Shifting business needs have made it necessary for team-building processes to evolve. What can HR practitioners do to navigate these changes and successfully measure their effectiveness? Akankasha Dewan finds out.
Long gone are the days when team-building was deemed to be irrelevant and an unnecessary expense. These days, those misconceptions have been shrugged off by business leaders, who understand that developing cross-disciplinary and geographically diverse teams is a primary factor of building a successful and profitable team.
According to a recent Ernst & Young survey, 84% of respondents in Asia Pacific, Europe and the Americas acknowledged that managing teams was a key strategy for future competitiveness.
“Increasingly, a company’s ability to form, lead and nurture high-performance teams will be critical to its long-term success,” said Mike Cullen, EY’s global managing partner of talent, in the study.
“To achieve superior performance, tapping into the full range of diverse skills and expertise at their disposal is essential.”
But simply identifying the importance of building effective teams isn’t enough for organisations to be able to harness their full potential. When you do this, you run the risk of putting together team-building programmes for the sake of it, rather than actively utilising their full advantages.
“It’s very scary when you ask organisations about their objectives of team-building, and some of them – government sectors included – tell you it is ‘because we have some unused budget, and we thought, let’s do a team-building activity’,” says Gary Lee, head of learning and development at Soo Kee Group. “The reality is, if they don’t use up the budget this year, next year they might get less.”
The importance of corporate team-building
Understanding why team-building is important has become an integral motivation for companies to develop their teams.
“Nowadays, the work which we do is best accomplished when you bring folks with different skill sets together to work on a solution because of the complexity of what we’re doing in the global world,” says Jaclyn Lee, senior director of human resources at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).
She says it becomes important to work in and build heterogeneous teams, especially if companies wish to be innovative in their approach and solve complex problems.
However, Soo Kee’s Lee says leaders need to be wary of the way such diverse teams work, which can often lead to miscommunication among members.
“Prevalent use of emails to communicate with one another rather than face-to-face contact, and having emails as the basic premise of communication allows employees to form virtual work teams even within the same organisation,” he explains.
“Sometimes, especially in multinational corporations, virtual work teams exist, but when they finally get together to meet clients, they also meet their team for the very first time.”
Sridevi Schaub, Schneider Electric’s global supply chain learning and development head for East Asia, Japan and Pacific, agrees with these issues which crop up within virtual teams.
She warns emails lead to miscommunication and cause misalignment and lack of a shared vision because people are at different stages of understanding when they receive emails.
Precisely because team communication impacts the functionality and performance of organisations as a whole, building such a shared vision within teams becomes even more important.
“Building an effective or high-performing culture is something that has grown up or really exploded – especially in our region – a lot,” Schaub observes.
“This high-performance culture is really about working together as a team. How do you perform more effectively? I think sometimes what people forget is becoming a high-performing team is not just about building a team, but having a shared vision as a team, and ensuring organisational goals are aligned with the team.”
Team bonding is NOT team-building
All three leaders agree the first step to ensuring all team members share a common vision and goal as a team is by developing strong bonds between them.
“Team bonding plays a huge role in building a team together. People really get to know one another when they are in a non-work setting and their defences are down,” Schaub says.
Encouraging teams to take part in light-hearted, sports-oriented activities such as rock-climbing and island trekking helps employees to know more about one another and break the ice that sets in a more rigid office environment.
But all three also warn of the dangers of limiting team-building to activities which aid only in bonding team members together.
Schaub defines team-building as the process of “intervention” which helps teams in “getting the shared vision, and the right alignment and the support from the business leader”. However, she believes a lot of people, “including HR practitioners, confuse team-building with team bonding”.
Acting as a vital subset of the entire team-building process, team-bonding activities are important in introducing employees to one another, and are one element of the team-building process.
“Team bonding is more abstract, more fluid and measurables don’t really matter,” Soo Kee’s Lee says. “Fun is linked more with team bonding, whereas team-building is more intentional, more structured, and it has to be a mid to long-term process, rather than being a static event.”
All agree the generic nature of the term “team-building” may cause this difference to be slightly blurred. However, this can be overcome when HR leaders actively investigate exactly what they are trying to achieve in their attempt to instil better teamwork among their employees.
“When you dig deeper you realise there are a lot of underlying issues, like the need for conflict resolution, or the fact that people can’t mingle very well because of diversity issues, be it generational or cultural,” says Soo Kee’s Lee.
“These are all underlying issues, and they are all subsets of why you need to build a team. So once we get to the underlying causes, then from there we will know what measures to take.”
Fun is linked more with team bonding, whereas team-building is more intentional, more structured, and it has to be a mid to long-term process.
Gary Lee, head of learning and development
Soo Kee Group
Jumping the team-building hurdles
Clear and succinct knowledge of the aims and objectives of building teams, be they in any function or industry, becomes the first fundamental step in planning an effective team-building programme.
