Some companies are taking team building outside the walls of the office. Corporate retreats, where team members participate in activities ranging from mountain climbing to trust-building exercises (where team members let themselves fall backwards into their colleagues’ arms), are used by companies to foster effective teamwork. But why do organizations have teammates participate in activities that seem irrelevant to the organization’s primary activities? Howard Atkins, chief financial officer at Wells Fargo, believes that corporate retreats aid in team building, which in turn improves company performance. At a luxury hotel in Sonoma, California, Atkins—along with several other corporate executives—participated in an exercise where he and his team had to build a bridge out of boxes and unstable wooden planks. To the delight of his colleagues, Atkins was able to make it across the bridge. The team succeeded. According to Atkins, “What I have been trying to do is get them to see the power of acting more like a team. It’s really a terrific success.”
Part of the success that Atkins is referring to is the double-digit gains in earnings by Wells Fargo—gains that he says are one of the effects of the corporate retreats. “Success more often than not is a function of execution, and execution is really about people, so we invest pretty heavily into our people.” How heavy is the investment? Wells Fargo paid $50,000 for the retreat in Sonoma. Given the large expense, some companies are discontinuing their team-building activities outside the organization. According to Susan Harper, a business psychologist, “team-building has definitely gone down. People are reluctant to spend money on what they think is not an absolute necessity.” Atkins believes otherwise: “I know intuitively the payback here is huge. It’s a very small investment to make for the payback we are going to get.”
Sometimes, however, corporate retreats can have unintended...