Keeping on Track: Getting Creative with Team Building

NSO Team - Top Row (Left to Right): Dan Watson, Ashley Hewlett-Lemke, Bottom Row (Left to Right): Sarah Woolsey, Katie Danaj, Sarah DellaPella. Not pictured Laurin Gierman
Top Row (Left to Right): Dan Watson, Ashley Hewlett-Lemke, Bottom Row (Left to Right): Sarah Woolsey, Katie Danaj, Sarah DellaPella. Not pictured Laurin Gierman

By Gregory Teachout

Watching your colleagues struggle up a fifty-foot tall wall can be great fun. And who doesn’t love arguing about paddling strategies with their supervisor as they approach that boulder in the middle of the river on the company canoe trip? Team-building retreats have been celebrated as a way to blow off steam and get to know your coworkers for nearly a century--and just as often been the source of staff grumbling and dread. 

The always-busy team at the New Student Orientation (NSO) Office often works at a breakneck pace, but Coordinator of Orientation Programming Katie Danaj still wanted to develop traditions that would carry the benefits of team building and offsite work, without the opportunity cost. 

“This team has been together since last year, and this is the core team. I wanted to start a new tradition that we could all do together,” says Danaj, rounding a curve with three of her colleagues. To that end, she decided to take getting her staff on track to a very literal level--the second floor of the IM East Sports Complex, to be exact.

Every Wednesday morning, a small group from the NSO office walks laps around the track together. Periods of conversation are offset by moments of relative silence, as the walkers breathe and reflect to the steady beat of their footfalls. 

“Usually when we’re walking, someone will say, ‘Have you ever thought about…?’ And it’s something semi-profound,” says Laurin Gierman, the team’s Coordinator of Operations and Logistics. Since walking, like driving, is an activity, it tends to occupy the space between comments readily, and the team members don’t feel like they have to fill that space or truncate the interaction early. This allows their conversations to go to some interesting places that might not emerge in the tighter structure of a traditional meeting. 

Beyond that, the team also enjoys the simple pleasure of exercising. 

“It’s something to look forward to every week. It’s a great way to start the day,” says NSO Program Coordinator Ashley Hewlett.

“I tend to be reflective in the moment, personally, so I don’t necessarily have anything to respond within the moment, but I will after I’ve thought about a topic,” adds Gierman. “I feel like that’s how a lot of the personalities in our office are--more reflective. I feel like we need some time to process. Then as we process alone, together, or both, we come up with some pretty cool ideas.”

According to Danaj, the team is composed of different, complementary personality types, and the walks provide a venue to understand and synthesize each other’s perspectives.

Later in the day, the NSO team undertakes the second half of what they are tentatively calling “Wellness Wednesday,” a mini-book club of sorts. The team takes 15 minutes to read or listen to an article or TED Talk. Then they discuss it for another 15 minutes. 

“It’s not always related to our orientation work. Sometimes it’s more professional development topics. We each take turns choosing the pieces each week, so we each have a chance to put some content out there,” says Danaj. Much like the morning walk, the discussion increases rapport, team spirit, and often provides new conceptual tools for the NSO team to do their work. 

Done correctly, offsite meetings, activities, and retreats have substantial benefits for a team. Besides simply boosting morale, offsites can propel people into exchanges with coworkers they don’t often see during their average workday. They also allow colleagues to experience parts of one another’s personalities that aren’t always evident in an office. 

For the NSO team, the sixty or seventy minutes spent each week sharing in exercise and discussion is a great way of keeping themselves on track for success.