“Alignment with your organisation becomes important,” SUTD’s Lee says. “We have such diverse populations in the organisation and we’re trying to get them together to solve problems. The first thing you need to have is a very clear mission and vision – what are we here for?”
She highlights three specific challenges, which can be overcome if the team-building objectives are clearly established. These are navigating through diverse cultural challenges, accommodating different personality types, and getting people with different levels of expertise to work together.
“What I do in team-building activities is to make employees profile their personalities,” she says. “I make them sit together and share with each other on their personalities, likes and dislikes. We make the process very open, so everyone understands each other’s personality types. And that helps you build a team.
“Once we’ve broken the ice this way and the differences in these personalities have been set aside, then we close the gap on where we think we should be effective as a team, and work together towards a common aim or goal.”
But identifying such reasons to initiate team-building endeavours is a key strategy which is often lacking in many organisations.
“Know your workforce first, know why you want the team-building,” Lee from Soo Kee says. “A lot of people tend to forget why they want to have team-building in the first place. Ask yourself why? What gave you that indicator which made you feel [employees] needed some form of team-building?”
In-house or external team-building programmes?
Knowing the competencies, gaps and characteristics of one’s workforce is also essential when it comes to deciding the way team-building programmes should be run.
Organisations can run in-house programmes facilitated by HR and supported by business leaders, or they can rely on professional, external vendors to help them lead the programmes.
Both come with a range of advantages and disadvantages, depending on what it is you are looking for.
“If there is an organisation which conducts in-house team-building year in and year out, after a while, the employees say, ‘Oh, we know what to expect’,” Soo Kee’s Lee says.
“That’s why some companies do in-housing team-building for three or four years and then once in a while they engage external vendors to do it. Just to break the habit and bring in something fresh.”
However, bringing in external vendors to provide a fresh perspective may prove risky if they are not aware of the culture of the organisation in question, SUTD’s Lee warns, adding vendors often “don’t know the staff very well”.
“Doing in-house [team-building] has its advantages; it allows you to have greater control of the effectiveness of the event,” Lee from Soo Kee admits.
“Let’s say after the team-building event you realise something didn’t go too well, you can take remedial actions. But for external vendors, if something didn’t work, then the vendors might say, ‘It’s because your workforce is like that. We can provide you with consultancy services and charge you more instead’.”
Measuring the effectiveness: Does team-building really work?
Considering how best to take remedial actions post team-building is an important process, especially because measuring the impact is a tricky endeavour.
“Such things are quite intangible,” SUTD’s Lee says, commenting on the subjective and fluid nature of the team-building process.
“It’s very hard to put a dollar sign and tell someone that after I run this activity, certain things will happen. I do tell my boss things like, once you take part in this culture tool, once you get everyone aligned and do this team-building activity, you will probably be able to see a smaller gap between what is desired and what is actually present.”
Soo Kee’s Lee agrees, adding: “Team-building isn’t a static process, not like, you went through this so I should see this. It’s got to be something which is continuous.”
To overcome these challenges, the three leaders suggest tools such as journaling, peer-to-peer assessments and face-to-face conversations to understand what team members have learnt.
“If I conduct a team-building activity for two days, then over the next four weeks there needs to be a lesson plan which needs to be followed,” Lee from Soo Kee says.
“Like [allocating] every Tuesday for lunch time with your mates. I might be in a different function, but every Tuesday we sit down and have lunch together – that in itself becomes a good measure because I’m keeping to my commitment, and I’m spending time with somebody in my team.”
It’s very hard to put a dollar sign and tell someone that after I run this activity, certain things will happen.
Jaclyn Lee, senior director of human resources
Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)
SUTD’s Lee suggests that HR leaders’ role in implementing and measuring team-building activities is also crucial. “I would tell every HR practitioner that you have got to be a change agent,” she says.
“You have got to train yourself in the latest team-building tools, and during team-building activities you have to be a good facilitator, as well. If you go out there and you don’t have any idea on how teams work or tools work, and you don’t understand the dynamics of the employees, then it’s very hard to conduct a team-building exercise.”
But questions then arise around whether it is possible for HR to always have access to such information, like the behaviour of all staff and dynamics of all employees, especially when it has to conduct team-building activities across departments and countries.
According to Soo Kee’s Lee, this is how HR practitioners further need to evolve themselves to act as coaches for leaders of other functions.
“This is where sustainable HR fits in,” he says.
“HR traditionally has been targeted towards organisations, everything is for the organisation. But today’s HR is talking about doing something for the people first and then the organisation. So instead of a direct two point, it becomes a three-point function.
“HR no longer becomes an implementer, it becomes a consultant to the line managers to perform HR processes. Because the reality is, nobody else [except the managers] knows their people the best.”
He advises managers of the specific teams in question have to be the ones to execute team-building programmes, with guidance from HR practitioners.