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Make Your Team Building Fun — and Productive — With a Business Take on 'Speed Dating' Employee engagement in the U.S. hit a seven-year low in 2022, damaging many businesses' profitability and productivity. I set out to change that for my team with a new version of "speed dating" for employees. Here's what I learned.

By Nellie Akalp Edited by Kara McIntyre

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As the "boss," I knew meeting me for the first time would be intimidating for many employees. But unfortunately, the employee engagement I fought so hard to build came to a sudden halt during the pandemic. And I know I'm not alone.

According to Gallup research, by early 2022, employee engagement in the U.S. had slumped to a seven-year low, with only 32% of employees engaged at work and 17% feeling disengaged. And throughout 2022, engagement levels remained relatively unchanged. With employee stagnation being one of the biggest threats to a company's productivity and profitability, I knew we needed something special to reconnect with our team.

So, to relieve the pressure (and make things fun), this past holiday, my team of 100 came together for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Many were new employees I'd never met in person — and who didn't really know anything about me. So to break the ice, my co-founder/husband and I tried a speed dating technique.

Related: 3 Ways to Learn More About Your Team and How They Work

We researched how to make this work and set it up like this:

We arranged long, narrow tables next to each other and lined up chairs on both sides. The tables sat 50 people, 25 on each side. We set a time limit of two minutes to "meet" the person across the table. Our DJ gave us reminders when the two-minute mark was up, then it was time to move to the next chair to meet the next person.

To stay authentic, there were no talking points or "rules" to follow. Instead, the goal was to spark organic conversations so everyone could get to know one another.

Fortunately, our speed "meet and greet" experiment was a success! Employee feedback was beyond positive. They said it meant a lot to them that we took the time to get to know them, showing how much we cared about them and the company.

This event taught me some valuable lessons as well that I want to share with you:

  1. A little goes a long way. The success of the speed dating activity showed that you don't have to go over the top to let your team know how special they are. As your company grows, it's even more important to keep the small business vibe by regularly reaching out to each employee — even a quick text, email or call reminds them of how essential they are to your business.
  2. Invest in your team. By default, many staff members will assume that, as a busy company owner, you're unaware of their responsibilities and skillset and how much they contribute to the company's growth. The speed dating activity allowed us to learn about each employee's motivations and interests and discover more about their skills and goals, so we could follow up and nurture them.
  3. It's not about the money. Today's employees want more than just a good salary. The excitement and camaraderie at our holiday get-together showed me that people want to work where they feel they belong, in a work culture that feels like a second home. Providing a culture of diversity and recognition where differences are celebrated is the key to attracting and keeping happy employees.
  4. Show your humanity. Speed dating also taught me that connecting one-on-one with your employees matters. Just saying, "Hey, I care, and I am listening," significantly impacts your employees and their work output. No matter how large your company grows, showing your humanity to your team helps keep toxicity out of the business and creates an engaging and supportive work environment.
  5. Make the first move. After the speed dating event, follow up with employees on what you discussed or learned about them.
  6. Walk around. Management by walking around helps you maintain that connection. Make those walks matter by celebrating milestones, offering recognition for a job well done and asking questions. Interacting with employees keeps them engaged.

Related: Why Team Building is Essential for Your Business Success

Continue to speed date

Speed dating shouldn't be a one-time event; it's a great year-round team-building activity. Schedule regular speed dating activities or look for situations that could benefit from a round or two of speed dating, such as:

  1. New hires. After adding several people to the team, a speed dating event can help break the ice.
  2. Simmering friction. How's employee morale? Negativity spreads like a virus. Speed dating can help clear the air, boost camaraderie and increase productivity.
  3. Do your remote employees feel left out? An online speed dating exercise (brainstorming?) can bring employees together.
  4. Quiet quitting. Are some of your employees restless? Team building via speed dating can get them reinvested in your company.
  5. Strengthen company culture. Speed dating can help you build a workplace of trust, respect and fun.

Related: Tame Your Turnover With These 4 Team-Building Ideas

Mix unguided and themed speed dating sessions. Some possible themes could include: overcoming challenges, changing one thing about the company or being a better co-worker.

After emerging from the pandemic — which, for many companies, put a damper on forging workplace relationships — in-person or virtual speed dating events are a great way to cement your company culture, build morale and bring your team closer together.

Nellie Akalp

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of CorpNet.com

Nellie Akalp is a passionate entrepreneur and mother of four. She is the CEO of CorpNet.com, the smartest way to start a business, register for payroll taxes and maintain business compliance across the United States. 

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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