How to Build Teamwork in the Workplace – According to the Experts

How to Build Teamwork in the Workplace

Teamwork makes the dream work. But what does that look like in this new era of work? Here are four experts at the forefront.

Corporate team building has always been challenging – and the new world of remote and hybrid working has made it a whole lot harder. As best-selling business author, adviser and workplace culture guru Daniel Coyle told McKinsey & Company: “The leadership bar in this new environment is going up because it requires a lot more intentionality around relationship building and cohesion building.”

The concept evolved more than a century ago, when experts first speculated that increasing human connection may improve productivity, but it’s only been in the past 20 or so years that it’s become a widely accepted strategic business tool, led by Silicon Valley. The pandemic pressed pause on traditional in-person activities, from scavenger hunts to axe throwing, but they’re well and truly back – with some post-COVID tweaks and trends.

If 2023 saw an increased focus on team building to support employee wellbeing, mental health, stress reduction, emotional intelligence and mindfulness, experts say this year is more of the same – with an overlay of environmental and community goals. And mirroring the workplace, many team-building activities are now offered virtually, such as Zoom-based game shows and murder mysteries, online escape rooms and trivia nights, or a flexible blend of virtual and in-person.

The decline of spontaneous office connections – chatting around the water cooler or a birthday lunch, for instance – means business leaders are increasingly hiring specialists to connect their fractured teams and instil a positive work culture. Here, you’ll meet some of the team builders who are helping corporate workers step out of their comfort zone, collaborate, build trust, de-stress – and even have a bit of fun.

Nellie Kerrison

Nellie Kerrison

Cooking teacher, Author / founder, Relish Mama

Since late last year, bookings for Nellie Kerrison’s cooking classes have soared by 30 per cent, after steadily rising since the end of the pandemic lockdowns. Her online offering for teams that can’t gather in person at her school in the Melbourne suburb of Cheltenham has grown even faster – up 60 per cent on pre-pandemic bookings.

“We’ve always been very busy with team-building events,” says Kerrison, whose clients include Bunnings, Chobani, L’Oréal, Nissan, Bendigo Bank and Mattel. “But post-COVID and in particular these past few months, teams are prioritising connection and gatherings outside of the typical festive periods.”

Spearheading the surge is Cooking for a Cause, which combines the satisfaction of preparing and eating a meal together with the social impact of making extra food to donate to crisis shelters and grassroots organisations. Kerrison, who founded the Relish Mama cooking school in 2009, introduced the concept after seeing people in her community struggling following Melbourne’s 2020 lockdowns. On average, a class of 15 prepares an extra 40 meals for donation.

“Participating in events with a purpose creates a sense of achievement and fulfilment among team members,” she says, adding that about one-third of her corporate clients choose this option and she hopes that it will become her most popular class by the end of this year. “The shared experience can lead to improved morale, increased motivation and a positive impact on workplace culture.”

Companies generally book a 2.5-hour lunch session (for 12 to 25 people) so as not to encroach on employees’ personal time. The average cost is about $220 per participant, depending on which package is chosen. The 90-minute online version is $87.50 per person for a full group of 12, with each attendee sent a shopping list of ingredients to buy.

A self-taught cook, food writer, recipe developer and stylist, Kerrison says her classes aim to go beyond traditional team-building exercises, inspired by her family background, where good food and coming together for meals was very important. Her grandfather was a pickling champion and her grandmother cooked post-training breakfasts for jockeys.

“Food serves as a universal language, breaking down corporate barriers and fostering genuine connections,” she says, emphasising that there is no MasterChef-style judgement on participants’ efforts. Kerrison does admit that those taking part will be challenged. “In a team-building cooking class, the collaborative nature of preparing a meal encourages individuals to step out of their comfort zone.”

Mark Visser

Mark Visser

Keynote speaker and mindset coach

After almost drowning in a sheep trough when he was three years old, Mark Visser was determined to overcome his fear of water. Fast forward 25 years and he made headlines by surfing one of the world’s biggest breaks at Jaws (Pe’ahi), off Hawaii’s Maui island – in the dark. Since then, he’s become a top mindset coach for elite athletes, such as champion surfer Kelly Slater and AFL footballers, as well the Australian SAS and the United States Navy Seals.

That seems a long way from corporate team building but in the past five years the highest demand for Visser’s mindset and emotional intelligence training has come from companies keen to create a united culture. “There’s such an appetite for people to do something different,” says Visser, whose clients include CBA, Lexus Australia, HSBC, ANZ and the Gartner Group. “So much in the mental health space is just fluff.”

That “something different” does not require big-wave surfing or even underwater breath-holding (Visser’s PB is just over six minutes). Most of his corporate sessions are safely inside and seated, listening to his one-hour keynote address ($10,000 to $12,000) followed by a group-based workshop on emotional intelligence (that’s an additional $5000 to $10,000). The aim is for attendees to “strip back the layers of ego and develop a high level of awareness, in order to become the best version of themselves and integrate that version into the team”.

A large part of the program is learning to deal with stress – whatever its cause. Visser says a 20-metre wave or overwhelming deadlines will cause the same response – “out of control” brain activity and heart rate. “You’re consumed by fear so you need techniques to stay calm,” he says. “You’re not fearless but you are dealing with it.”

One technique is “transient hypofrontality” or slowing down the front part of the brain to focus intensely on the moment. It’s best illustrated by the pool-based component of the program, which is undertaken by about one-third of his clients at an extra cost of $1500 per person. The details are “trade secrets” but participants have to perform three tasks underwater, focusing only on the immediate task and remaining calm. Visser emphasises that age and fitness are irrelevant – he points out that one of the top results came from a mentally tough 76-year-old woman.

