Sooner or later the dreaded e-mail arrives from the HR department. Everyone shudders: everyone tries to think of an excuse not to go. But it is time for some team building: the hiking/paint-balling/bonding session is going to happen – despite increasing evidence that they can do more harm than good…

By Mark Richards.

On Monday I wrote about neurodiversity in the workplace and the problems neurodivergent people often face.

‘Managers should also be aware of social situations – neurodivergent staff may well feel very uncomfortable with some of the traditional company ‘team building’ events.’

We have all seen it in the workplace. An over-zealous HR manager saying, ‘Aye well, Simon’s alright but he’s a bit shy and withdrawn. Never mind, he’ll soon open up when he’s covered in mud.

Simon, of course, wanted nothing less than to be covered in mud. He was perfectly happy working on that algorithm and – if he had just been left in peace – the company would have benefited enormously. Instead, he handed in his notice four weeks later.

What is more, Simon was not alone when it came to team building. It is not just neurodivergent staff who are uncomfortable with ‘team building’ events. If you tap, ‘why we hate office team building into Google’ it takes 0.64 seconds to return 64m results.

What is the purpose of team building?

Let us start with the basics. Team building events are – in theory – designed to boost the cohesion of a team and boost morale, co-operation and communication. They are designed to improve the performance of a team or a company, by ‘bonding’ the inter-personal relations between the team and are distinct from office-based training sessions.

…And obviously it is not just in the office. ‘Team building’ can be applied equally well to sports teams, military units and even school classes. So bring on the circus skills, the ice carving and the sheepdog herding: the HR department says they can do nothing but good.

Is it still ‘team building’ if they force you to take part?

That was the question posed in a recent article in Forbes magazine. There will be plenty of people reading this article who can empathise with the comments that opened the article:

I work for a 100 person tech company. The job is okay except for one thing. HR is always organising ‘team building’ activities that take us away from our projects. At least twice a quarter we’re required to participate in the most lame and even insulting exercises and activities. I don’t know anybody who enjoys them but we all have to do them.

Well, there is a box we can all tick. When I was in the corporate world I hated them all: team building, conferences, away days… Just let me get back to my work.

But things might be changing…

In 2008 – according to Wiki – a study found that team building activities improved both objective performance and the team members’ own view of themselves. But that was 2008. Since then a whole new generation has entered the workplace: the well-worn statistic is that millennials (people who came to maturity around the turn of the century) will make up 75% of the workforce by the middle of the next decade. And the evidence is clear that they want very different things from work to previous generations.

They no longer want a job for life, they want far more flexible working and they want to feel that they are making a difference. So ‘team building’ exercises – with the underlying emphasis on improving performance for the ultimate good of the company – may be met with rather more cynicism.

As we saw on Monday, it is also being recognised that people with different skills, abilities and personalities are entering the workforce. In truth, they were probably always there and – as above – his manager simply decided that ‘Simon needs to come out of his shell.’

Why we all Hate Office ‘Team Building’

Can office team building actually damage the office?

As we all know, ‘yes’ is the simple answer to that question. First and foremost, many team building activities actually bear little relationship to the world of work, especially today with so many people working remotely and flexibly. What you do on the Welsh mountains – assuming you are fit enough for the Welsh mountains – can have very little relevance to everyday office life.

…And if you are not fit enough for the Welsh mountains – or if you have a fear of heights or some other phobia that you have carefully concealed at work – it can be all too cruelly exposed in a different environment. The ‘embarrassment factor’ may well go back to the office with you.

As many a night, you would rather forget. Blurring the lines between work and social is always fraught with danger. There are plenty of office romances that started on a hillside: almost always, there is a price to pay when Monday comes round again.

And then there are the outright disasters. One woman reported that she and her colleagues had not been getting on well at work. No problem, the HR manager organised a team bonding event where everyone candidly listed what they did not like about everyone else in the team. The tears flowed, as did the resignation letters when they were back at the office.

And finally… Who hates team building the most?

There are – of course – certain ‘types’ in every office. Rest assured – they all dislike team building.

The workaholic just wants to work. Then there’s the office moaner, the person whose glass is always half empty, who is a paid-up member of the ‘Everything’s Crap’ Club. His views on team building are all too easy to guess.

Then there’s the person who is secretly planning to leave; the one who – to put it kindly – is slightly out of shape and, of course, Little Miss Entitlement. She is having to work at this dreadful little company, darling before the Tatler recognises her obvious talents and simply begs her to accept a six-figure salary.

But most of all there are the office nerds or geeks. They are socially awkward and feel like they do not fit in, but the company needs them. This is where Simon comes in: if team building has to take place why doesn’t the company get the pizzas in and everyone can play World of Warcraft for eight hours straight?

Meanwhile, the HR manager is struggling to understand why it is not like the old days and wondering what is wrong with blindfold sumo wrestling…