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I'm working to help plan a team building event at my workplace. Having seen that while independent companies can do a great, slick, team building event, they can also be both expensive and hit or miss if the event isn't paired well with the team. I'm looking for ideas on lower-budget events that can be run by people who aren't trained team building/moderation professionals (think, a budget that covers a small Staples run, not a budget that covers a downpayment on a condo!).

I want it to be productive but also somewhat fun. Typical caveats about keeping it professional and within the bounds of ethics in terms of inclusion, sexual appropriateness, etc are required.

In our particular case, the group has grown phenomenally in recent years. Less than 5 years ago, we may have been around 20 people, we are currently budgeting at around 70, and we have more openings. We've had some attrition, and morale is mixed - replacement of lost workers means that I'd venture a guess and say 1/3 of the department has been here more than 3 years.

So the hot topic for team building is a mix of "getting to know you" and giving people a lower pressure chance to connect across the department. The undercurrent being that it's certainly time for us to start growing our culture to incorporate the larger dynamic - there's no easy way to survive growing pains, and a team event certainly isn't a magical answer - but it could be a step in the right direction.

Folks on the team are smart, dedicated and highly technical working in jobs that involve a fairly high degree of social interaction (we're an IT group). Key to the group's identity is that we're a high performing department that can band together and get some pretty amazing things done. Being a happy crew of geeks, we do have access to plenty of laptops, a nice conference room with projectors and other nice equipment, and enough talent around here to do some nice tech stuff.

What type of event or suite of events that would fit the bill for this goal? Describe in detail.

Comments reminded me to clarify - I have space reserved for the day in a conference room. Although the idea of (say) a baseball game, might be good - we have settled on a location at this point that prohibits certain activities. We do have access to a roof deck, so we could consider potato guns or launching cream pies at offending nearby office buildings, but security may disapprove.

Also - there is food and a separate budget covering it. I'm not trying to get help planning the logistics of the entire event here - I have a space, a day, food, and other people are working travel and so forth for out of town team members. This question was specifically "What activities will work for this context and purpose". I love the idea of ongoing things - like weekly activities, but that's not quite hitting the purpose of the question.

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    Hoedown. Or, any type of Improv Comedy warm-up exercise. – acolyte Aug 7 '12 at 21:29
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    I edited the last question in this post to remove the word "recommend", which should hopefully help avoid more polling/list type answers, like the first answer posted. I know this wasn't intended as a poll; it just needed a slight adjustment. Hope this helps. – jmort253 Aug 8 '12 at 1:20
  • @jmort253- I think that you're going to be hard-pressed to avoid recommendations here. People are going to naturally suggest activities they think will be appropriate, they just need to provide ample detail about the why's... – Jacob G Aug 8 '12 at 1:22
  • Are you looking for an event (baseball game, happy hour, picnic...) or a contest /exercise? – mhoran_psprep Aug 8 '12 at 3:25
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    Oh boy, I actually asked this question a few months ago: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/12250/… – Codeman Dec 10 '13 at 18:08
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Talk to the team.

Not as individuals, talk to them (or a varied cross-section of them -- not just those who would volunteer for a social committee, or whatever) as a team and challenge them to come up with something.

As you've already identified, every team is different and has different needs. It doesn't matter what you do, you will come up with something that some people don't want to do. The trick is to minimise that number and find another way to integrate them later. You absolutely shouldn't make it a mandatory event, but neither should you forget the people who don't participate.

In my experience, the most effective team-building happens down the pub, after work. And it has the added bonus of being cost-free.

Make it a regular event, go around the office every post-pay-day Friday (or even every Friday) and casually invite everyone -- before long, people will do that for you and start asking each other if they're coming this time. Most people won't like to say no month-after-month.

But some will, and -- I can't stop stressing this point -- you need to pay attention to those people, make sure they're being integrated in another way.

  • the only issue here is the size of the team. 70 people is pretty large for a pub-crawl. – acolyte Aug 8 '12 at 12:54
  • @acolyte: Thing is that it works over time. You don't get 70 on any given night, but people get to know different people each time they go. There is no event in the world that will bond 70 people in one attempt. – pdr Aug 8 '12 at 13:18
  • Believe it or not, we have made arrangements for our enormousness to hit a local joint after the official stuff... on the basic premise mentioned here. Keep in mind that individual teams or even the department may do something lower key on a regular basis but this is our big annual thing. The format of that isn't going to change - although add-ons are nice. – bethlakshmi Aug 8 '12 at 17:25
  • @bethlakshmi: Take your point. Is this a mandatory attendance thing? – pdr Aug 8 '12 at 17:49
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    @bethlakshmi: Then I still stand by "Talk to the team." I've seen too many of these things turn sour because people were put in positions they weren't comfortable in, in the name of team-building. There is little, for example, that I wouldn't do to avoid an improv warmup exercise. I'd have someone break my arm like the dude in Escape To Victory, if I had to. I'm not saying that you have anyone like me on your team, I'm saying watch out for situations like that. Don't dismiss that individual as a problem if you want to build team cohesion. – pdr Aug 8 '12 at 20:42
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I think that you have two things working against you here - The size of your group and your budget. Doing an effective team building event that includes everyone and is positive for < $200 is going to be really hard.

