Team-building on the field of dreams

Sports and team activities are more than just a good excuse to drink at the expense of the employer, as many design groups are discovering.

During the summer months, go into any large park and you’ll see teams of people wielding heavy bats and wearing impossibly large gloves. Many of those people will be designers, often from the same consultancy and sporting the same team shirt.

And whether you measure the pitch with a measuring tape or use beer cans to mark the bases, the taking part is what counts rather than the winning, in softball or any other team sport. Or so they say. Of course, the winning can be important, but those beer cans serve as a metaphor for the atmosphere of the evening – essentially fun and laid back.

But within all that sportiness and booziness, there lies a very good means of unifying a consultancy and creating a sense of loyalty. Whether it’s softball, football, or the current emerging designer trend – go-karting – consultancies have used team sports not only as an excuse to get drunk, but also as a constructive way to encourage team-building skills and create links between people who wouldn’t normally come across each other in their daily working lives.

At whatever level, and whatever the activity (London graphics group Horseman Cooke takes its folk power-boating to Cowes every year), after-hours socialising is seen as a positive factor across the range of consultancies.

“Primarily, anything we do is done entirely informally and not really as an exercise in bonding,” says Design Bridge managing director Richard Williams. The consultancy has softball and football teams, has regular “Thirsty Thursdays” at the local pub and runs annual summer outings for the whole company. A Design Bridge insider sees these events as a crucial part of life at the consultancy and says they are an “opportunity for people who work extremely hard in all parts of the consultancy to have some fun at the company’s expense”.

Williams adds that the events serve “to bond everybody in the company informally”. He says these activities have a positive effect on the working life of the consultancy because they “make for a healthier working atmosphere – although someone usually ends up in hospital at some point in the evening! But generally, design is an industry which is people-oriented, so the fewer barriers there are the better. Everybody should value what everybody else does. This is one way of ensuring there aren’t any paper walls.”

A constructive activity like sport is better than an indiscriminate evening at the pub. Different sorts of people from different parts of the business work together to achieve a common goal – win the match, and sport is a great leveller

While “Thirsty Thursdays” are one way to encourage communication at all levels, Alan Coley, managing director at Light and Coley, says playing a team sport ensures that people who don’t work directly with each other have access to each other.

“A constructive activity like sport is better than an indiscriminate evening at the pub. Different sorts of people from different parts of the business work together to achieve a common goal – to win the match, and sport is a great leveller. Whether you’re the managing director or a college-leaver, you can talk on relatively equal terms,” says Coley. This is a valid point, although one Light and Coleyite was heard to whisper in aghast tones at a recent softball match: “Shit, I’ve just caught out the managing director!”

Coley points out that such activities can have a divisive effect if “they’re not properly handled. It can become a problem when people feel a pressure to play or when things become cliquey”. Or, indeed, when consultancies become too precious about the game and start working out their batting averages, as one consultancy – which shall remain anonymous – has been rumoured to do during a softball match.

So what is management’s role in all this? Opinion is divided between whether management should “buy the beer and bugger off” or stay for the duration. Jean François Bentz, managing director at Fitch’s UK office, says management should stay: “You see people in all their dimensions and they see you similarly”.

Fitch went go-karting, which Bentz says was perfect for him because he races in his spare time anyway. “It’s a real eye-opener, because it really shows up the company personality as well. On our evening racing, we had a lot of red flags – people raring to go despite the limitations of the rules. There were a lot of bruises, but it was also a lot of fun.”

Bentz stresses that after-work events aren’t necessary to encourage team-building at work – if you choose the right people to employ, that will happen anyway. “What they reveal is a rounded, three-dimensional person, an image you then carry with you into the workplace,” he says.

So the general consensus is that investing in company activities out of working hours has positive effects on the company’s working life. You get an insight into the characters of the people you work with, which generates greater harmony and a more pleasant working atmosphere. And ultimately you can have some great fun.

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