Forget the Team-Building Exercises: How to Cultivate Productive Teams Instead

It's not (just) about the snacks. Here's a five-step approach to cultivating more productive, high-performance teams.
Forget the Team-Building Exercises: How to Cultivate Productive Teams Instead
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Entrepreneur; Founder and CEO, JotForm
8 min read
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The startup world reveres lone wolves: those visionary sole founders like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, makeup artist and entrepreneur Pat McGrath, and Spanx founder Sara Blakely. Yet, the quality, productivity, and commitment of the team will make or break any venture. As legendary entrepreneur Mary Kay Ash once said, “people are definitely a company’s greatest asset. It doesn’t make any difference whether the product is cars or cosmetics. A company is only as good as the people it keeps.”

Research shows that happy, collaborative teams are also more productive. But how can you ensure your team -- regardless of its size -- is functioning well? This is when someone inevitably utters the phrase that strikes fear in employees’ hearts: “team-building exercise.” Before you imagine awkward field trips and trust-building games, know that you don’t have to spend the day on a ropes course to develop cohesive teams.

After launching my company, JotForm, 13 years ago, I’ve learned a lot about why people succeed (and struggle) in groups. I’ve made many mistakes along the way, too – which led me to develop a five-part strategy for cultivating strong teams. Here’s the core principle: instead of trying to optimize our teams, we should aim to nurture them. Just as people, plants, and animals require certain conditions to grow and thrive, so do teams. Cover these basics, and your teams will be well-equipped to work in creative harmony.

Related: 3 Team-Building Secrets of Successful Small-Business Owners

1. Feed them challenging problems

Software developers often joke about running on coffee and pizza, but teams need exciting problems to solve. Challenge is a form of nourishment that gets many employees out of bed in the morning. “Creative people work for the love of a challenge,” researcher Richard Florida and SAS CEO Jim Goodnight write in Harvard Business Review. “They crave the feeling of accomplishment that comes from cracking a riddle, be it technological, artistic, social, or logistical. They want to do good work.”

In his 2004 book, The Rise of The Creative Class, Florida cites an Information Week survey that polled 20,000 IT workers. When asked, “what matters most to you about your job?” an overwhelming majority chose “challenge of job / responsibility,” followed by flexibility and job stability. Salary or financial compensation ranked a distant fourth.

If you have the resources, you might want to literally feed your employees well, too. We’ve all heard about the well-stocked fridges at tech giants like Google and Facebook, but according to Chicago Tribune reporter James Daly, more companies are now engaging “dietary interventionists” to create healthy eating programs in their kitchens and cafeterias.

At JotForm, we’ve brought in a chef who makes healthy lunchtime salads with oil from my family’s olive trees. Our employees love them, and we’ve all found that we don’t have a post-lunch energy crash when we fill up on fresh vegetables.

2. Offer real independence

We all crave freedom, in work and life. In fact, autonomy is a core human need – and research across multiple fields shows that employees who have more autonomy at work are happier, healthier, and more productive. Team members working in autonomous groups also feel less “emotional exhaustion” and engage in more active learning.

Our cross-functional product teams have considerable freedom. We assign projects, but each group is free to decide how they’ll tackle problems and develop solutions. Ultimately, autonomy is a form of trust: we trust our teams, and they repay that trust with strategic, creative work.

In the book Creativity, Inc., former Pixar CEO Ed Catmull takes readers inside the famous animation studio and explains how the company thinks about team creativity. “The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world,” write Catmull and Amy Wallace. “Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear.”

Starting a business can be scary. Creative problem-solving can also induce fear – from fear of failure to concerns about letting down bosses, customers, and even investors. But trust can inoculate teams against those gnawing fears, and providing autonomy is just one way to demonstrate real trust.

Related: Why Team Building is Essential for Your Business Success

3. Respect their time

Time is our most precious currency. Teams need uninterrupted hours to solve problems and think strategically. As Deep Work author Cal Newport writes, “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.”

As a founder, you might jump from meetings to calls to creative work and back into meetings, all within a three-hour stretch. That doesn’t mean your teams should do the same. Thinkers and creators, like developers, designers, writers, and strategists, need a maker’s schedule, with lots of open blocks on their calendars. At JotForm, we also try to ensure that our product teams work on one project at a time. Having a singular focus builds momentum, and when 5-6 people tackle the same challenge, they inevitably make significant progress – even in a single week.

It’s important to respect people’s time outside the office, too. The startup world often glorifies workdays that stretch into 10, 12, and even 14 hours. Not only will a culture of overwork lead to employee burnout, but it’s also not good for business or staff retention.

According to Carly Guthrie, a human resources consultant and HR director at Heath Ceramics, knowing that staff have lives outside of work is the number-one way to prevent them from leaving – and employees do better work when they have a full personal life. “It’s not just people with kids or spouses,” says Guthrie. “Everybody has a community outside of the office. So few employers respect that – if you make it a point to, that will bind your employees closer to you.”

4. Give them some breathing room

The open office plan has become nearly synonymous with startups and modern businesses. However, you might want to re-think your open workspace. Studies show that open plans actually decrease face-to-face interactions and increase email communication. Other research found that employees who work in open offices report higher stress levels and struggle to concentrate and stay motivated.

If possible, give your teams their own, separate offices or private spaces where they can work together without distractions. It’s equally important to minimize excess noise, which is the top complaint among employees who work in open offices. For example, you could designate places for conversation versus quiet work, or create a signaling system for team members to show when they’re in deep concentration mode.

Finally, ensure your teams have mental and emotional space. Cut unnecessary meetings, remove hidden obstacles, and slash red tape and bureaucratic processes. Ask what they want and need to perform at their peak. “If you want to fire up your team, you’ve got to give them room to breathe,” writes Dr. Andrew Johnston in his book, Fired Up: Kindling and Keeping the Spark in Creative Teams. “You need to loosen the physical and emotional constraints that hold them back and hem them in.”

Related: 5 Ways to Get Naysayers to Participate in Team Building

5. Foster a culture of warmth and energy

Friendly, collaborative teams will inevitably function better. Groups should create a sense of warmth and safety in order for people to perform at their peak. But warmth is also a creative fire. We need to fan the flames of innovation with fresh opportunities and challenges. For example, hack weeks can be an effective way to shake employees out of a rut, while promoting stronger partnerships.

In today’s organizations, team-building should stretch beyond the typical approaches. For example, back in 1993, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson hired mindfulness expert George Mumford to work with the flailing team. Mumford taught the group that teamwork means “putting the we before the me, while nurturing the me.”

In essence, each player releases their ego, brings their peak skills to the court, and the team comes together as one. Soon afterward, the Bulls went on to win six NBA championships. From mindfulness to motivational challenges, there are numerous ways to help keep your teams happy, connected, and productive. You don’t need silly bonding games; just an open mind and a nurturing attitude.

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