Putting in team work

Don’t sleep on team building. There’s an activity out there to bring every workplace team closer together.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Team building might be one of the most important investments your company or organization ever makes. Just in case that statement drew a spate of eye rolls across Greater Madison, let’s start with a story.

The 1985 Chicago Bears were one of the greatest professional football teams ever assembled. Filled to the brim with larger-than-life personalities, the ’85 Bears cruised to a 15–1 regular season record before steamrolling their playoff opponents and dismantling the New England Patriots 46–10 in Super Bowl XX.

Those ’85 Bears did not, however, kick off a football dynasty in Chicago in the 1980s, in large part because Head Coach Mike Ditka and Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan famously hated each other. They feuded on the practice fields, on the sidelines, and even in locker rooms. So while they were able to catch lightning in a bottle during that 1985 season, Ryan left the team following the Super Bowl in search of his own success and the rest is history for the Bears as a franchise. In the ensuing 32 seasons, the Bears are 253–258 during the regular season, with a 6–10 playoff mark, and one Super Bowl appearance (a loss, not surprisingly).

It’s a cautionary tale — teammates and leaders don’t necessarily have to like each other to be successful (although it helps), but they do need to be able to work together. Team-building activities are designed to help colleagues do just that by enabling them to find common ground as they collaborate to solve problems or overcome some other obstacle.

Team building also has come a long way from the days of trust falls and awkward weekend retreats. Now there are escape rooms, corporate laser tag games, paintball, and volunteering opportunities, among a host of other options.

IB recently spoke with three local organizations about some very different team-building activities that all produced strikingly similar results — co-workers and colleagues felt closer to one another, and it shows in their work.

Office Olympians

Forget what the actuarial tables might say about the sensibility of office chair racing. At Hausmann-Johnson Insurance, employees are at their best when they’re able to enjoy themselves.

Whether it’s volunteering at the Bayview Playground or a competitive paper football matchup as part of its Office Olympics, team building is a regular occurrence at Hausmann-Johnson Insurance.

Philip J. Hausmann founded the privately held, independent insurance agency in 1946 which today has 80 employees. Demographically, Hausmann-Johnson is about 35% millennials, 25% Gen Xers, and 40% baby boomers, notes Marketing Coordinator Rachel DeGrand. Employees all work on site though there is some flexibility to telecommute as appropriate.

As far as she knows, Hausmann-Johnson has been holding team-building events and activities for all 71 years the company has been in business, says DeGrand. “They’ve definitely evolved over the years, but the HJI photo album is filled with old pictures of picnics, holiday parties, and more. Even as the company has grown, the family atmosphere has not disappeared.”

Hausmann-Johnson uses its team-building time so employees can get to know each other better. “It’s just easier to work with someone after you’ve spent time together on a team in a ridiculous costume while racing on a chair through the office,” notes DeGrand. “And an executive is a lot less intimidating to a new associate after they’ve spent an afternoon side by side pulling weeds in a community garden. Plus, it’s great stress relief — there needs to be time for work and time for fun.”

Hausmann-Johnson holds company-wide “Monday Morning Wake-Up Call” meetings every other Monday morning, year round. It’s a chance to share not only business updates, but also for associates to share personal updates, DeGrand explains. These might include finishing a half-marathon, volunteering with a community organization, pictures of a big vacation, or other important life events.

Hausmann-Johnson has an active event committee made up of staff members who plan monthly, if not more frequent events for the entire company. When teams are involved in the events, there’s a mix of associates and executives across all departments and generations, notes DeGrand.

According to DeGrand, Some of Hausmann-Johnson’s most popular in-house events include:

  • HJI Office Olympics. Competitions include an office chair race, paper football, rubber band shoot-out, skee pong, and more. This also includes a team costume contest and a parade of nations that ends up at a happy hour spot.
  • A mini golf tournament where the course winds through the entire office. This also includes a team costume contest. (“Yes, we love costumes here,” DeGrand exclaims.)

“Our diversity is reflected in our ages, industries, ethnic backgrounds, education, family, and experiences. However, all of us are able to find common ground and similarities as a result of our participation in team-building activities.” — Shana R. Lewis, attorney, Strang Patteson Renning Lewis & Lacy, and recording secretary for TEMPO

“We also use our robust community involvement program as a way of team building,” explains DeGrand. “Owners and executives work side by side with associates, rolling up their sleeves at the United Way’s Seasons of Caring projects, hosting a tailgate fundraiser for the local children’s hospital in our parking lot, putting up rodeo panels for the Midwest Horse Fair, and building a new playground for the children of the Bayview neighborhood.

