All work and no play? Not at InterNations! Senior Content & Communication Manager Elena talks about our popular team-building activities and how they benefit both the company and the individual team members.
Beyond awkward ice-breaker games and “trust falls”, team-building activities allow employees to get away from their desks, leave their stuffy meeting rooms behind, and connect with one another. “From the very beginning, our co-CEOs, Malte and Philipp, valued a great team atmosphere,” Christa, Team Lead Human Resources, points out. “They wanted our team members to be happy to come to work in the morning.”
A well-planned team-building activity can push team members out of their comfort zone or have them work towards a common goal without the pressure of having to show specific results, but it also helps them get to know one another. “Very often, conflicts stem from a silo mentality,” Christa says, “but it’s difficult to keep up any cut-and-dried opinions if you have a personal connection with your colleagues.”
Building a Strong Team from the Start
Early on, Malte and Philipp planned company-wide team events every quarter, including a Christmas party, spring and summer events, and a team outing to Oktoberfest. As the company kept growing, these large-scale activities didn’t make much sense anymore. Except for the annual Christmas party, they were replaced by smaller, department-specific activities.
“If you host a company event for 20 team members, you still have plenty of opportunity to get to know everyone,” Christa says, “but with almost 150 employees, big events just don’t cut it.” So, this support was provided to the individual teams instead, including a modest budget that allows people to do something special and bond with their fellow team members.
While team-building activities are quite common in start-ups, they are often initiated by team members themselves instead of by management or HR. The fact that InterNations didn’t just keep these activities, as the team kept growing, but started supporting them with a budget was also, to a certain extent, motivated by the company that acquired it, New Work SE (formerly XING).
“They have a similar team culture as InterNations,” Christa says. “Malte and Philipp were really happy that XING was not just another investor but a company with similar values, where a positive atmosphere and a team-oriented corporate culture are highly appreciated.” According to Christa, investing in a positive team culture is essential for any successful company: “If your employees don’t like to come to work in the morning, that can kill all productivity.”
Of course, we still like to get together with the entire InterNations team from time to time. The Christmas parties are legendary among seasoned employees, with a traditional Bavarian curling tournament that has become increasingly competitive with each passing year. Curling teams are randomly assembled, with each team consisting of members from different departments. Between the matches, there is plenty of time to connect and chat over mulled wine before everyone enjoys their dinner and exchanges Secret Santa gifts.
Into the Snow
It’s not a secret that one of the main selling points of Munich, where the InterNations headquarters are located, is its proximity to the Alps. Not only are the mountains great for hiking in the summer, but they’re also lots of fun in the winter months. Our Mobile Apps Team, for example, recently embarked on a trip to Wallberg, a mountain at Tegernsee, where they played in the snow and went sledding.
According to Craig, one of our software engineers, the idea came from one of the many “outdoorsy people” on his team. The year before he joined, the team had gone rafting on the Isar River, a testament to their adventurous nature. For Craig, his first InterNations team-building activity was a complete success.
“We just made a whole big day out of it!” Craig says. “We got burritos and drinks for the train ride and found two four-seaters, so that we were all in the same space. We just had a good time on our way there.” Before they went on to sled down the mountain, the team enjoyed spending some time at the top playing in the snow. “There was a snowbank that you could just jump off and tumble down into the snow. We were throwing snow at each other like kids — it was great!”
Apart from big outings like these, the Mobile Apps Team frequently has lunch together or meets for drinks after work. Although (or maybe because) none of these activities are work related, spending time with their colleagues outside the office actually makes working together a smoother experience for Craig and his team members.
“We have to do a lot of things in our daily work where we have to be critical and other people have to be critical of us. It helps to have a human connection first, so that when you are about to criticize somebody, you have an understanding of what their life is like and how it’s coming across,” he explains. “And when they say something to you, you know whether or not they’re really mad about something. It just makes it easier!”
Getting Up Close with Alpacas
Last winter, the Content & Communications Department also boarded a train out of the city for a very special outing. At Berg-Mörlbach, a small town near Lake Starnberg, they got the chance to bond with a herd of fluffy alpacas and take them for a walk in the snow.
