Ian Sanders explores how innovative employers develop successful teams, and offers five tips for you to do the same 

Inside Google’s new London office, employees can eat and drink for free. It’s a smart move: by keeping ‘Googlers’ in the building during lunch and coffee breaks, the company hopes that its staff will interact more, fuelling team spirit.

Google’s people operations department studied the characteristics of perfect teams to find inspiration for the building’s design. Monitoring how often certain people ate together, it found that the most productive employees rotated their dining companions. Sharing a meal table with other team members nurtures an esprit de corps according to US design executive John Maeda. ‘Eating together is a powerful team-building exercise,’ he says. ‘There’s no “I” in “TEAM” but there’s “EAT” in it.’

International design and consulting firm IDEO has gone a step further, introducing office kitchens rather than cafeterias so employees can cook meals together. ‘Families and cooks make food together in kitchens,’ says CEO Tim Brown. ‘Our kitchens are hives of community activity.’

‘There’s no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM’ but there’s ‘EAT’ in it’

IDEO employs more than 700 people in nine offices worldwide, comprising psychologists, anthropologists, engineers, architects, visual designers, interaction designers and writers. The challenge, says Brown, is to ‘coordinate a team’s activities and still maintain the motivation, energy, and agency of individual contributors.’

As well as communal cooking, Brown advocates open-plan spaces that encourage serendipitous meetings and collaboration, and warns against ‘disempowering hierarchies’ where one senior executive makes the decisions. Socialising is key; employees regularly meet at weekends and even go on holiday together.

Measuring togetherness

Socialising does not, in itself, always enhance relationships – as the typical office party attests. It’s more subtle than that. In 2012, MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory used electronic sensors to analyse group dynamics across a range of teams and performances. In a Harvard Business Review article, Alex Pentland, the lab’s director, noted that ‘we could sense a buzz’ in successful teams. Patterns of communication, such as tone of voice, body language, gestures and face-to-face exchanges, were more important factors than what was actually said.

Indicators of successful teamwork included: listening and talking in equal measure; individual contributions that are kept ‘short and sweet’; members facing one another at meetings; and scheduled breaks to explore ideas outside the team. The study found that small changes – such as reorganising office seating, or lengthening lunch tables to allow strangers to sit together – could make a big difference. In one case, a call centre saw significant productivity increases (perhaps counter-intuitively) after the employees were allowed to take their coffee breaks together.

At Pixar Animation Studios, co-founder Ed Catmull enhanced team spirit through its ‘Braintrust’ – a peer review forum that assesses the progress of the company’s films. It is Pixar’s ‘primary delivery system for straight talk’, he writes. Boisterousness is encouraged; censorious bosses are banned. The noisy and chaotic meetings are full of ‘frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love.’

Meetings with no purpose

But how is team spirit encouraged when employees operate across territories, timezones and departments, and rely on collaborative tools such as Google Drive, Slack and Basecamp, which sell software designed to facilitate project collaboration?

Even Basecamp realises that online tools can never totally replace face-to-face communication. Although it encourages remote working, the company values getting team members together physically. It flies all staff to its Chicago headquarters for a biannual week-long meeting. ‘Some people work in groups, some people just hang out, some people arrange for guest speakers,’ says its founder, Jason Fried.  “There are no expectations other than enjoy your time here with everyone.’

Five ways to generate team spirit

Gather in your global staff: get everyone together, for business or leisure, at least once a year – it might be the only time they meet.

Create discussion forums: allow free-wheeling, opinionated feedback sessions without censorious bosses.

Monitor modes of communication: how things are said – such as with a friendly tone, face to face, positive body language and equal talking and listening – can be more important than what is said.

Use office space innovatively: facilitate casual interactions – it’s sometimes better to meet in a kitchen than a conference room.

Make a meal of it: encourage co-workers to take – or better still, make – meals together.

Ian Sanders is a creative consultant and storyteller. He’s the author of four books on work and business.

This article was written for FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance.
© 2017 Corporate Learning Alliance