Because you're such a large group, I think the inclination will be to try and get everyone to cross with everyone, but I would probably vote against that. Logistically, it's just not practical and it'll come off as forced. Your goal here should be mingling and cross-pollination. You want each person to interface with a few folks they wouldn't normally and hope both sides bring details of that interaction back to their core group. If the crux of your event ends up being a parade of people telling an embarrassing story about themselves, or running around trying to find out who's story or factoid on a worksheet matches up with whom, you aren't going to have a successful event.

A couple of ideas off the top of my head:

  1. Trivia competition + Post Event Happy Hour

    Rent out a space and hire someone that has experience running trivia nights in your area. Make a range of adult and non-adult beverages available with appetizers. Randomly assign tables. Have some random door prizes and give out a grand prize to the winning table. This lets people learn about each other via areas of trivia knowledge, cross-pollinate and mingle. New groups get to work together to win a prize and it should be a good enough time for most people involved.

    After the event is done, have the space for another hour or two for post-event mingling. This will definitely cost you more than a "small Staples run" but should be pretty successful.

  2. IT family picnic

    Rent out some park space. Set up some areas to play volleyball, play wiffleball, throw a frisbee, etc. Have BBQ catered and rent an Ice Cream Truck. Do it on a weekend and allow people to bring their families. This will also cost you more and you won't get 100% participation.

    But, spousal, SO and kid mingling often helps grease the wheels for employee mingling.

I don't really have knowledge or experience with successful, less expensive events.

  • I seconded the idea of the family, if the majority of the team members are part of a family. Most of the folks that I work with, myself included, have a preference for spending time with the family rather than on team events if they are scheduled outside of work hours. – tehnyit Aug 8 '12 at 11:10
  • @tehnyit: Which is all very well for them. Not so great for those without families. – pdr Aug 8 '12 at 13:21
  • Where did the < 200 figure come from... I do not think lower budget means no budget. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Aug 8 '12 at 13:49
  • @chad - the < 200 figure came from the line in the question "a budget that covers a small Staples run." I estimated that $200 was a good mark for that. – Jacob G Aug 8 '12 at 14:11
  • @JacobG 200$? Just what are you buying when you go to staples? The only times I ever spent 200$ at staples would be right before a year of school started, or when I bought my desk chair. – acolyte Aug 8 '12 at 14:54
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Competitive role-playing is always fun and engaging.

I recently did a negotiation-game as a team-building exercise I set up where I work. We were only about 25 people, but you can split your group into smaller sub-groups and run it. The one I set up was about an infrastructure project (building a bridge). The group is split into smaller teams, each one representing a stakeholder (building consortium, union, government, environmental org., etc). Then I sat up rules and various goals for each team that awarded points in the negotiation. After that, it's just a matter of getting it rolling. Help out organizing meeting schedules between the various teams and track time in each round of negotiations. Then review all individual agreements at the end and sum up points.

This was a huge success when I did it. People got very much in the spirit of it and really "played their roles" very competitively. Plus side is that we all work in and around IT and know nothing about building infrastructure so no one had any informational advantage. So whatever you do, pick something that is sufficiently distant to what everybody works with but close enough to have some intuitive grasp on it.

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Do a real team project if possible. Many charities need volunteers. Unload a truck. Serve diner. Paint a house. Cleanup a highway.

Be prepared to do follow-up questions:

  1. How did you select who was in charge?
  2. Did you find anyone that had experience/knowledge in this area?
  3. How did you make sure everyone was involved?
  4. Is this how we do things back at the office? Should we?
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Nothing is less expensive and easier to do than a potluck lunch.

If you want to do formal team building exercises there are books and books of those. Buy a couple and have a commitee pick a few they like. Give out silly prizes like rubber duckies or fake Olymic medals. One of the best ones we ever did was have each team decorate a part of the office for a holiday (we choose Halloween) and then have someone outside the company judge them (we used someone who works in the same building but not for our company). You could give each team a budget for decorating supplies (We had a blast at the Halloween store).

  • please tell me someone had 'this is Halloween' playing on continuous loop the whole time? – acolyte Aug 8 '12 at 18:08
  • I believe our team used Monster Mash – HLGEM Aug 8 '12 at 18:11
  • Ew. that song has no atmosphere haha. – acolyte Aug 8 '12 at 18:46
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Note: This was written after reading the original question as looking for ongoing team-building and not for a one-shot all-company event. I'm keeping the content here as potentially useful for that different team-building context.

Something we have done at my company (also small, but also growing rather rapidly) are "passion events".

It's as simple as this: on a regularly scheduled basis (every two weeks, monthly, etc -- something that can be planned around, on the corporate calendar), someone is randomly selected to "lead" the event. To "lead" the event means to come up with something they are passionate about and suggest an idea for the team to do. These are not big things, but they are, for lack of a better term, "user generated."