“Alpaca walks seem to be popular everywhere right now, but only few people have actually tried one,” says PR Team Lead Caroline. “I think it’s a great activity for team-building and leadership skills.” It was each team member’s challenge to make sure their alpaca actually went where it was supposed to, also making sure to stay together as a group and to help one another when necessary. However, with two people “sharing” an alpaca, maneuvering the slippery country lanes was actually much easier than expected. The team members tried leading different animals until everyone had found the alpaca that they felt most comfortable with.
During the walk, the team learned a lot about the animals, their wool, and their behavior. “The owner joined us and told us so much about her herd,” says Caroline. “Even though we just took a little walk, it felt like a really big adventure. The atmosphere was relaxed, everyone laughed and talked to each other, and we just enjoyed the snow, the great weather, and the sunshine.”
This was not the first team-building activity the CC Department had organized, of course. The previous year, they’d gone to Schliersee, where they enjoyed a delicious Bavarian meal together. Unfortunately, the alpine slides that they’d wanted to try were closed due to rain. Less weather-dependent activities are already in planning. “I’m currently organizing a trip to a local trampoline park, which will be a lot of fun,” Caroline says.
Apart from organizing these team-building activities, as well as their monthly team lunches, the CC Department is big on celebrating holidays like Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day together. “Our Social Media Manager, Erin, is an expat from the US, and she likes to initiate these things,” explains Caroline. Luckily, her colleagues don’t mind participating in delicious potluck-style dinners to celebrate this typical US American holiday or writing little notes to one another on Valentine’s Day, telling their colleagues what they like about them. “It’s actually quite nice. You finally get to write down all the good things that you have often thought but never had the opportunity or the courage to say to people!”
Painting a Happy Picture
Due to some changes in the company’s organizational structure, the Community Engagement Team is now one of the biggest teams at InterNations. They are the main point of contact for our Ambassadors and Consuls, the InterNations members who organize our official events and activities. So, when they started planning a team-building activity for 20 people, getting everyone’s input was a bit overwhelming at first.
“We just put up a box, and everyone put in very different ideas for our activity,” says Bettina, Community Engagement Lead (Europe). Some ideas were taken off the list right away to accommodate the needs of their pregnant and injured team members, but other than that, the sky was the limit. Initially, the voting process was a bit complicated. “We had to do it three times,” Bettina says. “In the end, everyone’s favorite was a cooking class, but then we realized the budget didn’t allow for it, so we had to do the process all over again.”
Finally, the team settled on a painting party. They got to choose the motif for their artwork ahead of time and had two instructors come in to help them through the process. “They actually prepared the whole room,” Elena, Community Engagement Lead (Global), says. “We just tried to mix it up a little bit, to have people sit together who usually don’t get to interact with each other that much.” The team got to paint a still life, a breakfast complete with a cup of coffee, a donut, a croissant, and a pretzel, and the instructors walked them through it step by step.
“Even those people who were a bit more skeptical about painting liked it in the end,” Elena points out “Everyone had a good time.” She was also surprised at how well the paintings turned out. “They all looked really nice. A few were a bit better than others, but still, I didn’t think we could do it that well.” “Exactly, everyone was really ambitious, I think!” Bettina agrees.
Past team-building activities have been a little more active: Bettina had mastered an escape room with her team and braved the course at a high-ropes forest, while Elena’s team had hiked up the mountain at Schliersee and taken the alpine slides back down — they’d had more luck with the weather than the CC Department. Both were a bit worried that the painting party wouldn’t foster as much interaction. However, the opposite turned out to be the case. “We all teased each other and helped each other. The super-relaxed atmosphere was really the best thing about it.”
But although the activity had been a great success, it was still not their favorite. “I really liked hiking the best,” Elena says. “We were in touch with nature, got out of the city. We were also very lucky because the weather was so perfect. We saw the sun set over Schliersee before we had a nice dinner— it really was the perfect day!”
And Bettina adds, “For me, it was the experience at the high-ropes course that was simply perfect. I also think that people talk about other topics when they get out of the office. The painting party was definitely nice, but it didn’t offer the same level of distance from our everyday work. That’s why I think an outdoor activity like the high-ropes course was better for us!”
Moreover, the team has lunch together at least once a month, organizes potluck dinners for special occasions, visits the local Christmas markets, and has a great time at Oktoberfest. “And I think most of the team members occasionally do other things together,” Elena adds. “They aren’t only colleagues, they’re also good friends.”
Image credit: InterNations