August 2013: Team-building feature
By: Staff Journalist, Singapore
Published: Aug 15, 2013
Laying the building blocks
As the demand for engagement and productivity in the workforce increases, Amos Seah finds out how team-building still serves its function today.
According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
This quote applies directly to how important teamwork is in an organisation, as it is the sum of individuals of the different teams within it.
Team-building activities are important when it comes to engaging workers, while also improving team performance in an organisation.
Some of these activities include exercises or group-dynamic games that train employees to work towards achieving a goal together.
Effective team-building can be defined by four stages, according to a group development model first proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965. These four stages are “forming, storming, norming and performing”.
While being geared towards training staff to demonstrate better teamwork, team-building activities ultimately aim to create a more productive workforce.
“Collaboration” is a word often used at ANZ, says David Sicari, head of learning and development at the bank.
“It is about connecting and working as one for our customers and shareholders … to get teamwork we need to think about team-building,” he says.
It is about “bridging mindsets of people across different geographies and ideologies, and bringing them together to build a stronger team”, says Lee Jin Hwui, deputy director of human resources development at LTA.
Team-building creates a more trusting and cohesive working relationship among team members to jointly achieve organisational goals.
It’s also the informal setting of a team-building activity that gets people to “understand each other’s perspectives better”.
According to Michael Yeong, senior vice-president of group human resources at Cerebos, team-building happens when there is an emotional attachment to the organisation.
This happens when everyone supports one another to work towards a common goal.
This is comparable with how marketers would say their consumers have to establish an emotional attachment to their brands, Yeong says.
Additionally, in light of the tight labour market, more employers are looking at different ways to engage their workers and reduce manpower attrition.
Lee considers team-building as one of the various engagement strategies used to ensure an engaged and productive workforce. It’s not just monetary gains that keep employees happy, he says.
“Team-building provides a more conducive work environment; one which employees look out for as well.”
Sicari explains the feeling of belonging is what brings about engagement and eventually happier workers who are more productive.
“A great side effect to team-building is it supports people to feel as if the discretionary effort means something to someone,” he says.
Where and what?
Outdoor activities are the first to come to mind when talking about team-building.
Such activities can include outdoor games or even “adventure quests”, providing what HR terms as “experiential learning”.
“Because these activities are experiential in nature, we will derive a lot of learning from them,” Lee says.
According to Yeong, participants learn the most from sharing their experiences after such activities.
“You go through this activity, you experience it, and most importantly, attend the feedback sessions. That’s the point where the instructors talk about trust and communication,” he says.
Outdoor team-building can also come in the form of sporting events such as marathons.
Employees at Cerebos have taken part in marathons as part of fundraising events, also serving as a character and team-building function.
But not all team-building efforts have to take place outdoors and they can be just as effective indoors.
“Team-building does not always mean going out on a camping trip or raft building, it can also be about solving common challenges and working together to gain critical experiences and deliver results,” Sicari says.
Apart from games, indoor activities can also include planning activities for a charitable cause, or even simple dialogue sessions.
Even though team-building activities benefit from the integration of staff from different departments in the company, they are not necessarily held at inter-company or divisional levels.
A company can choose to organise a team-building activity exclusive to certain groups of employees, based on seniority, job function, experience and even geography.
A more homogeneous group of participants will be able to relate to each other better and, says Lee, “be more willing to share the challenges they face”.
An example given by Lee was an annual corporate retreat which only managerial staff of deputy director-level and above took part in.
During the retreat, managers came together to discuss key challenges and plan the way forward for the future.
In comparison with company level activities, in this case, participants in this retreat would have had more productive discussions with their fellow colleagues on leadership topics.
Reaping the benefits
While team-building activities can be fun to take part in, the key challenge lies in ensuring they pay off. What makes a raft-building exercise more than another memory to recall during dinner at the next event?
According to Sicari, it is the everyday application in team-building which is often overlooked.
