Some employees hate team bonding activities, so they should be made entirely voluntary, say researchers

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  • Team building has been shown to help a workplace operate more smoothly and build cohesion among colleagues
  • For this reason, it's widely adopted in many companies
  • However, if employee participation is not voluntary, these exercises could end up having the opposite effect

Scavenger hunts, office trivia, escape rooms: Team-building activities can be an essential step towards fostering healthy workplace competition and boosting communication and collaboration among colleagues.

But if employees feel these activities are mandatory and regard them as the bane of their workplace existence, potential benefits could be jeopardised.

This is according to a new study by researchers from the University of Sydney. Their findings, published in the Journal of Social Networks, is based on in-depth interviews about team building.

The team concluded that there are ethical implications involved in forcing employees to partake in these activities, after their study showed that participants had mixed feelings about team-building interventions.

“Since publishing our previous research on team-building exercises, many workers told us that they despise team-building activities and see them as a waste of time, so we decided to look in more depth at what’s behind this,” said the study’s lead researcher, Dr Petr Matous, in a university news release.

Previous findings

The previous study that Matous refers to was carried out in 2019, and was done in collaboration with associate professor Julien Pollack, interim director of the John Grill Institute of Project Leadership.

In this study, the two researchers found that spending time developing relationships with people you aren’t close to is more effective than general team-bonding exercises.

“Almost every day at work, workers are subjected to interventions that are implicitly or explicitly designed to change our networks of working relationships. Teams are formed, merged and restructured, staff are relocated and office spaces are redesigned. We are expected to participate in drinks after work and team-building events,” said Pollack.

Although all of this is done with the aim of improving workplace effectiveness and cohesion, among other factors, Matous and Pollack questioned whether any of these actually work.

Deep, effective connections

In a nutshell, where team-building exercises intrinsically focus on intervening in personal attitudes and relationships between team members, it was considered too intrusive.

“Among the participants we interviewed, some were against team-building exercises because they felt they were implicitly compulsory and did not welcome management’s interest in their lives beyond their direct work performance," said Pollack.

On the other hand, the researchers said that some degree of openness and vulnerability is often necessary to make deep, effective connections with colleagues.

But Pollack added that many people don’t want to be forced into having fun or making friends, “especially not on top of their busy jobs or in stressful, dysfunctional environments where team building is typically called for”.

“These activities often feel implicitly mandatory. People can feel that management is being too nosy or trying to control their life too much," he explained.

What should companies do instead?

The two researchers recommend a different approach where people can opt out of team building, but in a discreet fashion, and choose to conduct these activities only among selected pairs of individuals who can choose whether or not to proceed with strengthening their relationships.

This would also mean that their choice would not be visible to management.

“An important point is to target the right relationships, and we can do that by analytically identifying critical links in collaboration and communication networks among employees,” Pollack said.

The ‘self-disclosure approach’

The approach Pollack and Matous suggest is known as the ‘self-disclosure approach’. The two added that there are several schools of thought that suggest different psychological methods for strengthening relationships.

In the new study, which used the self-disclosure approach, participants were guided through a series of questions that allowed them to increasingly disclose personal information and values.

According to the team, the method is well-tested and has been shown to increase interpersonal closeness. However, the key to its success rests on it being voluntary.

“With caution, many relational methods to improve teams and organisations can be borrowed from other fields. The question is how to apply them effectively to strengthen an entire collective, which is more than just the sum of individual relationships, and that’s where analysing methods using network science makes the main contribution,” said Dr Matous. 

Image credit: Getty

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