Now’s the time to start rebuilding your teams

"If the purpose of an event is to bring everyone together, why would you have people sitting theatre style for 4 hours?"

We’re all on our way back to our workplaces and the chances are that you’ve been asked to take a special look at team building activities and retreats for your executives. Bringing everyone back is going to be a lot more complicated than that shift to remote working you helped deliver eight months ago. Teams & morale will need to be rebuilt and business culture explained to new people.

And its not just the teams either, our surveys to executive assistants indicate that over three quarters of you believe your bosses have experienced significant pressures because of the COVID-19 crisis.We talk with Kingsley Seale and Oliver Sheer, who are long-time friends and owners of team building business BeChallenged, about their introduction to team building and how you can get the best from your team building budget

Do you remember Monty Python’s Life of Brian? The film is a parody of the story of Jesus Christ with Brian, played by Graham Chapman, as the main character. There’s a part in the film where early one morning Brian’s mother Mandy Cohen, played by Terry Jones, looks out of the window to see that her son has unwittingly amassed a following of hundreds of people. She points at the crowd of followers and snarls, “Now look here, he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy. The naughty boy part of that statement resonates when speaking with Kingsley and Oliver, who are friends and owners of team building business Be Challenged.

Thousands of books have been written and countless YouTube videos made about employee engagement & team building. The subject has become a science to be studied, but at its heart the essential ingredient is “fun”. Oliver and Kingsley have managed to develop a successful team building business, without losing that twinkle of fun that you see in the eyes of naughty children doing something that they shouldn’t.

“I was the year above Ogs (Oliver) and we were both in the same sporting house. We probably weren’t best mates at school, but we played a lot of sport together,” says Kingsley.“After we left school, we found ourselves working in the same pub, which is where our relationship flourished. We socialised and shared a lot of time there and we also found ourselves doing the same things. We both worked at the local bottle shop and played in the same rugby team, where one of us was the club captain and the other was the vice-captain. It wasn’t about the best player, it was about the culture of the club and we found out early on we were both on the same wavelength as far as that went, and many other issues. For example, if you’re working in a pub on a busy Friday night and you’ve got the wrong attitude, its actually pretty terrible for you and everyone around you. So, when we were working together, we tended to make it fun in some shape or form. In fact, anything we were doing we would generally try to make it fun.”

Oliver sums up their relationship and attitude to work.“I suppose we probably didn’t see it as clearly then as we do now, but we gravitated to each other because both myself and Kingo (Kingsley) liked to bring people together to have fun. We’d turn everything into a game.”

Valuable lessons

The early days at work and having fun together highlighted some of the skills and principles they later employed to build their business. Oliver provides a neat example. “We wanted to put on a boat cruise for the boys in the rugby team and of course, invite as many girls as possible. Back then everyone was a student and not flush with cash, so we found the cheapest boat that could go on Sydney harbour.Kingsley interjects, “The boat needed to float,” he laughs.“We needed a lot of booze, a little bit of food and if the girls didn’t have to pay to come, we’d get more girls.”“We put together some good brochures, got the boys to hand them out and made the most of what we had,” explains Oliver.

Kingsley concludes, “We knew what was important.Having a schmick boat? No one cares, not at that age.”

Going into business

“I think going to university was the easy way out for me,” says Oliver. “I’ll just go a get a degree. Older wiser heads said just get the piece of paper, so that’s what I did. Kingsley was working with a gentleman who ran a company called Be Live, which was our introduction into team building. They needed more facilitators and Kingo came to rugby and said, ‘come along’. And it opened my eyes to this world. I couldn’t believe we were getting paid to bring people together, engage them and have some fun.”

Kingsley tells his story: “I went to university for a year and a half and failed the same subject three times. It was at that point I realised that I was 100% never going to be that person who put on a suit every day, that just wasn’t me. I did try it at one stage. In my third week in an office job, I found myself sitting in a toilet playing on my phone for half an hour because I hated it so much.When we first started working in the industry with BeLive, we were having a heap of fun and getting paid. But after a while we both went off and did our own thing.