“Our upcoming office Winter Olympics has 53 people signed up — that’s two-thirds of our workforce,” DeGrand says excitedly. “Executives and leaders support, model, and encourage participation in our company events.”

That’s not to say every event goes off without a hitch.

“I wouldn’t say any of our activities have bombed, but sometimes we bite off (almost) more than we can chew,” DeGrand admits. “It takes a lot of planning and involvement to make the big events successful and that can sometimes fall on the shoulders of a few people.”

Still, DeGrand says Hausmann-Johnson’s staff has learned through its activities that they really love working together. “Not only do we work well together to serve our clients, but also during the fun, team-building events.

“We’ve also learned that we’re really, really competitive, but we love to cheer each other on,” continues DeGrand. “That healthy competition can translate into striving to be the best at all we do, not just during one of our fun events.”



Getting theatric

For the 13 board members and executive director of TEMPO Madison, an invitation-only, peer-to-peer organization that connects local women leaders with diverse backgrounds, the need for team building is less about getting along with office colleagues and more about getting to know each other.

The board members of TEMPO Madison chose a workshop using theater-based games from Theatre LILA to get better acquainted and build cohesion among the group, which comes from diverse backgrounds.

TEMPO Madison membership is comprised of approximately 290 women in executive and leadership positions throughout Greater Madison, notes Shana R. Lewis, an attorney with Strang Patteson Renning Lewis & Lacy and recording secretary for TEMPO.

Members are invited to monthly luncheons with featured speakers intended to stimulate conversation and expand horizons. Networking events encourage TEMPO Madison members to connect with each other socially and maintain perspective on life outside of the office, and informal groups allow members to pursue connections with women who share interests, some involving book clubs, discussion groups, and weekend breakfasts.

Of course, TEMPO’s board members all come from diverse backgrounds and need opportunities to become better acquainted, as well. As a result, the group decided to participate in its first team-building activity in September 2017. “It won’t be our last, based on the response,” remarks Lewis.

The TEMPO board enrolled in a story project workshop through Theatre LILA, a Madison-based theater company that also hosts leadership and community building workshops tailor made for a diverse group of participants ranging from high school students to adult professionals.

According to Theatre LILA’s website, the workshop begins by engaging participants in theater-based games and exercises in order to enhance and deepen leadership skills, learn how to better collaborate and work as a team, and ignite creativity in new ways while working outside of one’s comfort zone. Activities are very physical and allow participants space to find their innate “sense of play” using their “360-degree self” — head, heart, and body.

In the second half of the workshop, each participant is given tools and space to work with their peers to collaborate and create a short theater piece, which they then perform for the group. Participants are then taken through highly structured storytelling exercises to give them the confidence and framework to share their story with the group at the culmination of the day.

The goals of the workshop are fairly straightforward:

  • Increase awareness and skills in being present, authentic, and connected with others.
  • Find a sense of “play” in any situation and unlock creativity for collaboration.
  • Share and present an authentic story.
  • Build a stronger sense of community within your cohort or organization.

Prior to attending the workshop, members from TEMPO’s board were asked by Theatre LILA Artistic Director Jessica Lanius to “think about a moment or story from your life when something happened that clearly changed you — a defining moment, an ‘Aha!’ moment, a shift in perspective, etc. It should be profound to you, a life-changing event in a big or small way. It might be inspiring, funny, devastating, beautiful, triumphant, heart breaking, embarrassing, joyful, or a combination of those things. 

“Really take the time to consider what will be meaningful for your team and what is feasible to roll out this week, this month, and this year. I suggest joining a group like Culture Community, a Madison-based group of professionals focused on creating amazing cultures at their companies. The meet-ups give people the chance to share wins (or failures) in cultural efforts.” — Ellie Sherven, director of marketing, Information Technology Professionals

“You will need to be willing to share this story with a partner, and through various exercises you will eventually share it on stage for the whole group, so be thoughtful about what memory you choose,” Lanius says.

“Throughout the afternoon, we participated in a variety of activities,” Lewis recalls. “For example, we untangled ourselves from a human knot and we created a short interpretive dance, activities that helped us learn about cooperation and collaboration. We also participated in a verbal icebreaker and shared a personal story complete with sound effects and actions. Both of these activities helped us learn more about each other and helped us communicate better.”

