IMAGINE you're asked to
come to the office for a Saturday morning meeting. Instead
of heading to the conference room, you and your co-workers are taken
by bus to a boat. The boat takes you to Angel Island, in San Francisco
Bay, and upon disembarking you are greeted with the words, "The boat
is leaving, and it's not coming back."
Terrorist hijacking? A CEO gone
mad? No, Simply the start of a team-building event unlike any other.
Based on the "Survivor" television series, this event requires you
and your colleagues to rise to challenges such as spear chucking,
crossing a "deadly lava flow" and performing a ritual chant of your
For those accustomed to the relative serenity of team
building at ropes courses, this event might seem daunting.
But that's the point. Many companies push team-building
exercises to a new level, both to stimulate employee bonding and to
retain employees by offering them a benefit that will be remembered
long after the words "dental plan" have faded.
Silicon Valley firms, pharmaceutical
companies, law firms and investment banks "are recognizing there
are choices (for team-building events), and they want value," said
John Wilkinson, CEO of Total Adventures, a Benicia-based company
that organizes the "Survivor" challenge and other team-building events.
It's not easy having fun
Whatever their challenges, these events have to be
fun. Which becomes a challenge in itself for the planners. Marlo
Deleon, corporate programs manager at Santa Clara-based Latitude
Communications, has her hands full making sure each event is better
than the last. Latitude Communications, a high-tech company selling
products for voice and data conferencing, has challenged its employees
with circus classes, rodeo events and most recently, firefighting.
"To ride a trapeze was an awesome yet fearful, experience.
The adrenaline in everyone was going strong. Once you did it, it's
like, 'You know what I did with my company today? You're not going
to believe it,'" said Deleon, describing Latitude's team building event
at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, where employees dangled
from a trapeze bar suspended 22 feet off the ground.
Employees expressed similar sentiments last Thursday
when Latitude held a team builder at the cavernous Hanger No.1 at Moffett
Field in Mountain View. As rain leaked inside from the roof, 198 feet
above, Latitude people gamely took in a firefighter's training course.
Size doesn't matter
At one point, Sholeh Khatibi, a small women in embroidered
jeans who is a Latitude account manager, stood poised with hammer in
hand, ready to clobber a 160-pound steel block wedged between two 5-foot
horizontal runners. The participant stands over the runners and wails
away as if chopping a hole in a roof. Khatibi's opponent, young and
burly product manager Brett Prince, whacked away at the block with
Bunyan-like strength. Khatibi's team fell behind, but matters were
soon evened out when Prince's teammate slipped during another exercise
which required participants to drag a 175-pound dummy to "safety."
During this child's play, some risk-takers opted to fight
a real fire in an innocuous-looking trailer outside the hanger.
Burn, baby, burn
Four Latitude employees joked lightheartedly as they strapped on heavy
firefighting equipment and trudged to the trailer.
Once inside, the four high-tech employees found themselves on their
knees in a narrow, smoky hallway with flames licking at their helmets.
Fireman Tom Zurflueh, in the trailer's control room, gleefully pushed
buttons to create updrafts and backdrafts. One indicator showed the
temperature inside to the trailer to be 115 degrees.
"The only way you can do this is as a team," said Zurflueh, continuously
moving his eyes from the controls under his fingers to the team on
the other side of the window in front of him, "because the hoses are
too heavy for one person." Fireman Tony Arce accompanied the novices,
but the team members put out the fire on their own. "It was awesome," said
sales manager Katie Sacco. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
"How often do you get that kind of experience on your job, in a workday?" chimed
in a colleague.
It is just this kind of experience, experts say, which strengthens
bonds and leads to greater productivity in the workplace. As long as
it is done right.
"If these trainers are smart, what they're doing is either randomly
assigning people to competitive groups or assigning them explicitly
based on people who in their normal work would actually be grouped
differently," said Jennifer Chatman, professor at the Haas School of
Business at UC Berkeley.
It's also important to let those in non-leadership
"We don't let a manager be assigned team captain.
We want the managers to follow orders instead of giving orders," said
Total Rebound's Wilkinson.
"More often than not, people recognize and learn
skills about fellow people that they didn't know they had. Bob the
accountant is creative or someone else turns out to be a phenomenal
leader or a great motivator. They'll say, 'I didn't realize all the
skills some of these people had,'" said Wilkinson.
Team building often simply brings colleagues face to face.
"We're from different regions, different departments. We get to learn
what they do and also do something fun together," said Latitude's Khatibi.
No one at Latitude is forced to participate in team-building events.
"We're not militant about it. It's not like you have to do it," said
Ted Tracy, a vice president at Latitude, "but about 99 percent" of
the 200-some employees choose to do it.
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