“They have to be hyper-present and use core mental skills to lower their heart rate and brain activity,” explains Visser, adding that most of the participants believe that the water exercise is impossible when it’s first outlined in the program. But once they’re shown how to do it, the lessons are valuable back in the workplace.

“It’s all about belief – people believing in themselves and having confidence within their own space,” says Visser, who is based on the Sunshine Coast and still surfs every day. “The path to success is about the process in each moment.”

Victor Lee

Victor Lee

Social entrepreneur / CEO and Co-founder, Communiteer

When DeadlyScience, a charity that assists Australian First Nations students to develop STEM skills, needed a fresh marketing plan, it turned to property developer Mirvac. Its staff worked on ideas to connect DeadlyScience with potential partners and donors during a one-day volunteer hackathon – then Mirvac committed to provide ongoing pro bono help to implement the plan.

The bridge between Mirvac and DeadlyScience is Communiteer, a Sydney-based “social good network” that pairs community organisations, such as the Australian Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity Australia and the Heart Foundation, with corporate volunteers, including Pfizer, UNSW Business School and Aspen Medical.

But the volunteers aren’t planting trees or dishing up soup. Instead, they use their professional skills to tackle a range of typical not-for-profit challenges, such as fundraising, community outreach and partnership strategies.

Communiteer CEO Victor Lee says the Hack4Good program is not simply about ticking off corporate social responsibility goals. A major drawcard for companies is the team-building benefits of bringing their employees together from across the organisation to collaborate on solving problems, while also giving back to the community.

“Employees are taken into the world of community organisations to understand what drives them, how they support the most vulnerable and how they can make a meaningful difference,” he says.

“Our clients find Hack4Good an effective way to encourage internal networking, improve communication across teams and engage employees in direct community development.”

The fast-paced hackathons run for about four hours in person, online or hybrid, matching between 25 and 200 volunteers with up to four community groups. The volunteers are split into multi-disciplinary teams of four to six people, to brainstorm ideas, develop solutions and present them to the organisation for its feedback and the announcement of the “winner”. The pricing starts at $6000 for a virtual hack with 30 participants.

Lee, who launched Communiteer in late 2019, says interest in Hack4Good and his enterprise’s other volunteering activities has accelerated since the end of the pandemic, as employers try to reconnect their teams and encourage in-office attendance.

But he’s aiming to do more if he can find the right organisations to partner with. “Corporate volunteering presents an opportunity to effectively align ESG [environment, social and governance] with people, culture and employee management strategies to create a unified organisation.”

Gary Gorrow

Gary Gorrow

Meditation, mindfulness and high-performance coach / Co-founder, Soma Retreat

When Google engaged Gary Gorrow to run a meditation program, the metrics-obsessed tech giant did extensive pre- and post-testing on the participants. A month later, the workplace results were impressive: stress was down by 94 per cent, creativity increased by 84 per cent and employees’ ability to navigate pressure jumped by 91 per cent.

“Corporate environments are often stressful, demanding and overwhelming,” says Gorrow, whose other clients include Apple, GWS Giants, CBA and Coca-Cola, as well as celebrities such as Cate Blanchett, Hamish Blake and Richard Roxburgh. “Most people consistently reside in a fight or flight state – it becomes our default mode. This has a corrosive effect on performance and health, both physical and mental.”

After 20 years as a personal development coach, Gorrow says he’s still surprised by people who focus on physical health by exercising and eating healthily but do nothing specifically for their mind’s wellbeing. “We bombard it with information, pressure and demands then the way most people tend to harmonise their mind is with alcohol and Netflix. I like to help people understand that meditation is for the mind what exercise is for the body.”

Gorrow started meditating as a stressed 21-year-old, overwhelmed by film and television work, running his own business and facing some personal challenges. “I was having difficulty navigating it all – I had no tools and absolutely no understanding of how to regulate my nervous system, mind and emotions. I thought, ‘If I’m in such terrible shape now, what will I be like in 10 years?’”

He now practises and teaches Vedic meditation, which he describes as an ancient and effortless form of meditation, derived from the same source as transcendental meditation, which uses a mantra to bring the mind and body into a deep meditative state for 20 minutes a day. “Vedic meditation is an incredibly practical and profoundly effective technique that absolutely anyone can learn quickly – and master.”

For companies, Gorrow says the catalyst for seeking his services (which include breath work and high-performance coaching, as well as meditation) is always the same: “The triumvirate of reducing stress, increasing productivity and enhancing workplace culture.”

He teaches meditation only in person, mainly in Byron Bay, in northern NSW, where organisations can choose to enrol their team in an existing group retreat ($1200 per person) or create its own experience at his deluxe 10-bedroom Soma Retreat, complete with a zen garden, bathhouse and freestanding yoga dome that featured in the Nine Perfect Strangers TV series. A corporate client recently sent its key staff to Soma for a program on mindset, resilience, visionary thinking, enhanced communication skills and nervous system regulation.

“COVID shone a massive light on mental health and highlighted how psychologically vulnerable we all are,” says Garrow, adding that the mind is our most important yet most under-utilised asset. “Stress is a slow poison but meditation is undoubtedly one of the most effective antidotes.”

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SEE ALSO: Kate Quirke on Why Leading with Empathy Is Non-negotiable

Image credit: Dallas Olsen, Kane Skennar

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