In-Person Team Building Events During And After Covid

Written by Matteo Cassese

By Tommaso Lana and Matteo Cassese

Social and emotional learning is at the core of a modern, equitable and inclusive society. For the past fifteen years, we’ve been promoting and elevating this part of human development in every organization and business we serve. From preschools to tech companies, from public libraries to the entertainment industry, from museums to the academic world.

A healthy society is a network of individuals who are proud of their identity and heritage and are able to respect each other and thrive in a shared physical environment. That’s why we need in-person team-building events.

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What Happened To Teamwork During The Pandemic?

Before the pandemic, offices were the home of teams and teamwork.

We want to understand how teams are doing after two years of COVID and help teamwork bloom in this new habitat.

A CNBC article reported that by November 2021, only 28% of New York office workers were back in the office. Employers expected a maximum of 49% to return on an average weekday by January 2022.

But suddenly, the Omicron variant hit. It feels like offices will no longer be headquarters for teams.

Teams are social aggregates of talents built for productivity, success, and growth through collaboration, passion, and business culture. They got physically dismembered when the pandemic broke out and became remote because of a planetary epidemiological contingency, not for business management reasons or strategic convenience.

We reconnect teams for a living and ease teamwork and collaboration. These times are the most challenging and exciting for our mission.

We are in the middle of the “Great Resignation,” as Anthony Klotz, an associate professor at Texas A&M University, called the ongoing big quit phenomena in a popular interview in Bloomberg Businessweek. The job market is moving rapidly, and people have been leaving their old teams for new careers.

Think about it: folks who used to collaborate in person all of a sudden had to interact from home on Zoom, and now they’re working remotely with mates who likely never met in person, had a chat or a laugh in the lobby, elevator, or in front of the coffee machine.

We believe that remote teams need to meet in person soon for the health of organizations and teamwork, and we have collected all the data supporting this vision.

Is Virtual Team Building All We Are Left With?

Team Building Event Indoors

 For many of us, there is no question: virtual work is more comfortable, easier, and even environmentally friendlier. Returning to the office as if it was 2019 – but with more virtual meetings – doesn’t make sense.

Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study story proves it. Petersen tells about college campus administrators who are back into their “individual offices, with their doors closed, meeting with one another over Zoom or Teams.” The campus is half-deserted, and most of the students and teammates opted for remote or hybrid.

On the other hand, a brilliant Microsoft WorkLab study about the future of hybrid work reports teams having “become more siloed” since 2020 and digital exhaustion being “a real and unsustainable threat.” The same study talks about “over 65 percent” of employees who are “craving more in-person time with their teams.” Most importantly, Gen Z employees “reported difficulties feeling engaged or excited about work, getting a word in during meetings, and bringing new ideas to the table.”  

Organizations can’t afford to lose their youngest talents. Last March, Remote Control, the BBC’s column about work-life in the pandemic, wrote about remote work eroding trust among colleagues. Virtual work isn’t a comfort zone for everyone: something needs to change further. But how?

In the article The Jigsaw of Return, Rishad Tobaccowalla listed what employers worry about at the end of 2021. “How to maintain the creativity and relationship building that often needs the electrifying connection of people interacting in person” is our pick from that list.

Finally, between Delta and Omicron, somebody went back to the office to find out that hybrid and remote work need total, global, effectively trained team coordination.

As Emma Goldberg explains in the New York Times article “The Worst of Both Worlds: Zooming From the Office,” corporate teams struggled to manage executive meetings hosted from companies’ headquarters and streamed on Zoom for those working from home. Communication incidents happened so frequently that companies opted for either in-person only meeting solutions, the “Office-centric Hybrid” (Asana), or total remote meetings in the “Zoomisphere” (CommonBond).

But, at CommonBond, they also have a “Work from Work Wednesday.” While at Linkedin, Head of Workplace Brett Hautop planned on-site off-sites, so employees could remember what is what they loved about the office.”

