If you’ve ever led or participated in a team building game, then you know that they can often cause eye rolls. It’s not that employees don’t want to have fun and become closer to their coworkers. It’s more likely that they’ve encountered team building games that have been uncomfortable, boring, or just plain corny.
You’ve probably experienced this yourself, which may leave you wondering why you’d even bother with team building games in the first place. Here's why: A staggering 68% of U.S. employees are disengaged at work, and just over half are looking for a new job. So, if your business resembles the rest of the workforce, that means more than two-thirds of your employees simply don't care enough to give their best effort. Does that sound like a recipe for success? Of course not. The data backs it up too, as a study by IBM’s Kenexa found that companies in the top quartile of employee engagement have double the net income as companies in the bottom quartile.
But Kenexa has also found that employees' feelings of connectedness and team camaraderie are some of the biggest drivers of increased engagement. When you look at it that way, those team building games don’t sound like such a bad idea, do they? By helping your team bond and work together more closely, you can actually increase your business’ bottom line. You just need to find the methods that work. In this post, we’re going to look at 15 team-building games that boost employee engagement and get your employees more invested.
But first, know the psychology of team building
Before we get into the games, let’s look at the process by which teams come together. Individuals don't just start working in sync from day one. They have to gradually form bonds, establish everyone's roles, and discover the right work processes through trial and error in order to consistently achieve their goals. Influential group dynamics expert Bruce Tuckman broke this psychological process down into four steps:
- Forming. This is when individuals first start working together. The best thing a manager can do at this point is to help everyone to get to know each other.
- Storming. As the name suggests, the storming stage can be rocky. Team members are searching for their individual roles, so there may be pushback and toe-stepping. As personality conflicts arise, a manager needs to help team members work together to resolve issues calmly.
- Norming. In the third stage of team building, the group starts to hit their stride and establish the roles and processes that get them positive results. Managers can strengthen social connections here through games that provide entertainment and emphasize communication.
- Performing. The performing stage is where every manager wants their team to be. At this point, employees have repeatable processes to get work done and everyone is comfortable with their roles.
While the team growth process isn't perfectly linear, Tuckman's stages give us a useful outline for how to think about your team's needs and goals at any given time. Below, we're going to show you 15 team building games, tell you which team development stage they best align with, and explain why they're effective.
Team building games for the forming stage
New team members or groups may be nervous, unsure of how they’ll fit into the team, and overwhelmed with new information. These games aim to ease those anxieties and help them absorb all they need to know about their new role.
1. Employee Handbook Scavenger Hunt
The purpose of this game is to make sure new team members read and absorb your employee handbook. That’s harder than you might think. Research shows that 30% of new employees, including 43% of millennials, admit to not reading most of the employee handbook at their current job. Employee Handbook Scavenger Hunt encourages new staff to engage with the handbook and learn the expectations of your workplace by making the process fun.
How does it work? Don’t worry, this scavenger hunt doesn’t require making a mess of your office. In fact, employees won’t even have to get up to play. First, divide new hires up into teams. Then, give each team an employee handbook and a list of questions. The teams then race to find the answers to each question in the handbook faster than the other team. The competition makes it more fun for employees to learn, and the group setting makes it easier for people to ask questions.
2. Photo Match
If you’ve ever struggled to remember someone’s name, then you can empathize with new employees. They face an influx of new coworkers to remember, and some feel guilty or awkward if they can’t put a name to every face. This game is meant to acknowledge that difficulty and help new hires brush up on their new employees’ names in a stress-free environment. All you need to do is print out pictures of their team members’ faces and write each of their names on separate pieces of paper. The new employees play by pinning each name next to the correct employee photo on a whiteboard, pinboard, or similar surface.
3. Story Match
Nearly everyone has played Two Truths and a Lie -- it’s a bit stale at this point. But this game puts a fun, new twist on it. To play, have new hires (or even the whole team!) write down two truths and a lie on separate slips of paper, and then place them in a hat. One at a time, participants take turns drawing a single statement, and then guess who the statement belongs to and whether or not it's true. This is a simple way to spice up an old game, and shy employees will feel less under the spotlight when someone else is reading their story. The forming stage is all about getting to know one another, and this game accomplishes just that.
Team building games for the storming stage
Teamwork isn’t all smooth sailing. It’s likely there will be at least some tension and frustration as a new team forms, but that’s alright. In fact, conflict can be beneficial for groups, helping members learn more about each other and come up with new ideas. These games capitalize on that phenomenon and help the team get better at navigating disagreements.
4. Hot Buttons
While other games work on conflict resolution, this one nips conflict in the bud. To play, ask each team member to write down a few of their "hot buttons," meaning the phrases and behaviors that trigger an angry response for them. For example, someone who doesn't like a "know-it-all" attitude may list something like a “condescending tone” as one of their hot buttons. Other common hot buttons include a raised voice, inattentive listening, or pushiness. The goal of this exercise is to show employees how to avoid conflict and keep interactions friendly with each of their teammates.
5. Talking in Circles
Some team building exercises have a way of mirroring work life perfectly. In this game, the team stands in a circle with each person holding onto a long, circular loop of string. Then, the leader asks the group to work together to create different shapes with their string loop, such as a square or figure eight. To make it harder, you can have some team members close their eyes. Imposing restrictions to increase difficulty is just like the time, budget, or skill constraints a team may have to face in trying to accomplish its goals. As with any complex project, teammates need to keep their cool and communicate clearly to win.
