From Trust Falls to Escape Rooms: The Evolution of Corporate Team Building


Since their humble beginnings around 20-years ago, corporate team building has evolved into a completely different beast. Years ago, there was no better method of gaining disdain from all your employees other than by encouraging them to take part in a team building exercise, using such methods as childish trust falls, silly office games and rope courses. Thank God things have moved on for the better!

Somewhere along the road to today's corporate team building events, we had many companies offering team building which brought all co-workers together and into taking part in some pretty drastic and hair-raising activities. The idea that climbing a cliff or kayaking down a white water course was somehow going to be constructive in building a team out of the participants really missed the point. Many of these businesses were just taking the corporate dollar that was being thrown at the latest buzz words and cool office trends. At the end of the day, if you went back and revisited their working environment after one of these “team building” events, you would find absolutely no difference between the way the employees interact before or after. 

"It's not clear yet what are the benefits of it, other than people love it because it's something outside of work," said Eduardo Salas, an organizational psychology professor at Rice University in Houston. "But when they go back, the same conditions are there, so the long-term effects of team building are unknown."

He has a point. Unless there are tools in place which can measure in some ways the effectiveness of a team building exercise, then it really is either money thrown away or a great time for the participants without any expectation. Another factor in this equation is the fact that management is always slow to change and embrace any new conditions. An example would be a recent escape room game that took place in Chicago and was run for 15 employees from United Airlines. All the managers got stuck on the clues and puzzles and it took a lowly intern to take on the leadership role and lead everyone to freedom. No one is saying whether this brought about any constructive changes within the workplace, but you can guarantee that all the managers were mighty pissed at being shown up by an intern.

The essential ideas behind team building haven't changed for the last two decades. These exercises are meant to encompass such factors as goodwill, cooperation, communication, and increased productivity. But most of the time they merely acted as fodder for in office satire and criticism. Of all the first exercises, many older employees still remember the “trust fall.”. Just as seen in Junior school playgrounds up and down the country, the idea is that you close your eyes and fall backwards. And your colleagues will catch you. Or not! As far as team building goes, this was almost as pointless as it gets."It really didn't improve their performance," said Wendy Bedwell, an assistant professor of organizational psychology at the University of South Florida.

Luckily we've moved on from such silly childisness. More recently, team building events have evolved into much more engaging and creative activities. As Bedwell points out, this means amping up both the fun quotient along with all the potential benefits it brings to the office workplace. These modern activities can include such things as building bicycles for charity, escape room games, competing in survivor-inspired challenges, and even solving simulated crime scenes. 

Another popular corporate team building activity is improv training. You might be surprised how many small theatre companies and comedy groups are filling this trendy and inspired form of team building. "We've built a pretty significant business," Kelly Leonard, executive director of insights and applied improvisation at Second City Works, where a half-day team building workshop starts at about $12,000.

Probably the most successful go-to team building activity that corporations have flocked to in the last few years, is the whole escape room game genre. Typically between 6 and 8 employees are locked together in a room. After hearing a narrative story which illustrates the problems ahead and the roles they are playing, they must try and find the clues and solve puzzles in order to escape within the allotted time, which is normally 60 minutes.

It's not surprising that the escape rooms are winning the corporate team building competition, when compared with other team building events. After all, escape room games are both physical and intellectual. Not only are they great fun, as the teams race to complete the course before the time is fully depleted, but also, as far as business is concerned, it really does provide real measurable team building benefits.

"Anything that really requires people to work together, think critically and solve a problem is going to have more of a benefit than just standing in a forest and falling backwards and having everyone catch you," Bedwell said.

Today most escape room games follow the same format. You'll find them in the dankest and darkest places of the city simply because rent is cheaper. They'll be a series of different rooms and all of them will have a theme. For instance, “infection”, “prison”, “murder”, “mob” and so on. Participants will pay between $100 to $200 for a single hour of escape room gaming. 

There will be any number of hidden clues and puzzles, some hiding in plain sight, which the players need to solve in order to move forward to reaching their final goal. On one end of the escape room spectrum you’ll find a simple game in a room. At the other end, you can find numerous rooms that need to be solved along with other actors who can be playing the parts of anything from attacking cannibalistic zombies to the infected undead. It’s all designed to get the blood pumping.

Within the genre of escape room games, you'll also find some very different takes on the genre. For example, an increasingly popular game is one where the participants are blindfolded and can't see anything. They must use all the other senses to make their way out of the room within the allotted time. 

Thanks to kovid and social distancing, many escape rooms were forced to close. Those that are surviving have done so by introducing virtual escape room games whereby the players are sat at home using a video conferencing app like Zoom. Within the real brick-and-mortar escape room stands the game master, and he's wearing a camera. The players then direct him around the room looking for clues and puzzles. In effect, he becomes their eyes and ears. It does sound very clunky, but in reality works really well. In some ways, this has led to the increasing acceptance of the latest technology to be used in escape room games, which is the introduction of virtual reality. Team building sure has come a long way! 


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