Our feeling is that teamwork has been suffering in general throughout the pandemic. There’s no doubt remote and hybrid will be the two more popular forms of work after this pandemic. That said, we believe that virtual and hybrid teamwork still needs to grow, develop, and be perfected by its actors: the teams.

In our vision, working in person won’t disappear; it will radically change, though. In-person teamwork should become a new strategic part of organizations’ work philosophy.

To fulfill employees’ needs of building motivation, relationships, collaboration, creativity, and culture, organizations will reconsider in-person networking practices that can’t occur on Zoom or in the metaverse.

Businesses need safe, strategically scheduled in-person team retreats, off-sites, or team building events to mold the perfect virtual and hybrid corporate teamwork of the future.

What is a Team Retreat During or After the Pandemic?

Team Collaboration Team Building Group

A team retreat is a special in-person team-building event designed to retain and onboard folks who usually meet in remote or hybrid environments and encourage them to build their culture through unplanned encounters and memorable experiences.

In-person team retreats offer the opportunity to explore a new space and reflect on the meaning and impact of workspaces. Teammates enjoy experiences in common. They develop communication, collaboration, and camaraderie; new teams form new bonds, and “old” teammates look forward to planned encounters.

In our post-COVID vision, in-person team retreats should become part of the employee benefits.

We know that organizations do care about the social-emotional development of their employees: that’s what we hear while running conversations and consulting sessions with our clients, who are HR professionals, Head of people, DEI specialists, and Chief happiness officers.

In the upcoming remote-work society – the New Habitat, as we like to call it – human touch and social interaction will gain considerable value for motivation, professional, personal, and social wellbeing, and talents’ mental health.

Why Do We Need In-Person Team Building Events

Team Building Events Tommaso Lana Matteo Cassese

Social and emotional learning is at the core of a modern, equitable and inclusive society. A healthy society is a network of individuals who are proud of their identity and heritage and are able to respect each other and thrive in a shared (public) physical environment.

Neuroscientist Amanda Blake says that the body is the most powerful social-emotional sense organ humans have. For years, science has been studying the positive impact of body awareness in social environments, including the workplace. Embodied leadership or somatic leadership have become popular concepts in the literature for managers and folks in the C-suite.

Before the pandemic, scientists and business management consultants were already working on reconnecting professionals’ brains and bodies to improve human relationships, psychological safety, team collaboration, internal communication, and inclusive leadership in the workplace. The goal is to shift the perception of any employee and teammate inclusively from a “badge holder” to a whole talented person.

Amid the pandemic, on Zoom and Teams, our bodies detached from our working self again. They left our brains in charge, as the bodily archetype of a video meeting still sources from anchor people on TV. Your dress and hair count – maybe – not how your body is doing or communicating.

After two years in the pandemic, our body, the most powerful social-emotional sense organ, is inactive. We believe employees need their bodies to meet and be among talented people again. How can teams be creative, interactive, resourceful, and inspiring without using that powerful tool?

Is It Possible To Hold A Team Building Event During Covid?

Indoor Team Building Event

Experiential team-building events provide hands-on, inclusive interactions that bring a team together to create a unique experience through which teammates grow professionally and make memories together.

During experiential team building activities, team members discover teamwork skills and values while overcoming challenges that require cooperation and collaborative problem-solving in fun, competitive or non-competitive ways. Along with the facilitator, the team will collaboratively debrief the experiential team-building activity and put the benefits of that impactful experience into the work-related context.

We did run team building events during the pandemic. For health and safety reasons, many teams requested to meet online. We stressed technology (software, cameras, microphones), space (lights, backgrounds, and foregrounds), and proxemics to design a new virtual habitat. Online, every team member interacted actively, using objects within their physical environment, and sharing experiences with their remote peers beyond the visual and auditive screen experience.

