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Teams Have Changed - How We Need To Develop Them Needs To

For many organisations, the idea of having a permanent workforce has gone for good, and with it any notion of working teams that have any kind of stable membership. A study by software company Intuit suggests that by 2020 there is likely to be more than 40% of the US workforce who will be classified as “contingent” (freelancers, temps, part-time workers, contractors and other specialists). This is great news for employers who value the flexibility and reduced overheads, but, for those tasked with rapidly forming these disparate groups into functional teams, team development thinking and materials seem to have become stuck in a ‘stable-team timewarp’.

As a professional tasked with developing virtual or temporary teams, what should you aim to achieve in the precious development time that is made available to you?

The first thing to say is that whatever it is that you do do, it has to support leadership in their approach to making the team work. According to Keith Ferrazzi in a recent HBR article “Getting Virtual Teams Right” the way that a leader achieves this is through the primary goals of Fostering Trust, Encouraging Open Dialogue, Clarifying Goals and Guidelines, and he also makes the case for Having Fun. So if that’s our agenda, (and it’s worth noting that there needs to be a strong focus here on developing appropriate behaviours), what’s on the activity menu?


Fostering Trust

In a virtual team building session this has to include substantial opportunities where team members are encouraged into appropriate disclosure e.g. around their backgrounds, the value they hope to add to the team, and the way they prefer to work etc. This should be done as a sharing process where video allows face-to-camera dialogue so that the personal information is anchored to the face of the individual in the minds of the other team members. With a bit of forethought, this sharing of personal information and opinion can be encouraged using visual metaphor tools such as Dialoogle and Images of Organisation.

In a face to face team building session we can use the same visual metaphor tools, but we can also model trust with any activity where the success of the team is contingent on the contribution of every individual. Colourblind and Reversal are excellent experiential activities in this context.

Encouraging Open Dialogue

In a virtual team building session the groundwork on Fostering Trust can be developed by modelling and encouraging what Warren Bennis considered to be the very foundation of successful teamwork i.e. ‘observable candour’.  This can feel like sensitive territory when the subject of the initial experiments are ‘real’ workplace behaviour and performance, so it needs a ‘safe’ shared experience that can become the subject of the feedback. Once individuals become attuned to the guidelines, language and timing of giving feedback, and actively listening to it, then it will quickly become an accepted part of discussions around the ‘real issues’. Activities that I’ve used to offer this virtual shared experience are adaptations of RSVP Design’s ‘Counters and Conundrums’ and ‘Connections Cards’ from our Breakthrough Thinking Workshop Materials.

In a face to face team building session the activity is less important than the review that follows it, so just about any experiential activity where participants are able to observe their colleagues working on an engaging shared task. Activities Simbols and Webmaster would offer ideal opportunities for this to take place.

Clarifying Goals and Guidelines

In a virtual team building session it would be easy to simply communicate the Goals and Guidelines that will guide the work of the team, perhaps with some clarification and discussion to support them. However, there are real dangers here, both in terms of ensuring absolute clarity about the true meaning of these words, and also in getting complete buy-in across the team. Motivation to work with shared goals and guidelines is rooted in an understanding of why these are important and necessary. Again, working in a safe learning environment where adherence to the rules is shown to be advantageous is strongly advised. Workstations is an inexpensive and highly effective activity for such a situation.

In a face to face team building session there is an opportunity to simultaneously demonstrate the efficiency of establishing clear goals and working guidelines, and conversely the perils of failing to do this. For us the ‘go-to’ activity would be Simmetrics which offers quantitative data relating to the times where each of these conditions was in effect.

Having Fun

Whether you’re working remotely, or face to face, there’s absolutely no excuse for failing to ensure that team members get some fun from their team building session. Learning has a strong emotional component, so why not make sure that the emotions are positive ones? This is an area where building your training around strong, engaging and entertaining activities will offer many benefits in terms of how team members react to the event, and the learning they take from it.

At RSVP Design we’ve always recognised fun as important, and we try to build it into the design of every experiential learning activity.

Take a look at our website, or contact us and we’ll be happy to talk about how you might balance the dual targets of effective learning and shared fun in your team building events.


Take a look at our Teamwork & Teambuilding activities here 

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