Crafting a team-development strategy is a critical activity for those in People, Culture & Learning roles, but surface level-team building activities will only take you so far. The secret to effective team development is knowing which interventions will create the change you want and using them wisely. Here are nine ideas you can use to build better teams in a hybrid world.
Team-building exercises often get a bad rap. Just mentioning the term conjures up images of trust fall activities, novelty ice-breakers and “forced fun” - things that are likely to leave your team members rolling their eyes instead of creating any lasting impact.
The good news is: team development interventions don’t have to be like this.
There are plenty of things you can do to get your teams working together more effectively, especially in a hybrid context (in fact, this is exactly what we focus on at In The Game — but more of how we do it later). The key to finding the right solution is to get clear on your aims and be mindful that different interventions work in different ways.
In this article, we’ll unpack the pros and cons of nine different team-building activities and look at how you can combine them to create a team development strategy that consistently ensures teams grow and perform.
The many faces of team-building
When team members bicker with one another, conversations are happening behind people’s backs, or work is disorganised or subpar — it’s clear there’s a problem. Once these things start to simmer, this creates toxicity, and teams stop working at their best. In the longer term, people start eyeing the exit door, and customers start getting frustrated by a poor experience.
This is where team development activities come in. These activities all have different aims, but the overarching goal is to get your teams functioning better.
In a new team, this might mean getting the team set up so that it’s ready to succeed.
In a hybrid team, in particular, it might mean being very clear about communication preferences and working hours.
In a well-established team, it might mean boosting performance or cognitive diversity.
In a dysfunctional team, it will mean uncovering and addressing underlying issues.
Just as the aims of team performance vary, so do the types of interventions you can use.
Understanding types of team-building interventions
We can group and better understand different team development interventions by considering what they focus on. There are two factors to look at:
Impact (short-term vs long-term). Short-term interventions focus on the symptoms of team dysfunction. They're typically run as a one-off, take little time commitment, and focus on surface-level issues. Long-term interventions, on the other hand, go into more depth, and the results tend to compound over time.
Focus (relationship vs task). Relationship-focused interventions aim to bring people together and are usually synchronous. In contrast, task-focused interventions focus on how work gets done and how progress is made.
A quick and easy way for you to evaluate your team-development strategy is by plotting the different team interventions you use on a matrix that looks at impact and focus. This way, you can easily spot how well-rounded your approach is. We've plotted some common team-building approaches below to get you started:
When building a development strategy, you should bias your choice of team-building interventions to those that give a better return on investment and time (in the right half of the matrix).
This doesn't mean that other activities don't have their place in building great teams, but it's wrong to think that easier, shorter-term interventions will do all the heavy lifting.
So which type of team intervention is right for you? In a nutshell, choosing the right one boils down to knowing what results you want to achieve and being aware of the pros and cons of your options.
9 types of team interventions to include in your team development strategy
Based on the matrix above, we can group the types of team interventions into four main categories:
Easy ways to get collaborative work done
These interventions are useful when a team that usually works well together is having difficulty organising or completing a project.
Daily stand-ups are moments where everyone in a team comes together to discuss what they're working on and anything they're stuck with. At their most effective, stand-ups are a short and sharp ritual (we're meant to do them standing up, after all!).
Pros: Stand-ups are super simple to implement. They're an easy way for a team to keep up with what everyone is doing, and they make workloads and progress more transparent.
Cons: If mismanaged, stand-ups can drag on and sap energy right at the start of the day. Team leaders need to focus on spotting and dealing with recurring issues.
Asynchronous communication channels (Slack, Teams, etc.)
Platforms like Slack and Teams have soared in popularity as people adjust to hybrid. Even if you're already using such a platform, check to see if it's the right option and whether your teams are using it to full capacity.
Pros: When set up well, asynchronous communication platforms are versatile and supportive. They help reduce e-mail and should also cut down the number of meetings you need to have. They also have light-hearted features built in. Who doesn't like a good GIF?
Cons: When implemented without much intention, new software can add noise to an already busy workload. Keeping up with communication on multiple channels takes time, and things can easily be missed.
Light interventions focused on strengthening team relationships
Either of these interventions is good if your teams are basically doing well but facing temporary collaboration challenges. Just don't expect to fix any underlying issues.
Light-hearted social activities
These interventions provide a short dose of fun, whether it's trivia, mini-golf, virtual cooking classes or going to a nice restaurant. They're about bringing the team together to do something other than work.
Pros: These are easy to set up and get going, and you can flex them up and down according to budget. People generally enjoy social activities (as long as they're optional), and they can help people blow off steam after a stint of hard work.
Cons: These are surface-level activities that don't address deeper issues. They can perpetuate cliques and silos if not carefully implemented. Team leaders need to consider their team's diverse preferences to make sure events are inclusive.
Team types workshops
A Team Types workshop involves team members completing an assessment (e.g., a DISC or MBTI personality profile) and then coming together to discuss their similarities and differences.
Pros: A workshop like this is a simple and effective way for people to understand their differences. Well-designed workshops also encourage people to act on the insights they gain so they work better together with cognitive diversity in mind. This can be a good springboard for deeper development work. Unfortunately, too often, these workshops are run as a 'one-and-done', meaning the value is unrealised.
Cons: Team types are only one part of the teamwork equation and present a very simplified view of personality. In the worst case, team members can end up using their label or type as an excuse to avoid responsibility for their behaviour.
Deeper interventions to improve hybrid work processes
Sometimes work stays messy over the long term. If this happens, it's time to improve how your teams communicate and work together on tasks.
