Before I owned my own coaching business, I was in the corporate arena as a director and VP, focused on marketing and product development. In every company I worked for, every once in a while, we’d be asked to engage in some form of “team-building” – from a few days away from the office in a place like Las Vegas (complete with dinners out, casinos and a Cirque Du Soleil performance), to a golf outing (where most of the women didn’t actually play golf), or a nature retreat filled with embarrassing “trust falls,” circle sharing, and more. Did these experiences really build team engagement and connection? Occasionally yes, but most often, any kind of bonding that was forged during the event evaporated the minute we stepped foot back into our contentious roles and stressful work-lives.
Interested in learning how the most innovative companies engage in team-building today, I caught up with the inspiring Jenny Gottstein, 2015 Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree and director of Games at The Go Game, a new interactive and creative approach to team-building. At The Go Game, Jenny has led large scale interactive game projects, creativity trainings and design workshops around the world. The Go Game combines mobile technology and augmented reality with actors and real-world locations. Go Games are used for marketing, training and entertainment purposes by clients ranging from Google to Bank of America to Johnson & Johnson. After 10 years and 10,000 games, Jenny and her team have refined the art of engaging engineers, marketing teams, lawyers and everything in between.
Jenny shared what the top companies today are doing to build their teams.
Kathy Caprino: What are companies like Uber, Facebook and Salesforce choosing to do for team building?
Jenny Gottstein: To understand what Uber, Facebook and Salesforce are doing, you have to understand the overall climate of Silicon Valley. These are incredibly savvy companies attracting top talent from all around the world. In other words, trust falls and ropes courses just don’t cut it around here. So when these companies make an investment in their team, the experience has to be not only wildly entertaining, but deeply impactful.
So when we produce team building experiences for these companies, we use our Karaoke Rickshaw, we design espionage-themed adventure games, we create massive music video competitions, or we take over an island and turn it into a fortress of fun.
Caprino: So how are these companies using powerful team-building to achieve corporate success overall?
Gottstein: Interestingly, we’re seeing companies use their strong corporate culture as a bargaining chip to recruit the best and brightest talent. When applying for jobs, millennial employees are not only assessing their salary and benefits, but also whether or not they relate to the working environment, and enjoy rolling up their sleeves next to their peers. As a result of this culture shift, team-building is being used as a marketing and recruitment tool. Often we will produce games for prospective employees or interns of large companies as way to show off the perks of the company’s working environment.
Caprino: What are some of the best ways to engage your employees and help build company culture?
Gottstein: The best way to engage employees is to build a culture of trust. Nothing is more isolating and damaging than a fear of taking risks or voicing one’s opinion. A team that trusts each other, and respects everyone’s contribution can make significant cognitive leaps when innovating or problem-solving. Often, we’ll design games that drive this concept home – for example we once designed a game for a large company that demonstrated the importance of diversity and inclusion when building strong teams.
But most of the time, effective team-building creates a culture of trust simply by giving employees an opportunity to strengthen their interpersonal relationships, be vulnerable in a low-stakes environment, and try out new ideas with a safety net of humor.
Caprino: How have you seen millennials respond to team-building as opposed to older generations?
Gottstein: Millennials have a low tolerance for corniness, but are generally more willing to let loose and embark on adventures with their colleagues. Based on our research, they are also more likely to find the value in team-building as it relates to the workplace.
Caprino: Tell me more about the importance of “applied play” in the workplace.
Gottstein: Applied play is the new secret weapon for healthy workplaces. When designed correctly, play can help us reframe problems, find new solutions, try out new strategies, and celebrate small victories.
We’ve designed games to help international division leads find a sense of purpose in their work, games that empower entry-level employees to take pride in their contributions, games that help policy-makers understand the impact of their decision making on the communities they serve, games that help marketing teams brainstorm new campaigns. While each workplace and use case is completely unique, the core theme remains the same: Play gives us mental flexibility and emotional confidence. Play is a dress rehearsal for the future.
Caprino: What are some of the most popular games you offer and why? What types of companies have these been most successful with?
Gottstein: Our classic scavenger hunt – the one we first built 15 years ago – is still a crowd favorite. Using interactive technology, talented actors and a healthy dose of humor, we are able to turn any environment (a neighborhood, a building, a city) into a live-action game board. Almost like The Game with Michael Douglas, but much less terrifying.
Our Go Game Show is also wildly popular, as it combines popular Game Show formats into a carousel of high-stakes relays, brain tickling trivia, and heart-pumping victories.
In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in inquiries around training games and applied play. Our conference gamification layer has always been quite popular, but now we are seeing more requests for leadership training games, disaster preparedness games andmindfulness games. It’s clear that companies are now approaching play as a tool for personal and professional development.
Caprino: Why is team-building so hard to get right, and what do organizations do “wrong” in their team-building attempts and why?
Gottstein: First of all, team building is NOT hard. Team building is short for “let’s have fun together and reap the benefits of our strengthened relationships.” As humans, we do this naturally. What’s hard is trying to manufacture those moments and then measure the long-term impact. Trying to assess ROI on a team-building event is the best way to destroy a team-building event. I’ve seen poor HR departments trying to plan a fun event while also making graphs and presentations for their superiors proving that the event was financially worthwhile. It is financially worthwhile. Period. So instead, HR teams should spend their time designing experiences that draw out the talents and strengths of everyone. This is the easiest and most effective way to build strong teams.
Caprino: Finally, Jenny, across generations, what is the most successful team-building ingredient?
Gottstein: It’s this: Permission to be creative.
And when infused with joy, humor, authenticity and humility, team-building activities can achieve the holy grail of company culture: an engaged, inspired, confident, supportive and innovative workforce. Effective team-building turns employees into purpose-driven evangelists for their company and their coworkers.
For more information, visit The Go Game.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.