6. Two Sides of a Coin
Vulnerability can be intimidating, but it strengthens relationships and builds trust. As management guru Patrick Lencioni discusses in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, teammates need to be vulnerable with each other in order to assure themselves that they can be open and candid as they work together.
That’s the goal for this game. First, pair up your employees. Each participant takes turns sharing a story from a difficult time in their life -- either personal or work-related. Then, the other employee works with the storyteller to suss out the lessons learned and look at any potential bright spots in their negative situation.
What lessons do they learn? By reframing an issue together, team members learn how honest assessment and discussion can help them solve problems and find the silver lining to bad situations. The sense of vulnerability also inspires greater trust and should enable these teammates to communicate better in the future.
7. Find Ten Things in Common
What do your wait staff, bartenders, hosts, and cooks all have in common? Probably more than you’d think! This game is great for large teams or businesses. Break employees into small groups and make sure each one has a mix of people from different parts of the company. Then, task them with finding ten things they all have in common. The goal is to create a stronger connection between team members who may not work together every day. Establishing common ground is a tried and true method of resolving conflicts. When employees know more about their co-workers, they’re more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong, rather than immediately try to play the blame game.
8. Break Room Family Board
Another way to help employees find common ground with each other is to let them show off some of their personal life at work. That’s the goal of the break room family board. Set up a pinboard in the break room or another common area, and ask employees to post pictures of their family members, pets, vacations, or other interests on the board. The family board serves as a constant reminder to each employee that, much like they themselves, their teammates have a life outside of work that probably isn't all that different from their own. It helps employees feel more invested in each other, and the photos can be a great ice breaker.
Team building games for the norming stage
The team is finding its recipe for success in the norming stage. These games seek to keep up the positive momentum and further strengthen the bonds between your employees.
9. Lunch Roulette
As teams fall into their routines, it’s normal that some team members will gravitate toward one another and form sub-groups. While it’s great for people to make friends at work, they also need to be able to communicate with people outside their clique. That’s where lunch roulette comes in. Once a month or so, use Excel or something similar to create random groups of employees and ask them to have lunch together. It’s a great way for people to get out of their comfort zone and spend time with teammates they may not know very well.
10. Trivia Night
Not every team building game has to be work focused! Round up the team for a game of trivia. Topics can vary, and it’s an amusing way to learn what everyone is interested in and knowledgeable about. Lots of bars and restaurants run trivia nights, so you can further strengthen team bonds by competing against people outside of your organization. Make a routine of it and give employees something fun to look forward to each month.
11. The Minefield
When spring rolls around and everyone is itching to enjoy the beautiful weather, take your team building activities outside. The minefield is an entertaining option. Find an open space like a nearby lawn or parking lot, carve out a rectangular area to act as the field of play, and scatter small toys or other objects throughout. Then, mark a designated start and end point. One by one, team members will blindfold themselves and have the rest of the team verbally direct them through the field without stepping on one of the toys. The lessons are pretty clear: The teammates shouting instructions have to learn to communicate clearly, while the blindfolded teammate has to be an attentive listener.
Team building games for the performing stage
If our previous games were all about building up the team machine, these ones are about keeping it well-oiled. The performing stage is the perfect time to work on perfecting skills and increasing efficiency. Test how far your communication skills have come and how the group dynamic has solidified.
12. Build the Tallest Tower
Give employees a change of scenery and kick off a building contest in the break room. Task each team in this game with building the tallest tower they can with a set of provided items, such as popsicle sticks and marshmallows. The teams have a set amount of time to build the highest tower they can. The catch? It has to be able to stand on its own for at least six seconds.
13. Sell an Item on Your Desk
If you’re looking to keep your customer-facing employees sharp or boost persuasion skills among other team members, try this game. First, tell each employee to grab an item from their desk and meet you in a conference room. Once everyone arrives, reveal that they need to create a sales pitch for the item they brought. Then, enjoy as everyone does their best to sell their finicky stapler or half empty box of thumbtacks to the group. Sales and persuasion skills are useful for any employee, so make sure to involve people from all roles.
14. Desert Island Essentials
What items in the office would be useful for someone stranded on a deserted island? Break your employees into groups and have each team select the ten nearby items they’d take with them, and then provide their reasoning to the group. Everyone will have to get creative as they think of new uses for everyday objects. A fishing line made from paperclips, anyone? It sounds silly, but the game teaches a valuable lesson: You need to work with the resources you have, and not complain about the ones you wish you had.
15. Virtual Slide Show
The virtual slideshow helps the team reflect back on a recently completed milestone -- it could be a particularly hectic shift, a difficult project, or a big event. Bring the team together and pass around an imaginary clicker. Each member of the team gets a chance to “show” an imaginary slide featuring a personal highlight from the project, a difficult obstacle they overcame, or an attempted method that went wrong. The goal is to draw out lessons learned and figure out how the team can apply them in the future.
Take your team to the next level
Team building games don’t have to be boring or awkward. They can actually be pretty fun. Not only that, but they can help your team work better together -- you just need to choose a game that aligns with the challenges your team faces at a given time and the goals you want to accomplish.