Zoom ‘office parties’ that employers have resorted to during the pandemic are no longer fit for purpose, and neither are the in-person teambuilding exercises that workers took part in beforehand – according to research from the University of Sydney.
In a new paper – published in the latest issue of academic journal Social Networks – the university updates a study it released in 2019, which argued that it’s more important for leaders to focus teambuilding efforts on relationships where the parties are not very close, than to cast a wider net with events involving every member of staff.
If anything, the paper reveals, attitudes towards traditional – and now online – workplace gatherings for ostensibly morale-boosting purposes have hardened. (Social Networks, Vol 66, July 2021).
In a statement, lead researcher Dr Petr Matous says: “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.
“All this is done with the aim of improving workplace effectiveness, efficiency, collaboration and cohesion – but does any of this work?" (University of Sydney via EurekAlert!, 24 February 2021).
His colleague, Associate Professor Julien Pollack, points out: “Among the participants we interviewed, some were against teambuilding exercises because they felt they were implicitly compulsory and did not welcome management's interest in their lives beyond their direct work performance.
"Many people do not 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."
Pollack notes: “These activities often feel implicitly mandatory. People can feel that management is being too nosy or trying to control their life too much.”
As such, he said: "We recommend an approach where people can opt out of teambuilding discreetly, by conducting [it] only among selected pairs of individuals who can choose whether or not to proceed with strengthening their relationship. Their choice would not be visible to management.”
He stressed: “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.”
Matous added: “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.”
Are teambuilding exercises as we know them a waste of valuable time?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of brand and marketing Jay Ludditt says: “What we have learned from the changing work environment inflicted by the pandemic is that in any department, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Employers offering flexibility around home working, together with and hours that function alongside people’s other commitments, have unsurprisingly found favour with employees.
“Similarly, basic principles of choice and purpose are to be remembered when proposing and planning teambuilding exercises – while also understanding that teambuilding is different to socialising.”
Ludditt points out: “Socialising works best organically – when it is voluntary. So, allowing people to choose what they engage with and how during social activity will naturally be more fulfilling. Teambuilding is intended to help teams work more effectively together – ultimately, to become more productive and achieve better results.”
He adds: “There could be a case for mandatory participation in teambuilding exercises in the pursuit of better productivity. But any activity should be planned and executed with this purpose in mind – with participants engaged with the concept from the outset, and on board with reaching the intended outcomes.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on building networks.