Although often difficult to implement, team building practices make companies more profitable by increasing productivity and reducing turnover. The most effective techniques involve professional development and improving soft skills.
Team building practices are not always easy to implement, but the skills and chemistry acquired by team activities produce material benefits, both to businesses and individual employees.
Effective team building focuses on improving on-the-job performance, says Joe Harper, executive director of the small business development center at the University of Houston-Victoria, and former owner of Old School Construction, a residential/commercial construction company, for 10 years.
"It’s not driven around certain types of activities per se. It’s got more to do with professional development," Harper says. "We come together as a group and try to improve each other’s skill sets and we focus on issues that will have some sort of relevance to the job later on."
Jim Morris, director of management development for Winter Park Construction (WPC) says WPC has employed a variety of team building activities, but, in his opinion, the best learning happens on the job site.
"Nothing teaches true teamwork like having to perform in a real-world context," he says. "We try to make it so that individuals feel empowered when attempting to find new ways to work smarter and are not attacked when they make mistakes as a result of trying a new approach."
WPC also encourages employees to take part in team functions outside of standard projects. "We have most of our key employees involved in teams related to our strategic plan," he says. "Christmas party videos, fishing trips and other fun activities are ways in which individuals get to interact with others that they may not regularly bond with. And, [they] learn alternative approaches to problem solving."
No matter which approach is taken, Sue Rogers, director of business development, health at Barton Marlow Company, says soft skills like communication styles and conflict resolution need to be addressed. "[Communication] is really what it’s all about at the end of the day," she says. "You know everybody’s got the technical skills to build a building but they have to be able to work together and work towards the common goal."
Getting employee buy-in, while sometimes difficult, is essential for team building success. Harper mandated a monthly Saturday meeting for all of his foremen to talk about issues they were facing, management styles and what was working in terms of motivating and encouraging crews to keep on task. He says although his workers were paid for coming in, acceptance of this process was gradual.
"The [foremen] started to measure the value in their own productivity and what they were able to get out of people and recognized, ‘Hey, I’m not having to re-train somebody,’" Harper says. "It was one of those things where they saw the benefit over time and then they bought in."
Getting employees to recognize the value of team building often comes from bottom line results. Harper strongly believes his team’s Saturday meetings made his company more profitable. Specifically, he says the motivation techniques discussed and constant learning reduced turnover.
"The more that you engage people in different things each day or throughout the course of a job, the more interest they’ll have, the more motivated they’ll be [and] the more likely they’ll stick around because they’re always learning something," he says. "Whether they admit it or not, every individual likes to learn something new."
In order to drive changes for bottom line success and improve teamwork, Rogers encourages large teams to utilize report cards where team members evaluate each other. The report cards provide feedback on everything from communication styles, to whether the mission statement is being followed, to the efficiency of processes and turnaround times.
"It doesn’t work to have a team building session once at the beginning of the job and never revisit it," says Sue Rogers, team building facilitator at Barton Marlow Design/Construction Services. "Projects are so complicated and many times so large it’s important to have everybody together a number of times throughout the project to make sure everyone is still marching in the same direction."
Jim Morris, director of management development for Winter Park Construction also warns against keeping teams together for too long. "It can increase complacency and reduce creativity," he says. "The bonding that occurs encourages a level of acceptance for less than ideal performance. Teams can become too friendly and perform less well as a result of trying to avoid hurt feelings," he says.
But in the end, the team manager plays a crucial role in creating team success and avoiding common mistakes. "[The manager’s role] is to provide a clear vision, establish roles and continually raise the bar," Morris says. "The most important thing our leaders do is set and hold the expectation that everyone on a team performs and behaves as if the project they are building was owned by them."