Hate offsite team-building exercises? Blame psychologist Elton Mayo. 

In the 1920s and '30s, Mayo conducted extensive productivity research at Western Electric. Assuming that monotony impacted factory employee efficiency -- having been a shop floor employee, it was a really good assumption -- he took employees into a dedicated area of the plant to test ways to improve things: break frequency and length. Lighting. Workplace cleanliness and layout. 

Oddly enough, basically anything he tried seemed to work. The fact changes in environment were made -- and the participants knew they were being studied (say hi to the Hawthorne Effect) -- was really all that mattered.

That, and the fact participants became, for a short period of time, a "special" team, one that interacted for a special purpose.

When team building goes wrong

Granted, not all offsite team-building exercises work. 

I once took part in a "transformational leadership" offsite:

  • First, we were told to make small boxes out of cardboard.
  • Then we were told to cut pictures out of magazines that represented the "outer" us, the part we show the world.
  • Then we were told to write down things no one knew about us on slips of paper, put them inside our boxes (get it?), and reveal our slips to the group when it was our turn.

I was OK with putting pictures on the outside of my poorly constructed box, even though my lack of scissor skills was embarrassing. I didn't want to create "reveal" strips, though, and said so.

"Why not?" the facilitator asked.

"Because it's private," I said.

"That's the point!" he said. "The goal is to reveal things people don't know about you."

"They don't know those things about me because I don't want them to know those things about me," I said.

"But think about how much better you will be able to work together when you truly know one another as individuals," he said.

Yeah ... no.

I didn't end up participating, a potentially career-limiting move that turned out fine when upper management's focus soon shifted from "transformational leadership" to "back to basics," and my approach to work was instantly back in vogue: You don't need to know your employees' innermost thoughts and feelings. Even if you think you do, you have no right to their thoughts and feelings.

You do have a right to expect them to perform.

When team building goes really wrong

The 2009 paper "Does Team Building Work?" published in Small Group Research journal analyzed data from 103 studies and found that, done correctly, building can have measurable positive effects on team performance.

A 2018 study showed that shared adversity can increase overall team creativity by fostering supportive interactions. (Think doing something hard, together.)

And a 2012 American Psychological Association study found that committing time and resources to offsite team-building exercises can help employees feel more valued, which often leads to greater engagement and higher productivity. 

What do all those findings have in common? None of the team-building activities were virtual: None took place at the employee's desks or workspaces.

And none involved spending even more time staring at a screen.

So skip the virtual team-building exercises. Quit holding virtual happy hours. 

Granted, you may not be able to be physically together. But that's the point. Bonding is already hard enough enough. Turning a group of individuals into a genuine team is already hard enough. 

When you're not physically together, the silly stuff that bonds is less likely to happen. The adversity that bonds is less likely to happen.

Creating a shared sense of experience -- a memory of "we were there, and we actually did (that)" -- is almost impossible.

Want to build a better team? Help each individual succeed. Help that team succeed.

Because the best team-building tool of all is shared success.