyone on your team clarity into their (and others) commitments.
There are a lot of nuances to building a successful remote team, but these tips will give you a good place to start.
See below for further reading on this topic:
Before we leave, I’ll share some books resources on team building so you can continue your learning.
Team Building Books
Team building is a broad topic and covers everything from communication to leadership. We’ve selected a few books below that cover different aspects of team building:
1. High Output Managementby Andrew S. Grove
Andrew Grove, the former CEO of Intel, shares his advice on hiring and managing high-performers. Although not strictly about team building, it has lots of useful advice for building successful teams.
Grove”s advice is particularly useful if you work in the tech or related fields.
2. Team Turnarounds: A Playbook for Transforming Underperforming Teams by Joe Frontiera
Joe Frontiera”s book focuses on helping businesses work with existing teams and extract better performance out of them. Filled with lessons from professional sports, Frontiera walks you through six critical steps teams can take to reverse their results.
3. Help the Helper: Building a Culture of Extreme Teamwork by Kevin Pritchard and John Eliot
Legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson had a motto: “Help the Helper”. The motto means that if a team member is busy helping someone else, others should be able to fill his role – i.e. to help the person rendering help to others.
This book focuses on helping businesses apply the learnings from this motto to create a culture of “extreme teamwork” where all members are ready to help each other.
4. Leading Project Teams: The Basics of Project Management and Team Leadership by Anthony T. Cobb
Anthony Cobb combines takeaways from project management and resource management to give project managers practical insight into building teams. You”ll learn how to use your existing project management methodologies and tools to create stronger teams.
5. The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork: Embrace Them and Empower Your Team by John C. Maxwell
In this book, bestselling author John Maxwell shares case studies and insight from dozens of businesses to find out what makes successful teams tick. You”ll learn how strong teams follow the Law of the Big Picture, ignore the Law of the Price Tag, and adopt the Law of High Morale to outperform their peers.
6. The Alliance by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh
Few people know more about people and workplace relationships than the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman. In. In this NYTimes Bestseller, Hoffman explores the changing nature of work and workplace relationships, and offers advice for building a work culture for the 21st century.
Less a book on team building and more a meditation on the future of work, The Alliance is nevertheless a must-read for any business leader interested in people and how they work.
7. Projects Without Boundaries: Successfully Leading Teams and Managing Projects in a Virtual World by Russ Martinelli
Remote work, as we saw earlier, is on the rise globally. How well managers can manage and lead remote workers (either as part-time freelancers or full-time employees) will often decide the success of projects in the future.
Targeted at project managers, this book combines project management expertise with team building knowledge to give you the tools to deal with projects without boundaries.
Beyond this, here are a few more related books you should read:
Over to You
Team building can be complicated, but the fundamentals are remarkably simple: focus on communication, emphasize collaboration and use the right tools. Take up some team building activities to address any gaps in your team’s cohesion and you’ll have a strong team in no time.
This guide should give you the direction you need to start your team building process. Apply the ‘passive’ strategies to your business to lay the foundation of your teams. Expand your focus to ‘active’ strategies once you know what specific issues you need to solve.
What are some of your favorite team building tips and tactics? Share them with us in the comments below!