We provide a general guideline as far as budget ("don't do something crazy") and time ("try not to use up more than an afternoon"); we do these as part of the work day and not outside the workday when people would otherwise be spending time with their families or having downtime. If some sort of operational support is needed (ordering materials, making reservations), then we offer that from the general office manager. But really, these things tend to be low overhead all around. Remembering from when I was a teacher, these sorts of activities tend to achieve objectives more than proscribed events (e.g. choosing one's own paper topic in school often made for a better experience for both the writer and the reader, than writing to an assigned topic!).

We may be at an advantage since we're in Washington, DC and have no end of activities at our disposal, but I believe this is repeatable--in spirit--anywhere. Some examples of these events have been:

  • everyone go to the Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, then hang out in the courtyard and geek out about what we all liked/disliked/played as kids (ok, so this one might be DC specific...)
  • someone really likes sculpture, so we all go to one of the sculpture gardens and he leads us around
  • someone really likes cooking, so one afternoon he brings in a multi-course offering and talks about it while we eat
  • everyone really likes coffee, so we instigate our own roving tour of the 3 or 4 independent coffee places in the neighborhood, and put on our "coffee snob" hats and argue over which is the best

I think you get the idea. These might seem lame to some people, but the point is that everyone has a passion for something (or at least really enjoys something), and that can be leveraged in a way that gets the group together; it's definitely "a mix of 'getting to know you' and a lower pressure chance to connect across the department" (as you say).

  • Hm, maybe ask and self answer to make a separate "ongoing team building event" question separately? It's clearly a real problem you've faced (and solved) – Rarity Aug 8 '12 at 23:08
  • @Rarity I'm open to suggestions for wording for a question that doesn't sound like a poll; I'm also hesitant to ask and self-answer. (I'm also fine w/ deleting this answer & saving it for later if it's wildly off-topic now.) – jcmeloni Aug 8 '12 at 23:21
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Seeing that the question actually must have been upvoted recently, I thought it would be nice to provide a conclusion and my own feedback.

I ended up running 2 team building events with this group - the first went so well I was nominated for the subsequent year. Upon repetition, there were a few key insights:

  • A hallmark of the event was it's low budget. With $20/head we had to get really creative, and we generally used the money for food. Feeding a 70-100 people is its own art form, and worth considering on it's own set of logistics.

  • Given the budget, activities were extremely DIY. Good responses came from:

    • A high energy opener that included everyone's names, and gave a basic who's who sort of introduction. In particular, I think people were REALLY happy that they didn't have to do the quintessential "Hi I'm , , , and here's a fact about me..." type intro - they just had to stand up, wave, and pronounce their name correctly - we did a geek riff on the massive number of naming issues we had - both unusual/hard to pronounce, and highly overused names.

    • Activities that didn't last too long - most people were willing to endure something pretty loony if you only make them do it for 20 minutes.

    • We always had a points system and a pretty decent prize. My personal views are mixed on that, as I thought some of the competitiveness was anti-department building but it DID motivate people.

    • Objective, clear criteria with engineers works better than judgement criteria, particularly when the stakes are high.

    • We tended to focus on a series of "tracks" so that small groups could circulate. That was great for small-team meeting - and we mixed and matched teams so that no work-team stuck together - you HAD to meet some new people. That was good, but many pointed out that they only met a small handful in the activities. Finding the balance of getting to know people and getting exposure to lots of people isn't as easy.

  • On a high level - in a group of 100 people, someone will hate what you propose. Get over it. There is no pleasing everyone.

  • Make it possible to opt-out without being left behind - for example, if the activity takes a ton of walking, make it possible for the injured to still participate.

  • It's important to take the vibe of the group into consideration - let people be a bit weird or rowdy - the goal is form a sense of what it means to be "us" and to give people the feeling of being part of something good. That doesn't necessarily mean squashing every crazy thing, but it does mean having to set a tone for what is OK behavior.

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Peer Recognition activities

This can be the ultimate in low cost/high yield activity. But the key is to get managers and leaders to encourage the team to nominate people when they do well. These should be peer nominations so the leads and managers should not be giving the nominations them selves. Get 20+ nominations a month and have a recognition email go out. Just seeing your name on the list of nominations can do a lot to improve morale of people who do not feel their efforts are being appreciated.

The goal here is to get your team recognizing the positive contributions that every team member makes. Get the leads to make sure that everyone on the is being recognized every few months. One way to do this is to reward the nominators of the monthly winner as well as the nominee. It is amazing what the potential for a $5 or $10 gift card does to motivate these sorts of activities. I even worked for a company that had an expectation on our annual review that we would nominate at least 4 different people a year.

Make sure that it is not the same people who are given the monthly award. This should not become a recognize the golden boys once a month or it will quickly become a negative. Awards should go to people contributing to less visible projects as well. The unexpected(though deserving) winners have the biggest impact with the team.

And important note: Do not give cheap company swag for awards. This seems great like a great way to build company moral on the cheap but it can have the opposite effect. "I won my company peer award and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." If you want to do company gear get something nice that you can not get a comparable item at Walmart for $20 or even $50. Something that does not say here we bought a hundred of these now you get one.

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