Essentially, most companies will have a system to measure the effectiveness of their team-building activities.
This can be measured via surveys such as the biannual engagement surveys conducted by LTA, for example. Individual key performance indicators can also be used to measure productivity of workers.
“The greatest challenge for HR professionals is how we can move away from team-building being just another activity where people have fun,” Lee says.
On the basis of having fun, team-building activities should involve discussions on key workplace challenges, and have employees work with each other and understand each other better.
Employees have to understand that through these activities, despite the challenges and conflicting perspectives, they are “all moving towards the same direction together”.
While most business leaders tend to jump into team-building, it is important for them to first think through how exactly they want these teams to be built.
“A key challenge is not so much finding the right activity or event, but catering to all the individual needs,” Sicari says.
He says planning “four to five steps ahead” helps to equate individual learning to a team outcome for such team-building events.
Building for the future
“I believe that teamwork and the need for team-building will become a growing aspect to the engagement of employees and a competitive advantage for organisations,” Sicari says.
With about 40% of the Singaporean workforce consisting of Gen-Ys, leaders need to ensure they are up to date in their engagement strategies.
Lee identifies altruism as a trait which appeals to the new generation, suggesting corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities will be effective as team-building activities in the future.
“It’s not just about making money, but also about how they can make a difference to society through their work,” Lee says.
“It’s really about that feel-good factor … that they have collaborated to create something better, beyond that of their own personal gratification that really helps to bond people together.”
Ultimately, team-building is a constant process, and not just a one or two-day activity.
Lee foresees team-building in the future as “a norm integrated within daily activities of work teams”.
In fact, bonding within an organisation can “be derived from the daily activities we do, rather than through a special day set aside”.
Case Study: Cerebos
Team-building is much more than just outdoor fun according to Michael Yeong, senior vice-president of group human resources, at Cerebos Pacific Limited. By Amos Seah.
Team-building is a topic close to the heart of Michael Yeong. In fact, he was part of the pioneer batch of trainers for one of the first outdoor team-building activities ever introduced to Singapore.
Cerebos is known for its initiatives to promote health and wellbeing, and has had its employees actively taking part in the Singapore Marathon to raise money for charity for years.
In the late 1980s, Yeong was part of Project Miracle, an outdoor programme used “to let employees experience what team-building is all about”.
“It was a great thing,” he says. However, he felt something was missing and questioned the effectiveness of such activities used for team-building.
He says it is a huge challenge to transfer what you learn during an outdoor team-building activity to the office.
“What you learn is effective during the team-building event, but to make it happen [in the office] the culture must change first.”
The spider web problem
Yeong highlights that employees may learn lessons from team-building activities such as Project Miracle during the programme itself. However, problems arise once work starts in the office, or at most, the first few days after the team-building activity.
To give an example, he mentioned a game which participants at Project Miracle took part in called “the spider web”.
For that particular challenge, participants had to move from one point to another without making any contact with a “web” obstacle in between.
Anyone who touched the web would have to go back to the starting point to begin again. Therefore, the game became rigorous because it could drag on for hours.
While it might have been easy to get away with an accidental touch when a trainer was not looking, the game ultimately boiled down to a question of honesty.
When everyone got back together after the game, Yeong asked if anyone touched the “web” without being caught.
Linking the idea back to work, he equates this to: “If you were in the production line doing this, would you admit to the mistake that you have made?
“Because there will be a safety flaw as it goes out to the production line to the consumers.”
Your employees may admit to their mistakes or learn their lesson about honesty out in the “field”, but they’re likely to behave differently in a workplace setting where performance and productivity is measured.
“The problem comes when you are back in the office and you have admitted to your mistake. Your supervisor will go ‘again?’ and look at the number of rejects you have had.”
He explains the key performance indicator and result-orientated culture at the workplace is the differentiating factor separating the spider web game from work in reality.
