Team-building exercises improve performances and keep morale high in the workplace, says Nick Jackson

rom the days when we hunted antelope across the savannah to Franz Ferdinand's latest album, people have achieved most and created best in groups. But as numerous wars, revolutions, band break-ups and the general hell of living with other people demonstrate, we're not always very good at it.

Getting better at it is important, as every businessman's favourite warrior, Sun Tzu, knew: if your ranks are united, you will be victorious. These days that means greater productivity and higher morale, which lead to bigger profits and fewer expenses on recruitment and training.

So what can you do to keep your team united? Bob Manuel, a consultant with Charter Solutions, a strategy, marketing and performance management consultancy, says there are five factors to look out for: communication, recognition, leadership, self-awareness, and an understanding of how to work well together. A good team, he says, is one where people are talking, aware of their team's and their own strengths and weaknesses, with a manager who supports rather than directs and makes sure they know when they are doing things right.

Manuel points to four stages in a team's life cycle: a team that needs to be directed; a team that challenges that direction; a team that gains self-awareness and so can work within looser guidelines; and finally one that can work without guidelines. The ultimate team, says Manuel, is one where even guidelines are no longer necessary. It all works seamlessly because everyone knows how to work with everyone else to get to agreed goals as quickly as possible.

It is one thing to understand all this, and another to apply it to your daily work life. The first thing you need, say the experts, is a break from targets and deadlines. Manuel does this by setting puzzles for small groups to solve together. But what if you are intending to re-energize and reconnect a whole company?

With many businesses now spread across the country if not the world, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. A conference is one way to get over this, but if you don't grab people's attention the danger is that they will switch off.

Conferences are hardly famous for their thrills and spills, but there are some radical solutions to stave off their dreariness. One consultancy, Catalyst Global, gets people focused on the bigger picture in a very literal way, with different teams painting on different, smaller canvases to form a masterpiece on a massive scale. It is just one of Catalyst's exercises, that range from crash courses in circus skills to getting a whole company to perform a symphony in two hours flat.

"We're always looking for an interesting medium, something engaging and interesting," says Mark Davenport, director of Catalyst Global. "We look at how we can use it as a metaphor for how they can work better together. It's a chance for people to break down the silo mentality, come together and bond with a common experience."

But team-building exercises are not only there for when things go awry. Some companies do them just to keep in shape, others when they find their own success means that they need to take a fresh look at how they are working together. Monstermob, the lucky people behind the pop ringtones craze, has been one of the runaway business successes of recent times. In five years they have gone from six people in an office to a global business with more than 600 employees.

"Our jobs had changed so dramatically in just over two years," says Jan Walker, corporate communications manager at Monstermob. "We wanted someone to help show us where we fitted into the company and how best to utilize our roles and get the best from each other." While new managers like Walker overcame their lack of confidence with Manuel, freeing them up so they could talk to one another about the new challenges they were facing, the top brass also felt the need to consolidate, brainstorming with Inspiros on a common company aim. "It was superb," says Walker. "Now we all have the same beliefs and we're all agreed about how to go about that."

So, whether your team has eight people in it or 800, top executives or office administrators, there is something you can do to make your team work better.