While studying the first Zoom meetings in late winter 2020, we agreed upon adapting a fun and intriguing model for team interaction from remote given by The Muppets. Have a look at this video:

As the world went remote, our successful way to keep teams together was by investing in the perception of time as an ideal shared space. The core element in that video is the metronome: time, pace. As the metronome goes crazy, every character struggles. We envisioned the team as an orchestra and created events in which team members, in turn, embody the leadership role of the metronome and analyze its impact on team wellness, collaboration, and productivity.

We loved seeing teams feel excited about analyzing their collaborative work by comparing themselves to an orchestra or a band: Are we playing the same piece? What music genre are we playing? Is anybody improvising? How can we give feedback to the soloists?

Our clients learned or relearned how to listen in the virtual space. We think such an experience was memorable. However, we believe the teamwork outcomes would be much higher and more profound if the team met in person.

How To Make In-Person Team Building Events Safe

Team Bulding Senses Embodied Learning

 Covid-safe company events are possible. Fresh air is the most natural and cost-effective solution we came upon for indoor team-building events and retreats. Uber’s brand new San Francisco futuristic headquarters has 180 glass panels that open and shut throughout the day to control airflow. With this pandemic floating in the air, fresh air seems to be the ultimate office amenity in climate-controlled office culture.

We liked this idea and put it into practice last October in Berlin, Germany.

Using fresh air as a tool for an indoor team-building event in the northern European autumn is a challenging and unique experience. We gather at the client’s headquarters in a purposely prepared office room with open windows.

Everybody takes their masks off. We notice it feels great being back together as a team, looking at each other and seeing everyone’s smile. The windows are open; we’re not alone in the room: we introduce the wind coming from the Spree river as a participant in the workshop.

The session is about the use of storytelling in a sales pitch.

We start getting active. Many participants put their overcoats on a hanger. It’s cold, though. Ten minutes later, we pause and make sure everyone is doing fine. No, we all put our coats back on and switch perspectives: the crisp air has to turn into the most active element within our session’s topic.

We take notes: the environment is a crucial element for team building events after the pandemic. The fresh air is a connector. Participants always regroup around the wind. It’s the topic of their ongoing team building storytelling.

Fresh air becomes part of a memorable experience, which most millennials, the largest generation in the U.S. labor forces, expect from a team building event.

Temperatures permitting (starting from an average of 68F/20C), we take the whole company somewhere outdoors (parks, rooftops, post-industrial landscapes, natural settings) for an even more unique group experience.

What Do You Do In A Team Building Event?

  • Teammates discover each other’s powerful innate talents.
  • Teams transform ineffective communication habits.
  • Teammates experience new, successful collaborative strategies.
  • Individuals unlock their potential thanks to the team.
  • Teammates embody a problem-solving culture.
  • “Team awareness” generates value and profit.
  • Teammates strengthen trustful relationships through inclusive interactions.

Teammates discover each other’s powerful innate talents.

In the hybrid or “remote” office life, employees have been losing the ability to sense others, gain awareness by perceiving environments, and find innate problem-solving skills in spontaneous interactions. Virtual teams need to fuel motivation and confidence by experiencing and rewarding each teammate’s talents, including their own.

Teams transform ineffective communication habits.

As in Emma Goldberg’s New York Times story, teams in every organization had to deal with Zoom and Teams communication incidents. Fun fact: most issues weren’t technical: people just carried poor communication etiquette into the virtual space. We can design fun in-person activities to emphasize those bad habits and, simultaneously, focus on stress and weak time-management skills to frame how to evolve communication in teams.

Teammates experience new, successful collaborative strategies.

Likely, workplace management dashboards and software impacted teamwork in the pandemic like never before. However, we can’t imagine work as a mere standardized chain of operations paced around the vision of efficiency by some brilliant software engineers. We want people to meet and look at each other beyond their Slack icon. We need inclusive leaders that can look into people’s eyes and distribute work, motivation, and rewards.

Individuals unlock their potential thanks to the team.

