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Corporate treasure hunters: Get a clue

MY VIEW • Team-building games bring little change, and they don't help employee morale

I recently participated in a company-sponsored event generically known as a 'team-building exercise.' The rank and file rubbed elbows with the company's ruling elite as we all set off on a scavenger hunt during the better part of a sunny Portland afternoon.

The hunt, which took us in teams to businesses around the greater downtown grid to collect clues, had been orchestrated by a group of six associates. They even filmed a clever video spoofing a weekly crime series to set up the situation and distributed custom Windbreakers and chintzy little ID badges printed with our pseudo law-enforcement titles.

These periodic company bonding functions are meant to boost team spirit, foster cooperation, improve communication, encourage creative problem solving and, at the very least, provide some fleeting amusement for the burned-out worker bees. They come off, however, more like a tent-covered corporate revival.

I've participated in many of these functions at companies I've worked for in the last couple of decades and have decided that these productivity ploys really change nothing in the end. Back at the office, the rift between management and underlings is as wide and deep as it ever was, and information still filters down and around in the same random fashion it had before. I personally have never come away having learned anything, though I have amassed a drawer full of useless cups, key chains, pens, rulers, T-shirts and other junky souvenirs from such corporate-themed jamborees.

These corporate functions may be well-intended in many instances but offer very little in the way of boosting morale or extracting even an iota of additional output. The individuals who plan these events are the ones who get to stretch their creative muscles, not the workaday thralls who sit in their assigned seats at the banquet table, going through the motions because they're following orders. In actuality, productivity suffers from the interruption to the employees' schedule and daily momentum.

Some may appreciate the break in the daily tedium to attend these functions, but others won't be able to stop thinking about ever-nearing deadlines and the towering additions to their in boxes. These folks will have to make up the lost time by staying late or sacrificing part or all of their weekends. Maybe they'll have to take work home as well. How can this possibly be good for morale?

The powers that be may be better served by asking themselves what it is that they really want to accomplish with these exercises. Do they in fact wish to establish trust between support and management, or does the tried-and-true threat of being fired still get the job done? Is it necessary to subject employees to scavenger hunts and staged murder mysteries to hone creative thinking, or should their human resources department rethink the hiring process that failed to find creative, intelligent people in the first place? Do the chief executive officers, chairmen, chairwomen and presidents think, in their sage experience, that these exercises have a quantifiable, lasting, positive impact on their staff and their output?

I suspect that behind the closed doors of window-walled offices, the answer is a smug but definitive no, and boy, do I smell a tax write-off somewhere.

Companies throw thousands of dollars at these affairs, their executives believing that this 'let's just have fun' approach polishes their images among the rank and file as 'good guys' who just want the best for their employees.

To be fair, expert planning and dedicated coordination behind the scenes create a polished, smooth production. But their efforts are lost on an audience made to participate, rather than appreciated by employees who attend of their own volition. Let employees sign up for these outings, instead of mandating attendance.

A common mantra heard at these pep rallies: 'Each and every one of you is vital to this company's success; you are greatly valued.' The words ring empty for many in the audience who've heard this hollow sentiment before.

Certainly there are better ways to invest in the hardworking employees who keep profits in the black and operations afloat, right? Funds allocated for staff development or morale are more likely to birth fiscal returns when earmarked for bonuses or paid time off. These are the types of gestures that walk the talk of companies that truly wish to foster an atmosphere of respect and appreciation. The implied sentiment of such actions says, 'I know your time is valuable,' and makes inroads to boosting morale and productivity.

Our scavenger hunt ended where it began, at a banquet room in a nice hotel. The conclusion was anticlimactic and, except for the cake and cider, unceremonious. I had to ask myself: 'What was the point of all this? How am I different because of this?' It was just another wasted afternoon.

The serfs and the dukes mingled for a brief time, only to stride through the glass doors the next morning to their respective cubicles and offices. The drone of grumbling and kowtowing rises and falls against the din of shuffling papers, ringing phones and wheezing fax machines. The cogs and wheels engaged in their perpetual fiscal dance, stepping carefully along the black bottom line, a few with their new custom Windbreakers draped over their chairs, consolation that at least they got something from yesterday.

Cindy St. Onge is a student and freelance writer recently liberated from the clutches of corporate America. She lives in Northeast Portland.