The evo­lu­tion of cor­po­rate team build­ing

From trust falls to es­cape rooms

The Hamilton Spectator - - CAREERS - ROBERT CHANNICK Chicago Tri­bune

Cor­po­rate team build­ing, which for years brought co-work­ers to­gether in dis­dain for ac­tiv­i­ties such as trust falls and ropes cour­ses, has el­e­vated its game.

Es­cape rooms, “Sur­vivor”-style com­pe­ti­tions and im­prov train­ing are bring­ing a new level of ex­cite­ment — and, per­haps, ef­fec­tive­ness — to the once-dreaded out­ings, meant to bond em­ploy­ees and for­tify roles out­side their daily cu­bi­cle-farm ex­is­tence.

A re­cent ex­cur­sion to a Chicago es­cape room by a team of 15 United Air­lines em­ploy­ees proved chal­leng­ing, sur­pris­ing and suc­cess­ful in shak­ing up the sta­tus quo, with an in­tern lead­ing his man­agers to free­dom and par­tic­i­pants en­er­gized in the process.

Whether a sim­u­lated jail break trans­fers to an im­proved work­place, how­ever, re­mains an open ques­tion.

“It’s not clear yet what are the ben­e­fits of it, other than peo­ple love it be­cause it’s some­thing out­side of work,” said Ed­uardo Salas, an or­ga­ni­za­tional psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Rice Univer­sity in Hous­ton. “But when they go back, the same con­di­tions are there, so the long-term ef­fects of team build­ing are un­known.”

A se­ries of ex­er­cises meant to en­cour­age co-op­er­a­tion, good­will and, ul­ti­mately, in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity, team build­ing has long been fod­der for cor­po­rate satire. The quin­tes­sen­tial team-build­ing ac­tiv­ity was the trust fall: clos­ing your eyes and fall­ing back­ward into the arms of your col­leagues, se­cure in the knowl­edge that they have your back — or not.

While team-build­ing fa­cil­i­ta­tors pro­lif­er­ated and busi­ness was brisk, the old-school out­ings rarely hit the mark, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts.

“It re­ally didn’t im­prove their per­for­mance,” said Wendy Bed­well, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of or­ga­ni­za­tional psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of South Florida.

In re­cent years, team build­ing has evolved in more cre­ative and en­gag­ing ways, Bed­well said, amp­ing up both the fun quo­tient and the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits to the work­place. Ac­tiv­i­ties in­clude solv­ing sim­u­lated crime scenes, build­ing bi­cy­cles for char­ity and com­pet­ing in “Sur­vivor”-in­spired chal­lenges, among oth­ers.

Im­prov train­ing is also pop­u­lar as a cor­po­rate team-build­ing ac­tiv­ity, with Sec­ond City Works, the busi­ness con­sult­ing arm of the Chicago-based com­edy troupe, a log­i­cal player in that arena.

“We’ve built a pretty sig­nif­i­cant busi­ness,” Kelly Leonard, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of in­sights and ap­plied im­pro­vi­sa­tion at Sec­ond City Works, where a half-day team build­ing work­shop starts at about $12,000 US.

Es­cape rooms, how­ever, have emerged as, per­haps, the go-to team-build­ing ac­tiv­ity. In a typ­i­cal sce­nario, six team­mates are locked in a themed room, where they must work to­gether to find clues and solve puz­zles to es­cape within 60 min­utes.

The ac­tiv­ity can be both in­tel­lec­tual and phys­i­cal, and for those who are not claus­tro­pho­bic, ap­par­ently a lot of fun. It also pro­vides some ac­tual team-build­ing ben­e­fit, Bed­well said.

“Any­thing that re­ally re­quires peo­ple to work to­gether, think crit­i­cally and solve a prob­lem is go­ing to have more of a ben­e­fit than just stand­ing in a for­est and fall­ing back­wards and hav­ing ev­ery­one catch you,” Bed­well said.

PanIQ Room, a Hun­gar­ian com­pany that opened a Chicago out­let in March 2016, is in the base­ment of an in­dus­trial three-storey brick build­ing near down­town. The fa­cil­ity con­sists of three rooms dubbed “In­fec­tion,” “Prison” and, in homage to Chicago, “Mob,” where par­tic­i­pat­ing groups gen­er­ally pay be­tween $129 and $189 US for a one-hour es­cape.

Camille Wheeler, 36, se­nior man­ager in con­tact cen­tre ap­pli­ca­tions for United Air­lines, re­cently funded a PanIQ Room out­ing for her­self and 14 mem­bers of her team, who split into groups to tackle the three rooms si­mul­ta­ne­ously. “I wanted to get the team out and do some team-build­ing ex­er­cises in a new and dif­fer­ent way,” Wheeler said.

The groups dug into the task, con­nect­ing via walkie-talkies for oc­ca­sional clues from the PanIQ Room man­agers, who mon­i­tored their re­spec­tive ef­forts from a con­trol room video screen. Only one group emerged within the al­lot­ted time, es­cap­ing from the In­fec­tion room in about 45 min­utes to trade high-fives and war sto­ries.

Lead­ing the way was Justin Booms, 30, an in­tern from Bloom­ing­ton, Ind., who took com­mand from his more tenured co­work­ers, hav­ing pre­vi­ously nav­i­gated a dif­fer­ent es­cape room. “There’s no hi­er­ar­chy — who­ever sees some­thing first can kind of lead,” said Booms.

With no cus­tomers sched­uled for the next hour, Heidi BlancBlum, unit man­ager for PanIQ Room Chicago, gave the other two teams some ex­tra time to es­cape, with both even­tu­ally mak­ing their way to free­dom.

“Prison is re­ally hard,” de­clared Pam Han­nan, a 22-year veteran of the ap­pli­ca­tions team, upon emerg­ing from her cell and plop­ping down on the lobby couch for a drink of wa­ter.

TERRENCE AN­TO­NIO JAMES, CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

United Air­lines em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing Lizzie Cris­to­bal, stand­ing right, Rhonda Cren­shaw, seated right, and Nikole Rucin­ski, left, take part in a cor­po­rate team build­ing ex­er­cise, work­ing to­gether to free them­selves from an “es­cape room” in Chicago.

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