mailbag: Team building events on the cheap

I’ve got a team that’s been running full steam to meet a tough deadline. We hit it — barely — but it didn’t close the deal we were hoping for.
Morale’s at an all time low.
Normally we would head out for a night at the pub, but without the expected deal, the budget for team events is gone. What can I do on the cheap to reward the team?
–A Broke Lead Engineer

Well, ABLE, you probably weren’t asking for this, but I’ll start by giving you a challenge: find a variety of team activities to do, even when you have budget. Your team might like the pub, but that’s probably the most wide-spread example of creating a culture of traditions over values. Heading to the pub every time is not going to help create an inclusive vibe for team members who aren’t comfortable with that. I enjoy taking my team out for a round every now and again just fine, but if that’s all your team does, it’s probably time for a shake up anyhow.

So let’s talk about some options:

Extra time-off for completing the project may be a short-term morale boost, if you have the authority to grant it: you’ll need to discuss that with HR. That might do something to reset team energy, and it’s likely to be popular and help with retention; but it’s unlikely to bring the team together. So even if you can pull that off, you might want to follow up with a group activity.

It’s a tough time of year for it where I live, but heading outside is a great change of pace. Head to a nearby park, or simply to the nearest sidewalk and practice some Management By Walking Around. If it’s too cold to gather outside, try googling for free tours of local buildings: libraries or town halls sometimes run tours. Call ahead to make sure they can support your group size.

If you need to stay in the office, a team pot-luck can be a great tradition, or even a brown bag lunch. Still too much work? I’ve hosted “Movie Thursday” before, where the team would vote on a movie to show, and we would all bring some monotonous work (think expense reports) to work half-heartedly on while watching the movie. You could even probably manage to spring out-of-pocket for some popcorn. Another possibility (depending on the office you work in) would be to have an in-office scavenger hunt.

If you work for a company that happens to donate to the arts, you might find that as a result employees can get in free to some local museums, or maybe there’s a nearby museum that offers free admission during certain times. This is a fantastic option that I’ve taken advantage of.

Free things to do with your kids/boyfriend/girlfriend in lists are also potential goldmines for local activities that are ALL OVER the internets.

One huge advantage all of these ideas have over pub night is that they create shared experiences: opportunities to make connections with your teammates to things outside of your workday life. Those are the sorts of traditions that can re-enforce the values of the team.


[editors note: none of these suggestions do a great job of including remote team members, but since the question was looking for a replacement for a pub night, I’ve saved that for another post ;)]

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