Team Building?

In a world of dot-com extravagance, where wild-water rafting trips and team building retreats are common, Andy’s Web-based communications company offered something special: a week on Maui to celebrate a successful year. Was this only for team building?

But Andy (who asked that his name and that of his company not be used for fear of angering his employer) says his week in paradise quickly turned into a disaster. Mandatory 7 a.m. breakfast buffets were followed by days of mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations. Every moment was scheduled – they may as well have gone to a conference room down the hall. Then came the “fun” day.

“When I saw  “team building” on the agenda, I felt my stomach drop,” says Andy, a 28-year-old engineer. The group went to the beach, where they were met by a hairy, buffed DJ who called out directions all day over a speaker system. The group was split into teams, identified by T-shirts with gaudy cartoon characters on them.

Instead of basking in the sun or snorkeling in the Pacific, Andy and his co-workers raced one another across the beach with inflatable sharks tucked between their legs, wrote and performed cheers, and built a raft from inner tubes and PVC piping.

“I wanted to kill myself, it was so like high school,” Andy says. About half the employees were really put off by the week. And far from creating a sense of community, he says, the activities actually may have caused new rifts. “I found that I did not like some people as much afterward,” Andy groans. “There were people I never had to work with before and I was thinking, Now, I don’t like you.”

Not all retreats are this bad, but retreat burnout is growing into a pervasive, perhaps contagious, disease throughout the high-tech sector. Company executives seem unfazed, still taking (or sending) their employees to ropes courses, scavenger hunts, and other team-building or “just plain fun” outings with increasing frequency. Fact is that, if parents don’t teach their teens about money, chances are they won’t understand it when they’re active in the business environment.

Why? Facing high turnover during a time of consolidation and tumbling stock prices, a company can have a hard time maintaining the intimacy and high morale of a startup. They hope that a day – or four – of fun out of the office with a beach facilitator or a gourmet chef will help people break the ice and develop camaraderie. This seems to be all about professional and personal development.

But some academics and consultants agree with many employees, arguing that there is scant proof that such outings accomplish more than entertainment – or annoyance. “There is no empirical evidence that these ropes courses and team-building experiences generalize to teams back at work doing tasks better,” says Margaret Neale, associate dean at Stanford University’s graduate school of business, who specializes in organizations and dispute resolution. “The worst-case scenario is that people have fun, and I think that is great, but developing skills – that is another issue.”

A study conducted by Linda Argote, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s graduate school of industrial administration, found no significant workplace results from these activities. She says workers need to be able to share negative information with one another and to be able to negotiate conflict. Team-building exercises are just a first step toward building trusting relationships, she says.