“Ogs worked for events companies selling and by pure fluke I got a rugby contract to play in Italy for 9 months. When I came back after my contract finished, I was a bit lost and my first kid was about to be born. Ogs wasn’t entirely enjoying what he was doing, and one day we found ourselves together having a barbecue on his deck. We were reminiscing about working at Be Live and we thought, ‘Well why don’t we buy it?’ And six months after that barbecue that’s when we bought it from the previous owner. We were 26.We put budgets together and both had some savings, got a loan form the bank and then we knew what we could spend. We wanted to make sure that we had someone who had experience, so we got a bit of assistance from Ogs’s Dad who helped us set up the deal. And away we went.”

Owning a business and keeping it fun

Both Oliver and Kingsley were 26 years old with young families when they invested their savings and took on bank loans to buy the business. Despite the pressure, they were determined to keep it fun.“If we were going to do this, it still had to be fun,” says Kingsley. “Look, even if you’re working in a pub cleaning up spew on a Friday night, there needs to be some fun.”

“Our relationship has evolved, that’s for sure,” says Oliver as he expands on Kingsley’s succinct explanation.“But even so, earlier today we had a three-hour meeting with our business coach, and you know, we were still making the same jokes. We can’t sit there for 3.5 hours without having a laugh. That hasn’t changed.There have been some super-stressful times, but we’ve worked through them together and to be honest it’s the strength of our relationship that got us through those times. Sometimes one of us is stressed but the other one isn’t and that’s where the partnership works really well. I was recently sitting in my office not having the greatest day and I asked Kingo if he could pop in for a quick chat about something. He had a body board that he’d bought for his son at Christmas, so he said, ‘yes hold on’, and then rode in on the body board. We had our chat, which cheered me up and then he said, ‘Right I’ve got to catch this wave, I’m out of here’. That playfulness hasn’t changed one bit.

“We get a lot of feedback from our clients and business coach about it, and it’s one of the reasons why they love working with us. We encourage our teams to be playful. That’s what we value. We’ve had people working for us in the past who didn’t see that value, and that’s totally fine, but for us it’s so important to keep that going. That doesn’t mean we don’t work hard though. I think it’s really hard to put a label on what that special sauce is. In the last few years, we’ve talked about it as ‘the buzz’. We’ve got our own internal definition about what that is and what it encompasses, and we give that definition of fun to as many people as possible. So, first and foremost, it has to start with us. We need to be the best buzzing team.”

The science of team building

There’s a big difference between having fun and using that as a tool to get better outcomes for businesses. People work better when they’re happy, but people are different and achieving that ideal isn’t as simple as it sounds. “When we first started working in this space, we just assumed everyone knew how to work in a team and understood the value of that,” says Kingsley. “But the first thing we saw was that not everyone does. That’s when we realised that we understood about teams better than many other people, even though they may be older than us and with more life experience. Once we started running the company, we began to use specific programmes to bring out specific outcomes. We started to go on a journey with some of our clients.

“They could see that by building a certain product into a yearly or half-yearly plan, it could help them achieve the outcome they wanted, much faster than just having their MD simply deliver a PowerPoint to the workforce. So, for example, if the big thing for a company is to have collaboration, then us coming in and having an activity that’s fun, engaging and based around collaboration, it gives the senior management team a much better chance of getting them where they want to be, because people will start to see the value of what they’re talking about.”

Oliver believes that timing also played a big part in their success. “We all now had these little devices in our hands, our attention spans were shorter, and we were getting distracted quicker. A PowerPoint to explain the importance of collaboration wasn’t working anymore and we noticed that the need for engagement had never been greater. It was necessary to initially engage people in an activity and wrap all that learning up inside.”

Measuring success of team building activities

All this fun at work is great, but how does an employer know they’re getting a bang for their buck? “There are a number of different ways to measure that,” says Oliver. “Most employers use an engagement survey, and they will run these quarterly, half-yearly or annually. The surveys give quantitative feedback on things like interaction with managers. One question for example, may ask how engaged an employee feels with their organisation, and the survey results might suggest an engagement rate of say 66%. But then that rating improves after doing say six, or twelve months of different initiatives (and not necessarily all with us). And sometimes we’ll assist clients with building their own internal employee engagement surveys.” At the most fundamental level, engagement activities work. “There are clear statistics to prove it,” says Oliver. “If people walk out of a keynote speech, they will retain about 10 to 15% of the content, whereas if they are part of an experiential activity, where it’s tactile or hands-on, their retention rate increases to 60 to 75%.