Lewis says the exercise was successful because everyone from TEMPO’s board who attended was open and willing to participate. “We thoroughly enjoyed untangling ourselves from the human knot because it seemed impossible at first and we felt a great sense of accomplishment when we succeeded. The personal stories helped us really get to know each other in a way that participating in board meetings and attending luncheons did not.

“We learned that the TEMPO Madison Board of Directors is a diverse group of women who are a lot alike,” adds Lewis.



Long-distance legwork

The team at Information Technology Professionals is close, just not always in close proximity.

Competition brings co-workers from Information Technology Professionals closer. The company regularly fields a team in REACH-A-Child’s annual “Kickin’ It for Kids” Charity Kickball Tournament.

The managed IT service provider has offices in Madison, Milwaukee, and Appleton and helps customers with their IT needs, whether it’s purchasing new hardware and software or serving as their go-to resource for technology strategy and service. Being that ITP’s offices are spread across the state, and most of its employees work off site in clients’ offices, it can be a challenge to form, manage, and maintain a unified culture, says Ellie Sherven, director of marketing. “Because 50% of our team are engineers and sales staff, it means they work remote almost 80% of the time!”

To stay connected, ITP hosts quarterly town hall meetings — usually just 30 minutes — to give the entire team an update direct from Owner and CEO Paul Hager.

“Paul shares insight into the recent big wins, client satisfaction scores, and our growth goals,” explains Sherven. “Twice a year we launch growth campaigns, each wrapped around a theme like James Bond or Super Mario Bros. The campaigns have individual and team goals, with incentives and rewards for participating. At the conclusion of our last two campaigns, we gave away a two-day getaway to a surprise location through Pack Up + Go, a really cool surprise travel agency, as well as a $1,000 cash prize.”

“It has to start from the top. If your leadership team isn’t on board, it’s going to be harder to get buy-in from everyone else. Also, offer a variety of activities. Not everyone is going to be excited about everything offered, and that’s okay. Ask for input from employees on what activities they’d like to try. Some of our best ideas have come from asking employees for suggestions. If they have some investment in the activity, they may be more prone to participating and making it successful.” — Rachel DeGrand, marketing coordinator, Hausmann-Johnson Insurance

ITP has been doing these town halls and growth campaigns for two years, notes Sherven. “Our team has grown exponentially during this time — by almost 100% — and these touch points are a great way to stay connected across our three locations, and transparent about company and team performance.”

Aside from its quarterly meetings, ITP is also active in REACH-A-Child’s annual “Kickin’ It for Kids” Charity Kickball Tournament. REACH-A-Child is an area nonprofit that helps first responders comfort and distract children in traumatic situations with children’s books. Proceeds from this event funds the REACH BAG program for Fitchburg first responders.

The double elimination tournament is for businesses in Madison and it’s no joke, says Sherven. “The competition is smokin’! Our participation and level of competition has increased all three years that we’ve played. We do some kicking and fielding practice in the week leading up to the tournament, which is really just an excuse to get out of the office on a beautiful day and run around in the grass at Olin Park. Last year, we took 2nd to Wisconsin Distributors, but we’re aiming for the trophy in 2018!”

According to Sherven, the employees at ITP are always excited about the announcement of a new growth campaign theme — it means new office décor and a few cool giveaways. But kickball takes things in an entirely different direction. “Getting outside the office creates a more casual environment for team building, and a focus on having fun helps people connect more deeply.”

ITP’s sales team also participates in two sales retreats each year. The first is in the winter, and it’s a two-day, off-site meeting for the sales team to get educated about new offerings and share lessons learned from the previous year, as well as share individual goals for the forthcoming year. “The retreat is a chance for people to get out of their office and share ideas with their peers,” says Sherven. “We share a nice meal and participate in a fun non-work activity like an escape room, go-carts, or bowling.”

Being thoughtful and mindful in creating a work culture is absolutely worth it, notes Sherven. “Creating things that employees are energized and excited about builds the atmosphere of a great work environment. Investments in work culture, whether it’s a two-day surprise getaway or an hour playing kickball at Olin Park, pay great dividends in employee satisfaction and productivity.

“Creating thoughtful culture at ITP has come with its own set of challenges given our geography and work that is remote in nature,” Sherven continues. “I’m still working to find more ways to recognize and show appreciation in meaningful ways, all in an effort to create an amazing place to work. It’s all about creating stickiness — employee retention — and work satisfaction. We’re a company of over 50 now, spread far and wide, but it still feels like a tight-knit group. Cultural activities, both inside and outside of office hours, keep us connected both to the company and to each other.”

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