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A Neuroscience-Backed Approach to Team Building
Darryn King
Darryn King
Freelance Writer
min read

Your Zoom happy hour is making everyone miserable...

When it comes to lazily replicating pre-pandemic work traditions, the Zoom happy hour might be the laziest.

And yet, after nearly two years, workers are still being forced to log on to their videoconferencing software, cram into that grid, and engage in unstructured, all-too-often cringe-tastic socialization.

To make matters worse, so many of these so-called happy hours are implicitly mandatory. "If you’re not there," as workplace agony aunt Alison Green advised on Slate recently, "you’ll be seen as insufficiently invested / you’ll use up political capital / you might be on the top of layoff lists down the road because we don’t think you care about being part of the team."

"In a remote world, team building has been forever changed," said Lee Rubin, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Confetti, a booking engine for corporate events. "But employees still want and need experiences that are fun and catered to them, and to get to know each other more beyond their typical work lives. Beyond simply hanging out on Zoom."

The good news? For remote teams, there are more and more effective alternatives to Zoom happy hour than ever.

... but team building is critical, especially for remote teams.

As a producer of corporate team-building and team-bonding events, Shuai Chen has helped professionals play for more than a decade. A competitor at the 2017 and 2019 World Escape Room Championships — who also studied neuroscience at MIT and Stanford — she has personally coordinated and hosted hundreds of experiences with the aim of connecting colleagues outside of a work context.

Years before the pandemic, Chen tasked herself with finding the solution to a very particular and perplexing sort of puzzle, and now a very familiar modern problem: How can colleagues effectively bond together when everyone's in different parts of the world?

With everyone working remotely, effective team-building, though undoubtedly trickier to orchestrate, is more vital than ever.

"When you can't be in the same place as someone, sometimes it's easy to forget that there's a human on the other end of an email exchange," said Chen. "You can't build psychological safety with Slack messages and emails."

The result of Chen's deliberations was Patchwork Adventures, which now offers a wide range of virtual, Zoom-based team-building experiences for distributed teams, including a cocktail party murder mystery, an interactive theater show, and a virtual escape room called "Escape the Zoom." The activities are not confined to the screen, either, with players receiving props, puzzles, clues and other paraphernalia in the mail in time for the experience.

In 2018 and 2019 combined, Patchwork Adventures had three clients. Last year, it was 200. At the time of writing, Patchwork Adventures is on track to work with around 400 clients in 2021, and is just one of an ever-growing roster of companies catering to the huge demand of organized team-building experiences in our remote work era.

Chen is the first to admit that team-building is better, and more easily done, IRL than online. "It's always going to be better when you can feel someone's energy in the room." But a distributed team is no excuse to neglect team-building completely. "Virtual team building is the best option we have right now. And it does work."

The team that plays together works better together.

Before the pandemic, organized team-building and team-bonding activities were a time-honored (though sometimes eye roll-inducing) tradition of modern work. From axe-throwing and escape rooms to running around with paper boxes tied to your feet, they were a chance for colleagues to let off steam and simply enjoy something together that didn't involve spreadsheets and slideshows. "Right now, people are so burned out," said Chen. "Anything that takes you out of work mode is really valuable."

But the most useful organized team-building activities, while feeling purely recreational, are also a chance to hone skills and attributes directly analogous to the workplace. Organized team-building fosters communication and collaboration, inspires mutual trust, stimulates creativity and learning, creates a sense of belonging, and generates positive energy.

"Structured, focused team building activities — planned in advance, curated around people's interests, and planned and executed by professionals — inspire dynamic workplaces," said Rubin. "They encourage a healthier culture and create happier teams."

Chen agrees: "It's through sharing goals, norms and experiences that you create the kind of community that lets a team go from mediocre to amazing."

Conscientious recruitment in the first place helps, of course. "Culture-first companies start with hiring people with more emotional intelligence," said Chen, who has kept an eye on how different teams conduct themselves in team-building activities over the years. "We were hosting onboarding games for a tech company known for its great culture, and even in their first week of work, we could tell that these people are genuinely nice people who approach problems in a collaborative way," she said. "Each one of them cared about the experience of everyone else on their teams." If a team is enthused and engaged in team-building, it's probably a good indication they'll feel the same way about their work.

Do a practice run for a work crisis.

In a good team-building activity, players rely on each other's individual strengths, said Chen. "You might have a math-based logical puzzle and then a creativity-based puzzle. Everyone gets to shine in their own way."

Organized team-building isn't supposed to be as easy as a walk in the park, though. It's more satisfying, and instructive in the longterm, for a team to struggle through something difficult together.

As Play on Purpose founder and experience designer Jenny Sauer-Klein explains, the safe space of play is the perfect venue to work on problem-solving skills.

"We are biologically built to learn through play," she said. "When we are in a state of play, we are literally building new neural pathways, establishing innovative ways of thinking and being."

That tricky team-building escape room experience may turn out to be useful mental preparation for a real-life work crisis. "The dynamic a team creates through play — where it's O.K. to make mistakes — can carry over into work when the going gets tough."

"Team building activities are supposed to try and test the group, so that when they coalesce as a team and win, it's a big deal," said Chen.

"It's the 'shaky bridge' principle in neuroscience, where two people on a shaky bridge feel more connected because they've been through a scary experience that emulates love: palms sweating, heart fluttering, feeling like you're not in control. The same physiological responses happen when a team goes through adversity. Ultimately it's a bonding experience."

Lose the work armor to build humanity.

"When a dog rolls and reveals its belly, its soft underside, that's a real sign of safety, surrender and openness," Sauer-Klein has said. "That's what play is, on a human level."

When players enter the Zoom room for a Patchwork Adventures event, for example, they're immediately encouraged to switch off work mode and get silly, acquiring goofy aliases like "Thermonuclear Dinosaur" or "Hangry Unicorn." Often, dress-ups are involved.

Chen relished the challenge of adapting ordinary videoconferencing software, in all its two-dimensional impersonality, into a medium for playful connection. She also employs in-game actor-facilitators to bring infectious energy and keep things running on track. "There's so much joy in letting down your work armor, in not feeling all the inhibitions and exhaustion of being an adult," said Chen.

"It's all about creating something that feels like a non-work environment, a safe space for people to play and let their guard down — and building humanity."

"When you're laughing together and having a fun, shared experience," added Chen, "you're awash in pleasure neurotransmitters and bonding chemicals: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin."

A team that feels bonded together in this way — and whose members recognize one another's individuality — will be able to communicate and collaborate more effectively, and be more focused on working together in pursuit of a common goal.

"When you're playing or being silly together, you see more of each other than you normally would. You realize that Bob from Accounting isn't just an obstacle once you've see him making silly dinosaur poses."

Ultimately, team-building is a reliable generator of positive energy in the workplace — arguably an even more important factor for a distributed team's remote-first workplace. "When people are happier at work, they want to do their best," said Chen. "They don't want to let their team down."

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