That’s a whopping 700% increase in the return on investment of an events budget. Oliver is careful not to over-egg what BeChallenged can achieve for a business. “We can’t solve the world’s problems. We are a tool for business and people. We are part of an integrated culture plan, and if the managers don’t reinforce the message it’s not going to happen for the business. And you can see the businesses that are doing it well are really thriving. And ‘doing it well’ doesn’t mean spending lots of money. It’s about taking the time to understand the culture of your business & your people, and then pairing that with your business goals.”

Coming out of COVID

For the best part of 2020 many businesses have relied on JobKeeper payments to keep their employees, mostly on reduced hours and most businesses have been forced to run with a remote workforce. Kingsley outlines the main challenges for businesses as they return their teams to the workplace, possibly employing smaller workforces and having more of their people working from home.

“First of all, how are businesses going to maintain culture now more of the workforce is working remotely? And how do managers ensure their teams are really engaged with the organisation and understand how it goes about its business? Usually, when a new person comes to work, they learn how things operate & people behave first-hand. But that’s not the case anymore because people aren’t in the office with everyone so often. Secondly, life brings up challenges and this year has certainly affected everyone. Now is an important time where executives need to have sat down and reviewed their connection plan with employees (all organisations should have one) and made the adjustments required to continue with it. That process should not have changed, but the way they do things will be different. Kingsley provides some examples.

“An executive assistant may know that their executives catch up say, three times a year. Those meetings and retreats still need to happen because those outcomes still need to be achieved. It doesn’t matter how the meeting takes place, hybrid [a mixture of virtual and in person] or face-to-face—it still needs to happen. More than ever before. If building culture and networking is going to be an objective for the year, then face-to-face is the best way to do that. But if your executive’s objective is to give everyone an update, there’s no need for mingling. So, send the message and do it in a different way, do it virtual, save the cash and then when you do need to meet up face-to-face you can ensure that whatever you’re doing is of high value. Make good use of that face-to-face time, because you’re not going to do it as much as you used to.”

The job of bringing your colleagues back to the workplace and rebuilding morale is by no means a quick fix and Olive roffers some grounded advice. “First and foremost, keep it simple. Both executives and employees may be feeling overwhelmed now and perhaps are trying to solve all the world’s problems when they can’t, because no one can. So, have a focus, keep it simple and if your initial objective is to get everyone engaged with the business again, and connected with each other, then do that first. Secondly, bringing everyone back and getting back on track is going to take time. Developing culture in a large organisation can take up to 7 years. So, make sure you’ve got realistic expectations on driving that culture back. And you must be consistent.”

“If your organisation doesn’t have a plan for building culture, it needs one now,” says Kingsley. “People were engaged because they were in the office every day, but now they’re not even with each other, let alone in the office. They could be battling with their partner and their three kids for space on the dining room table just to get work done, and that’s challenging. We need to recognise that this is the workplace we are currently living in and there will be very few businesses that go back to exactly how they were. Connecting people and creating a good culture increases productivity. And once you recognise that, you work out how to engage.

“That doesn’t mean doing more it just means being smarter about it. For example, if the purpose of an event is to bring everyone together and network, why would you have people sitting theatre style for 4 hours, watching a presentation? If you want to build back relationships, then get people into situations where they can do that. Before COVID-19, businesses were already looking at their connection pieces and saying, ‘we need to make these more engaging’. COVID-19 has just accelerated that trend.”

Oliver gets to the heart of the matter. “Because we’ve been in crisis for 5 months engagement has dropped off. It’s happened because many businesses have been struggling just to survive. But we’re in the next phase now and the organisations we are speaking with are saying, ‘This is how things are going to be done now. Now is the time to look at our people’.”