Remember the episode of The Office when Jim finds out that his new office buds at the Stamford branch of Dunder Mifflin play Call of Duty as a “team-building" exercise? It started as a way to bring teammates closer together, but since Jim doesn’t know a sniper rifle from a grenade, he ends up coming under fire (both in the game and in the office).
Not a great way to make new employees feel welcome, right? Fortunately, there are better office-bonding options than Call of Duty—and they’re not all so awkward that you’ll wish you’d come down with the flu instead of trust-falling into Karen from accounting’s arms.
According to Huddle, team-building exercises fall into one or more of four categories:
To engage every team member, pick a variety of activities that cater to all four. You don’t have to do all of them in one day — that would be exhausting! — but try to build them into your calendar throughout the year.
Who doesn’t love a board game night? Since board games are having a popularity renaissance, you have hundreds of options to choose from:
Provide free snacks, soda, and pizza for your employees. If board games alone don’t persuade people, free food will.
Train Wreck seems silly, but it’s a great get-to-know-you exercise for teams that may not have much experience working together.
For this game, employees stand in a circle and remove their shoes to mark their places, except for one person, who goes to the middle. He says his name and calls out something that is true about him (“I like Game of Thrones,” for example). Everyone for whom that’s also true runs through the circle to another pair of shoes. One person will be stuck in the middle, though, and she repeats the process (“My name is Allison, and I have a dog”).
The person in the middle can also yell “Train wreck,” meaning that everyone has to move shoes.
One of my extracurricular clubs in college played this game every semester when we recruited new members. It got rid of the ever-present newbie awkwardness and helped us communicate as a team. It can easily be applied to an office environment where there may be new employees or team members who haven't had a lot of experience working together.
It can be hard to find time to give back if people are settled into a work routine. If employees get a morning or afternoon to volunteer, though, they don’t have to worry about making the time on their own.
Not only does community service help charitable organizations that align with your company’s values, but workers get the chance to talk to each other in a new setting—one of the best parts of good team-building.
Here are some volunteering ideas for your workplace:
If you live in a city, chances are that a sports team plays near you. Whether it’s baseball, basketball, or hockey, look up the most exciting sports events in your area and see how much ticket packages cost. Provide tickets for free to your workers if possible, and if you can’t do that, then pay for part of the ticket or see if the team offers discounts. The lower the ticket price, the greater the likelihood of employees attending.
If you have an outdoorsy team of employees, consider activities that will get all of you moving outside the office. Maybe there’s a riverside trail twenty minutes away or an easy hike just outside town. Crowdsource destinations from employees who spend time outside work biking or jogging.
Want to take it up a notch? Wait for a warm day and go canoeing or rafting. You don’t have to be experienced to move a small canoe or rubber raft down a river, but it is an entertaining exercise in teamwork – especially if you bring water guns.
You can also think smaller rather than bigger. Most cities have large urban parks or waterfront areas. Take a long walk through Central Park (NYC), Rock Creek Park (DC), or Fairmount Park (Philadelphia), just to name a few. Stop for coffee on the way back, and enjoy the slow pace. It will bring opportunities for casual conversation.
Did you ever play "The Floor is Lava" as a kid? At recess, my friends and I would vault from the monkey bars to the slide, trying not to let our feet touch the ground. In our imaginations, it was lava, and we’d burn to a crisp if we let our skin touch it.
Lily Pads is the same idea, but without the burning-to-death component (though keep that if you like the action movie-style element lava brings!). Separate your team into small groups and designate different areas of the office as “ponds.” Each team has a few seconds to grab objects from around the office, which they can then use as “lily pads.” Every team member has to be able to make it from one side of the pond to the other.
If you’d like to add a competitive edge, time the teams. The one that finishes first gets ice cream or a Starbucks gift card.
Let’s say your office has a more literary bent. Indulge bookworms by picking a book each month, then providing resources and space for anyone interested to meet and discuss the title. Appoint book club leaders or rotate the discussion moderator position every month. Sci-fi, biographies, or graphic novels — it’s up to you to decide the genre. Just make it fun.
