Teams under challenge

Social distancing and work-from-home arrangements have severe impacts on team communications and relationships, making teambuilding programmes more critical than ever.

Like many social activities, corporate teambuilding programmes have been disrupted since early 2020 as governments enforced safe distancing requirements and companies began an unusual work-from-home experiment that has since become the norm in many Asian cities.

For Action Teams, a Singapore-based provider that has been in business since 1996, bookings tumbled almost 75 per cent.

Founder Raj Sandhu recalled how 2020 had started off strongly, with the whole year booked out with programmes all over the world, but spiraled into despair in February as the pandemic hit and clients either cancelled or paused their plans.

Other specialist providers, such as Asia Ability and smallWORLD Experience, saw bookings recede too. But even as governments eased restrictions and virtual teambuilding options emerged to connect remote teams, engagements throughout 2020 and 2021 are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.

Slashed budgets due to poor corporate performance amid the global crisis, fatigue from daily online communications, and unfamiliarity with virtual teambuilding programmes are blamed for the slow pick-up.

What worries Sandhu most are companies freezing teambuilding activities because of human resource disruptions.

He explained: “Some clients have had to let people go. Hence, they feel that this isn’t a good time for teambuilding. But this is why now is a good time. If you are letting people go, the rest of the team will be worried. They will be wondering when it will be their turn.”

Sandhu said some clients also mistakenly believe that as long as teams were communicating daily via instant messaging tools, there was no need for engagement.

Lost connections
Elevated stress levels at work and remote work arrangements have presented employers with a welfare challenge, noted teambuilding specialists.

Ana Marques, general manager of Macau-based events specialist smallWORLD Experience, noted the downsides of isolation at the workplace: the growing lack of team interaction will dismantle team spirit, break down communications and eventually impact client servicing.

Remote work requires greater information sharing, as people could no longer simply walk over to a colleague for discussions, opined Marques. Teambuilding programmes can convey to participants the advantages of information sharing and identify ways to work efficiently with sharing tools.

Sandhu warned of staff burnout, especially as remote employees feel their purpose at work was just to generate results and go at it alone.

“This is the serious side of what we do,” commented David Powell, managing director of Asia Ability. “Teambuilding is often seen as being all about play. But the new work arrangements have highlighted the important values of teambuilding. Working remotely turns people’s attention to the task and away from relationships. By not conducting any team engagement now, companies risk team cohesiveness.”

Virtual uncertainty
While teambuilding specialists were able to translate their in-person teambuilding programmes for virtual use – and even craft new ones specifically for online interaction, they found themselves having to convincing clients to get onboard last year, as many companies struggled to make sense of the concept of remote work and video conferencing. This led Marques to describe the year 2020 as an “adaptation period”.

Powell: online teambuilding can be effective

“Many people were also waiting for things to get better and to return to in-person events. Different markets had different pandemic situations; some were improving and that fuelled hopes that things would return to normal soon. But as we have seen, conditions can go back and forth. Now, we are finally at a stage where people are realising that life as normal is actually some distance away and they are opening up to the idea of remote teambuilding,” said Powell.

As more clients came to accept their present situation and appreciated virtual and hybrid events, online teambuilding programmes started to see a brighter future this year, found Marques.

Teambuilding specialists were also challenged by the existence of simple and cheaper online games that competed with professional remote team engagement programmes – some of which disappointed corporate buyers and turned them off the real deal.

Sandhu said some competition came from escape room games that provided no real takeaways to achieve business goals. With prices as low as S$10 (US$7.30) per participant for these games, Sandhu said professional teambuilding providers are having a hard time competing, especially when clients are themselves unsure of what teambuilding truly means.

“For some companies, going bowling together or sharing a seafood dinner counts as teambuilding. Clients are comparing in-person experiential teambuilding programmes with (such options). To many of them, virtual teambuilding activities are perceived as just games, and therefore shouldn’t cost much.”

A real solution
Experienced teambuilding providers say clients have little to worry about the effectiveness of virtual teambuilding programmes, which are carefully designed to bring about similar results as a live engagement.

Sandhu: companies risk staff burnout

While Actions Teams had a programme matrix of 60-plus in-person activities, with each fulfilling specific team goals and serving different purposes, only 10 made the final cut for virtual conversion. Sandhu shared: “We had an intense discussion internally to determine which activities would translate well online. We have some excellent in-person activities that are not quite feasible as online versions, perhaps because it was not easy to put details on shared screens or on Google Drive.”

Actions Teams’s virtual selection attracted “great feedback”, with the company delivering five virtual and hybrid teambuilding events in November and December last year for clients in the thriving pharmaceutical industry, some of which engaged a global audience.

Powell believes that virtual teambuilding activities can be as effective as face-to-face versions – provided they are properly set up and designed to allow the same high level of energy and interaction.

“There is a lot of investment in the programme’s redesign to ensure we are doing it right,” said Powell, adding that most of Asia Ability’s virtual teambuilding programmes provide a higher facilitator-to-attendee ratio and more resources are channeled into demonstrations and rehearsals to prepare clients.

Since evolving its programmes in early-2020 to suit the online and hybrid event norm, Asia Ability has continued to innovate and today offers clients an opportunity to fulfill Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) goals while engaging remote teams. It has also designed apps to collect live scores and other useful data for client’s real-time review.

Teambuilding specialists said virtual options offer some unique advantages, such as ease of preparations, lower logistical costs and time savings as participants do not need to travel and be far from their duties for too long.

Furthermore, a successful virtual teambuilding experience could even teach participants how to cope better with other forms of virtual engagements, added Powell.


Which format works?

Choosing the right option will depend on factors such as corporate theme and objectives; time constraints; team’s demographic; and team’s level of technical readiness, advised David Fotheringham, director, Asia Ability. Here is a graphic to guide your selection:

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