Changing from within
“These team-building events which I drove 20-30 years ago won’t work if the culture of the company can’t change,” says Yeong, adding Cerebos adopts a different focus for its team-building today.
“When someone proposes a team-building activity, I ask them, ‘what is the culture you want to create?’“
In 2012, Cerebos participated in the Singapore Marathon, raising a record amount of $275,261.60 for The Straits Times’ School Pocket Money Fund.
“For every kilometre they run, we donate $100,” he says, adding this has equated to millions raised over the years.
What is important to realise is team-building has to start from building the character of individual employees within the company.
And, in addition to the marathons being “good for the society”, they also bring about character building.
Employees will naturally feel better about themselves because they are given the chance to “help out these school children, thus building character”.
“Through our activities and marathons, we believe in promoting resilience and commitment.”
He also mentions taking walks with his staff to create team bonding and adds staff gained additional respect for their CFO after watching him cook at the winning hut, post-marathon.
“Working relationships improve when the staff and boss know each other better.”
However, he’s quick to point out a company shouldn’t expect any miracles from one single team-building event.
“It’s an ongoing thing to create something that will continue to sustain the bonding relationships between each other.”
Leadership is important
While a company can try to build the character of its staff, it isn’t as easy to train up a leader.
“Anybody can be a generic leader, but only one can be a good one,” Yeong says.
Nevertheless, the secret lies within finding the right one, rather than training one up. A good leader is important when it comes to team-building because they are the ones who “inspire the company about the direction in which they are going”.
For a product development company such as Cerebos, employees from various departments have to work together to perfect a single product, and getting these departments to work together is the leader’s task.
Yeong says leaders should “harness diversity and get them to be open and candid with each other; train them to understand their role and responsibility”.
“Acquiring good leadership is something Cerebos is working towards.”
Yeong mentions team-building events can also include coaching programmes where all the managers sit together to share their vision and have a discussion about it.
“With many other companies holding outdoor sports team-building activities, it is also important for a leader to be visible, and for staff to be able to question and be willing to speak to him.”
In conjunction to the marathons, Cerebos holds dialogues, where employees are able to communicate and connect with management.
The company organises sessions where employees are given the opportunity to engage in discussion with both HR and the CEO of the company.
“It’s basically about pushing the senior management out to be visible,” he says.
Case Study: Land Transport Authority
Lee Jin Hwui explains how HR can effectively implement team-building activities by involving different functions within the organisation. By Amos Seah.
When it comes to offering unique opportunities for staff team-building, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) makes it a priority to offer a wide range of activities every year.
Lee Jin Hwui, deputy director of human resource development, says the first example of this which comes to mind was an activity held last year inspired by the reality game show The Amazing Race.
In the game called “The Incredible Race”, participants were tasked to search for clues within the Singapore Zoo. Teams were required to strategise and plan their route to complete the race in the shortest time.
Clues in the game were also themed after lessons related to team-building.
Another outdoor activity conducted by the company included “The Rafting Challenge”, where employees had to work in teams to design and build a raft in the shortest time.
To make things more challenging, participants had to work under environmental constraints and with limited resources. Lee also cites a sand castle challenge where team members had to work together to construct a model using sand and water.
The challenge aimed to foster interaction between team members, relating back to “real-work” situations where different divisions had to work together to complete a task.
The company also conducts indoor team-building activities which can prove to be just as challenging.
In “The Trebuchet Challenge”, teams were tasked to design a trebuchet according to given specifications.
“Each team had to source for opportunities to earn more investments and more raw materials in order to build their trebuchet,” Lee says.
Cooking challenges can also foster team-building with employees working together to whip up a three-course meal within an allocated time.
As well as trying to think outside of the box, LTA involves itself in corporate social responsibility activities as part of its team-building efforts.
Currently the organisation has two adopted charities – The Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD), and Metta School.
As part of the LTA Care-Givers Programme, monthly outings are organised with the two charity organisations.
In fact, LTA was the first statutory board the Comcare Connection programme when it was first introduced to Metta School in 2007.