Talking about books is a sneaky way to build communication. Even if employees aren’t going over the details of that latest project, they’re still speaking politely and articulately to each other (unless the book was terrible). Pleasant, effective communication is a skill that no one is too old to keep building.
Want to get fancy? Bring wine and cheese. If the gouda’s good enough, no one will care that you’re still in the office!
This is one of my favorite bonding activities: It doesn’t cost anything, takes few materials, and is easily customizable to any department or team.
For this word-association game, everyone who’s playing writes down three easily recognizable people, places, and things on separate scraps of paper. They drop their scraps into the “fishbowl,” then divide into two teams for four rounds:
Fishbowl is hilarious, but it also helps employees use problem-solving skills. That’s why it’s one of my favorite team-building games.
If your team has an hour or two to spare, try escape rooms. These hands-on puzzles have skyrocketed in popularity because they provide the adrenaline rush of a video game, but in-person rather than on-screen.
In most setups, your team has one hour to escape from a locked room. They do so by solving a series of riddles, and a gamemaster outside the room gives hints whenever your team gets stuck. Escape room themes range from spy thriller to zombie apocalypse to occult mysteries. Some even employ live actors.
Most escape rooms have corporate/group rates, and Groupon is an excellent resource for budget-priced experiences.
If your employees are itching for some self-expression, consider finding an art studio nearby and signing up everyone for a class. Whether it’s pottery, painting, screen printing or mural creation, you should be able to find something that appeals to all teammates, no matter their experience level.
For example, Art Works (Richmond, VA) offers mural painting workshops that are customized to each business. It takes zero skills, just a willingness to participate, and your company will get some one-of-a-kind artwork out of it.
Creative challenges are a great way to draw shy or guarded employees out of their shell since art classes are freeform and low-stress.
Ninja, like Fishbowl, is another free and easy game to play with a large group.
Pick a space large enough to accommodate your team standing in a circle. Each person holds out both hands and stands one large step away from the players on either side of them. One at a time, players try to slap the hand of someone close to them. If they succeed, the person they’ve tagged “loses” a hand. Lose both hands and you’re out. The last person standing wins the game.
Here are some of the other rules that make Ninja into a fast, stealthy thrill:
Telling stories is a classic activity that inspires and improves team bonding. Teams gather in a circle and share their workplace experiences. You'll need about six to 20 participants for a duration of about 45 minutes. Create a set of trigger words that can kickstart a storytelling session. Think of words like "first day," "work travel," "partnership," "side project," etc., and write them down on sticky notes. Then divide a whiteboard into two sections and post all sticky notes from above on one section of the whiteboard.
Ask a participant to pick out one trigger word from the sticky notes and use it to share an experience (such as about his or her first day of work at the company). Shift the chosen sticky note to the other side of the whiteboard. As the participant is relating his/her experience, ask others to jot down words that remind them of similar work-related stories. Add these words to sticky notes and paste them on the whiteboard. Repeat this process until you have a "wall of words" with interconnected stories.
Have teams sketch their shared memories with each other and place them on a wall. You'll need anywhere between six and 50 participants for a duration of about 45 to 90 minutes. Give each participant sheets of paper, markers, and tape. Ask each participant to survey the room. Take 15 minutes to write down positive memories of shared experiences and moments while working together. Once participants have a few memories listed, ask them to draw a few of these memories on fresh sheets of papers. The drawings can be abstract renditions of the "memory scene," or they can involve partners who've shared the memory to create this drawing. Give them up to 30 minutes to do this. Once the time is up, ask participants to tape their memory drawings to the wall, and ask for volunteers to approach the wall and expand on the memories they just taped on the wall with the entire group.
These 23 ideas for team members are just the beginning. Use your imagination to come up with games and activities that suit your employees, their interests, and the work and projects to which you all contribute. Each team-building activity should bring team members closer—and create a more friendly, cohesive, and productive workplace for everyone!
Elizabeth Ballou is a content marketer at Clutch, a research, ratings, and reviews company in Washington, D.C. She writes about HR and benefits. When she's not working, she's listening to too many podcasts and reviewing theater and video games for various media outlets.