“Ice-breakers” with fluffy toys are a staff bonding no-no. Here’s what to do instead

A recent story about ABC management requesting staff to engage in ice-breaking activities with fluffy toys generated public derision and made me think about the comedy training videos videos I’ve made showing how crazy some managers can be. Despite the element of fun, companies and government organisations can’t rely on bonding games to make a difference to workplace relationships and productivity.

Gimmicks can succeed in situations where everyone has known each other a while. Perhaps a problem has come up and people are stuck for a constructive way forward. Toys and devices that bring a smile and enable some humour can be terrific for hurdling obstacles and allowing truths and insights to emerge.

For the most part, however, novelties as workplace ice-breakers may be considered as crossing the line because they annoy staff and waste time. People start talking behind managers’ backs about this “kindergarten stuff”.

So leaving aside enforced intimacies with fluffy objects, which meeting activities enhance team communication and spirit?

Use videos

Properly chosen and timed, videos can be great tools. Immersive experiences for learning have been around since the days of camp fires and sabre tooth tigers. Movies, video clips, documentaries, online learning, podcasts — all can be more effective than forcing people to engage with phoney handshakes and asking each other what they had for breakfast. Bring in snacks and share a lunch or an evening of learning with staff (not when people are busy).

Improve listening

Through unhurried, quiet listening to what others say, your responses will hit a deeper chord, and people are the better (and happier) for it. When others are bustling about and freaking over things, be a still eye in the storm and recognise fresh ways to make connections or improve understanding.

Shake up internal newsletters and conversations

I’ve seen some pretty dull ones internal newsletters (so have you), so spice them up a bit with gentle humour and astute observations, relevant anecdotes, and quality feature articles and reminders.

Invite a surprise guest speaker

Invite someone who’s known for creating an agreeable frisson and participatory glee among his/her audiences, but more importantly is a relatable expert who triggers responsive gleams in people’s eyes. Ensure you brief the speaker well beforehand.

Swap team roles for a day or several

A good way to develop ideas and improve team collaboration is to swap roles. Learn about someone else’s job.

Be the change you want to see (Mahatma Gandhi)

It really starts with you. Be truthful and a mentor, and acknowledge people’s input and contributions.

Instigate some staff sports or fitness improvement regimes

Some to play, others to cheer, but all are a positive step. Create friendly rivalries among business units (if yours is a large company) or intra-company “games”. Start small and let it build naturally

Increase flexibility

Enable people to adjust their commitments and location, not to mention start and finish times.

Instigate cultural sharing

Create feasts on a monthly basis, when people from different parts of the world cook for others. 

There’s plenty more, but key to the above is not treating staff in a patronising fashion. The workplace isn’t a playgroup for stroppy toddlers and grumpy parents. 

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