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Why Team Building Doesn't Work in Tough Economic Times

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In tough economic times lower sales trigger the need for cost reductions and a slimmed down workforce.

The consequences are often redundancies and the associated pains of uncertainty, low morale and disenchanted staff that are over-worked and stressed.

This can lead to a knee-jerk reaction to “do something” to fix it, which might take the form of some big rousing “team” event with an upbeat tone, or an off-site team building session to boost morale and get everyone working together properly.

But in my experience, when these kinds of activities are put in place under these circumstances, the impact is not entirely positive. In fact, these events tend to turn people off even more; they recognize cash is tight, and see some lavish event as hypocritical, and they even feel resentful because of the time taken out which exacerbates the overwork/stress situation.

It’s not that all off-site team building events are bad – they can be very powerful and deliver great results. However, the timing and approach needs to be right.

So, if you’re facing any of the above issues and a big event is not the answer right now – what is?

I would advocate a more practical approach, involving detailed process review work to get to the nub of the issues that will develop solutions and improve teamwork in parallel.

For example, a problem which might have started out as “if only staff would understand what our clients want and work together as a team, everything would be OK,” might, in reality, be about identifying things that get in the way of doing a good job; that clients sometimes create problems, different departments have different priorities, some processes are just not able to deliver in line with expectations and so on.

Key Steps:

1) Acknowledge the situation,
including the overwork and stress etc and take responsibility for it. If showing empathy comes with difficulty – tackle your Emotional Intelligence first!

2) Organize focused sessions 
on specific problems that are creating the most pain and frustration or are opportunities to improve productivity. Work with staff to sift through the potential projects to identify ones that can deliver quick wins. Make sure these sessions are a maximum of 45 minutes each. Use an external facilitator if required – but if your line managers are not capable of leading the group – maybe you kept the wrong people…

3) Investigate the problem. 
This needs to involve the collection of relevant data. It might be as simple as how long things are taking to flow through a department or what issues customers have. Sometimes I’ve found there can be masses of data that’s not easily analyzed because it’s in a mix of formats or even manual files. Take a sample – this can often be enough to highlight the important areas that can be looked at in more detail.

4) Use information generated to stimulate discussion with staff. 
Ensure clear actions come out of the session and make team members accountable for following up on the decisions taken. Make the actions simple; I worked with the mantra “5 minutes a day to make tomorrow better” for 3 months – and accepted the reality that some days it wouldn’t happen.

5) Set a clear timescale. 
In my experience 100 days is a time frame that is long enough for significant improvement, but not so long that people think it’ll never happen. Prioritize actions that can be done within that timeframe. You can come back and revisit longer term actions later. The key is to get started and then keep taking steps towards that goal.

6) Create a powerful vision of what things could be like. 
Communicate this vision and help the rest of the team see it, and feel it too. People need hope and something positive to hang onto during the transition.

7) Review how it’s going and adjust. 
It’s important to get results and then build on these. As long as it’s done in an objective way and focused on facts, regular reviews of progress, including open discussion of blocks and new challenges, forms a key part of building a high performance culture. 

Here’s a simple example from working with one client in the financial services sector. The process of opening bank accounts for its mainly overseas-based clients was averaging more than 30 days. The clients had been led to expect it would take 15 days, so no wonder they weren’t happy!

Further analysis showed that the top reasons for delays were things such as awaiting specific documents, awaiting more detail on the business activity or simply that clients had decided to change signatories part way through the process. Being able to quantify these reasons and investigate specific cases, meant that the staff began to realize just how much time was being wasted.

Suggested solutions that emerged from the bank account team were; to have documents translated into the client’s language (many of them were based overseas); ensure that when meeting clients, the managers explained the changes in the regulatory environment that meant that much greater detail on business activities was required; and ensuring certain documents were sent to clients at the same time. Not earth shattering actions, however they were all small steps that delivered improvements and over a six month period the average time to open accounts was brought down to less than 20 days.

One of the issues I found was that staff were often very busy with their day-to-day work. It could sometimes be hard for them to put in sufficient time to do the follow up and improvement actions. The solution was to recognize the issue and use physical meetings to talk through and develop the actions. Progress may have been slower but progress is progress!

The above approach may be less flashy than some high-prestige, feel-good event, but taking these practical steps will not only help your people to feel less stressed and more engaged again, they’ll actually get you bottom line results as well.

About Hilary Briggs
Hilary Briggs is a profitable growth specialist with over 15 years of industrial experience having held senior management positions at Rover Group, Whirlpool Corporation and The Laird Group plc. For the last 12 years, she’s worked with SME’s to improve their performance. Hilary is Managing Director of profitable growth specialists R2P Ltd.




About the Authors

Giles Pearson FCA was a PwC Partner for 18 years before jointly setting up Accountests.  

Steve Evans has a whole career dedicated to enabling employers to attract, recruit, develop and retain talented individuals and teams, with particular expertise in candidate testing and assessment before setting up Accountests.

Accountests deliver the world’s only online suite of annually updated and country-specific technical knowledge tests designed by accountants for accountants and bookkeepers.

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