The Comcare Connection programme, which was organised by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), aims to match voluntary organisations, with statutory boards which can be of assistance.
“We sent groups to Metta School to plan activities for the students there.
The entire process from planning to execution is part of team-building.”
Through monthly field trips organised by LTA, volunteer staff would assist students with independent living skills, such as grocery shopping and taking public transport.
At the end of the day, the organising team will come together to discuss and plan activities for the upcoming financial year.
Lee mentions LTA expanded the programme to include SPD in 2009 because of the increase in staff volunteers.
He says team-building is one of the company’s platforms used to inculcate the core values.
These seven core competencies include drive for results; think strategically; innovate and make continual improvement; focus on customers and stakeholders; build organisational teamwork; develop yourself and others and communicate effectively.
LTA strongly believes every leader should adhere to these competencies.
Every HR leader has to ensure each team-building activity is effective and worth the investment.
For Lee, it is the assurance “that team-building goes beyond just having fun, but also having very tangible outcomes for the organisation”.
The organisation uses employee engagement surveys as a measurement to how effective team-building efforts are, and Lee is proud to say the results have been promising.
The 2013 survey revealed a record-breaking 80% score in engagement, a 7% improvement from its 73% in 2010.
Because of LTA’s huge manpower strength, the surveys are held every two years instead of annually.
Nevertheless, Lee believes in the reliability of the surveys because they are kept strictly confidential, where workers feel secure to express their honest views.
“Team-building is an important driver helping us to move forward as an organisation … our people have been very engaged as a result.”
Collaboration and diversity
The secret to LTA’s team-building success could very well be attributed to the company’s willingness to collaborate.
“At LTA, we are moving beyond the traditional concept whereby team-building is planned with HR only,” says Lee, adding team-building activities are organised by different departments at a cross-functional level.
Lee shares LTA also leverages on team-building as a platform to bring different functional areas together. He refers to them as cross-functional or inter-division team-building.
He says such activities bring the different employees together and they have fun while working together in the various team-building activities.
Additionally, different perspectives or challenges faced by the different functions or divisions will be discussed, allowing them to gain useful lessons which they can apply at work.
HR facilitated the pairing of the different divisions for such activities based on the survey, which uncovered any division preferences among each employee.
The organisation also gets help from an approved list of vendors to decide on the types of activities to be organised.
However, Lee is well aware he shouldn’t be complacent. In fact, the key challenge he faces is ensuring the next activity is just as good, or even better, than the previous one.
“It’s really about how we can meet the rising expectations,” he says.
He highlights it’s all about ensuring employees remain interested and enjoy something new each time.
“Last year was interesting, but we want to make the next year better … we want to make every year’s team-building a unique experience,” he says.
Lee always returns to the idea of collaboration when asked about how he can ensure the most effective team-building activities each year.
“We (HR) are definitely not the only ones with all the answers, which is why we involve our learning and development team and representatives of the various groups.”
Such collaborations also create more positive results because of the mix of ideas generated by individuals of each different specialities and sectors.
“Cross-functional team-building programmes build greater bonds among members across the different teams, and can also develop a better understanding with the variety of perspectives across functions.”
Preparing for the future
For one to improve, one must learn from past mistakes. If given the ability to travel back in time, Lee mentions he would have started the idea of cross-functional team-building events earlier.
The idea of cross-functional activities was only a recent idea and would have been beneficial if they had been introduced earlier.
If they were implemented earlier, LTA “would have reaped the rewards a lot faster”.
“LTA as a whole, being so diverse, would be more cohesive, with everyone understanding each other’s perspectives better … things would run a lot faster and better,” he says.
Lee has also learnt it is essential to always listen to his customers or staff and the various members of groups at LTA.
“Never assume what they want,” he advises, adding that striving for co-ownership is important.
As a result of mixed perspectives from HR and employees of different functions and levels, a “win-win” situation is formed.