We read about those employees who felt boxed in a corner during virtual meetings. We developed hands-on activities for teams to help their silent teammates leave isolation, see their potential, experience support, trust, and drive coming from the group. Together, we find shared languages and spaces that work to help everyone bloom and make an impact.

Teammates embody a problem-solving culture.

After two years of physical separation, we gather teams in a shared space to learn, or relearn, how to analyze and emphasize individual perspectives. We use a simple, bodily fashion that leads every team to simplify and materialize a winning problem-solving process.

“Team awareness” generates value and profit.

After so many years of coaching and training, we notice that ‘motivation’ has become a redundant, almost meaningless word. Motivation in hybrid and remote environments is a big deal dropped on each employee’s shoulders. We found a different, more tangible way to call motivation. “Team Awareness” is what drives employees. We work on a seventh sense that gives a humane meaning to productivity, the sense of belonging.

Teammates strengthen trustful relationships through inclusive interactions.

We walked barefoot, backward, and blindfolded with teams and leaders through the forest. Now you know we can do that. But we can design many less extreme hands-on ways to keep remote work relationships loyal and trustworthy.

Outdoor Team Building Activities

Based on our outdoor team building and corporate events, here is a mini-catalog of activities everyone can do with their teams outdoors.

Experiential team building activity for conversational turn-taking

Collaboration Team Building Game

To boost in-person communication and conversational turn-taking after thousands of Zoom meetings, we use sticks (or broomsticks!).

The activity is about improving physical presence and managing high-quality conversations. Teammates learn to pay attention to critical details, both in body language and content, they missed in almost two years of video meetings.

As the Microsoft study we mentioned before warns, “Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call.” Imagine implementing this activity in a team building event for executives.

Experiential team building activity for bringing new ideas in meetings

We use paper to help teammates, especially the youngest (Gen Z), bring great ideas to the table in the new office habitat. Metaphorically, we make brainstorm content look like a large sheet of paper. We work on idea presentation while boosting participants’ empathetic and critical thinking. This team-building activity is also the best to focus on problem-solving.

Experiential team building activity to boost collaboration in-person

Leaders and managers can provide inexpensive material to build a simple parachute-like construction that helps every teammate physically weigh the impact of their work on the team’s performance.

This type of activity is the most impactful for conflict resolution. We invest in collaboration, communication (verbal and non-verbal), and camaraderie to help a team solve a conflict using team awareness.

How To Best Organize A Team Building Event After Covid

In Person Team Building

We believe our reasons for in-person, pandemic-safe team building events are more than convincing. On top of them, we want to add an expert secret from coaching and training teams: What makes employees’ experience unique is the quality of their social interactions at work.

A well-adjusted remote worker might lose loyalty as they interact with their team and company less and less. Effective team building is your employer branding key to relieving anxiety and overcoming all the accumulated stress during these times of trouble. Therefore, it’s the most thoughtful way to retain your best talents, even those that have found a way to thrive remotely. 

In conclusion,

  • Healthy teams make for a healthy society.
  • Teamwork started evolving during the pandemic. This change is ongoing, and it’s in teams’ hands.
  • Any space can be safe for a team retreat – especially the outdoors.
  • Post-pandemic team building is a new opportunity for memorable bonding experiences to master hybrid and remote work as a group.
  • You’ll remember the 2020s as the decade teams fixed the office and started a new culture of collaboration.

 To organize your next team building event or retreat, reach out to us. Book here a 30 minutes free consultation.

About the author: Tommaso Lana

Tommaso Lana is an award-winning trainer, performance artist, consultant, founder of Embodied Learning.

Embodied Learning is a multidisciplinary experiential training program for people of all ages that enhances communication and collaboration skills through sensory play, movement, and imagination.

With his Embodied Learning projects, coaching, and professional development training sessions, Tommaso has been serving teams, managers, and administrators at Caltech, Google, WeWork, The Smithsonian Institution, NAEYC, Los Angeles Public Library, New York Public Library, and more.

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