Collaboration software (Trello, Monday, etc.)
Platforms like Miro, Trello and Monday help hybrid teams collaborate more effectively. If you haven't taken the plunge or need an upgrade, a new platform (or training for your current one) can boost a team's ability to work together virtually.
Pros: Collaboration software bridges the gap between in-person and remote work. We're a big fan of Miro at In The Game (we're a member of the Miro Professional Network) and use it to improve user experience in our virtual workshops and hybrid sessions. These platforms are good for both synchronous and asynchronous work.
Cons: This type of software has a learning curve that can put people off and make integration a challenge. For real results, you also need to make sure people use the platform consistently.
These interventions focus on improving the overall functioning of your organisation rather than a single team. Some examples are restructuring, rethinking how teams set goals, setting up new meeting and communication rhythms, and implementing new frameworks and incentives.
Pros: While these interventions are more complex, when they're done well, they have a compounding positive effect on business performance.
Cons: This work takes time and effort: typically, interventions need 6-9 months of dedicated focus to be effective. Too often, implementation falls short, and the benefits aren't realised. The key to success is to pick one or two areas over the course of a year and do them really well.
More meaningful activities to improve team cohesion
If your teams are broken, or you're looking to build better collaboration over the long term, these interventions are where the gold lies. While they may take more effort to set up, the ROI is significant.
Team skills-building programs
Team skills-building programs aim to improve team collaboration through training and education. We love running our game-based skills-building programs with organisations and focus on topics like people leadership, persuasive communication, conflict resolution, giving feedback and similar topics.
Pros: Skills-building programs equip team members to make important changes and set the team up for success. Sessions can usually be integrated with your team's way of working without too much disruption.
Cons: If an initiative is run as a one-off without follow-up implementation, the benefits can easily fade. Programs usually require specialist facilitation, which can make things cost a bit more.
Simulations & serious games
Simulations and serious games combine a serious learning/business objective and game elements. They put team members in fun and sometimes role-played situations — such as playing a board game, running a political campaign or managing beer distribution for a brewery — that encourage people to work together and think creatively. The key benefit of these activities comes in the debrief, when teams look at what they learned and how they can use it to work better together.
Pros: Simulations and serious games are a great way to simulate team dynamics in a safe but challenging environment. They can effectively raise issues the team won’t openly discuss.
Cons: Finding the right simulation or serious game can be challenging. You need to consider what type a team will respond to and how well-designed the experience is. A poorly chosen simulation can take the credibility of a leader backwards, and if the debrief isn’t managed well, it can create more team friction.
Serious games at In The Game
At In The Game, we’ve found serious games to be the most effective all-around team-development intervention there is, which is why they’re at the core of our work. Our games are specially designed to create psychological safety so teams can talk about the meaty stuff — such as team values, goals and strengths, and feedback and learning — in a more fun and inclusive way.
Our serious games combine the best of many worlds: they’re easy to set up and fun, like a social activity, but they go deep by helping team members discuss key issues and appreciate diversity.
Imagine a board game that sparks out-of-the-box thinking or encourages interpersonal connection, with hundreds of prompts to keep the gameplay going in different circumstances.
Pros: In The Game’s games are cost-effective and easy to set up. Teams can integrate them into regular events such as monthly kick-offs, weekly meetings and reviews. They encourage discussion of important issues in a safe and fun environment.
Cons: These games work best when they’re played regularly. For long-term impact, they need to be integrated with a team’s ways of working.
Bring it all together with rhythms and rituals
Your team development strategy will usually involve combining several interventions together. A one-off quarterly social activity or a team types workshop used haphazardly throughout the year won't get you results.
Lasting impact and real change only come when interventions are regular and combined with team ways of working - what we call team rhythms and rituals.
Rhythms and rituals are activities your teams undertake regularly - every day, week or quarter — to build a more consistent way of working. A good team development strategy has rhythms and rituals focusing on all of the 4C’s - Connection, Clarity, Collaboration and Celebration. For example:
For Connection, a team could have a Monday 20-minute casual weekend check-in (stand-up), and a Friday 30-minute check-out.
For Clarity, a team sets goals at the start of the quarter, does a pre-mortem on their quarterly goals, does a mid-quarter check-in, and ends with an end-of-quarter review.
For Collaboration, a team could get together once a week for an hour to solve a problem the team is working on.
For Celebration, a team does a fortnightly show and tell, a weekly focus on strengths, and then a quarterly social catch-up to celebrate the quarter’s achievements.
Over to you
Forced fun is no fun (and doesn’t get you anywhere), but thankfully there are plenty of other intervention options when it comes to building your teams. The key is to know which intervention will get you the results you want, for example, by considering
What’s the real issue (relationships vs tasks)? Are you trying to improve how people interact with and value each other, or how work gets done?
How deep do you want to go (short vs long-term)? A fun team social may be a nice way to blow off steam after a hectic deadline, but it won’t have a lasting impact on team relationships.
How much time can you invest? As with many things in life, the more effort you put into an intervention, the more you’ll get out of it. For more sustainable team performance, you’ll need to set up ongoing rhythms and rituals that balance the 4C’s of Connection, Clarity, Collaboration and Celebration.
If you want to evaluate the current strengths and gaps of your team development strategy, take our short 10-minute assessment here.
Happy team building!
At In The Game, we’re all about creating great team culture. To find out how we use serious games to build happy, healthy, high-performing teams, get in touch here.