Team bonding exercises are not just an excuse for a company knees-up, says Andrea Wren

Getting up close and personal with a bunch of folks you may never be seen dead with outside work might not be what you bargained for in your new career, but it's something you will probably find yourself doing - and possibly enjoying. Annually, many employers see the team-building event as the makings of a tight ship in their organisation, and those on graduate management programmes should expect to participate.

Getting up close and personal with a bunch of folks you may never be seen dead with outside work might not be what you bargained for in your new career, but it's something you will probably find yourself doing - and possibly enjoying. Annually, many employers see the team-building event as the makings of a tight ship in their organisation, and those on graduate management programmes should expect to participate.

Normally aiming for an eclectic mixture of fun, focus and forward-vision, team away days are intended to be more than splattering your colleagues in paint and listening to management-speak, which has little impact on your role once back in the workplace. But can you really expect to gain more from the event than some embarrassing booze-hazy memories?

Well, yes, according to David Evans, chief executive of The Grass Roots Group PLC, a company which specialises in improving the performance of other organisations. He feels the image of such events as an excuse for a knees-up is outdated. "To be frank we just don't see it today," says Evans. "An element of socialising and having fun is part of it, but delegates are expected to work very hard and the management team has to show a return on the investment."

Careful planning is essential if graduates are to reap the rewards of the event. Nick Porter, director of corporate team building events company Fresh, comments: "In order for the event to be successful the organisers must determine the end results they aim to achieve, and what the graduates should get out of it. Graduates may see it as a great weekend away, but are they actually learning something constructive from it?"

It is the responsibility of the graduate, of course, to proactively contribute. Caroline Barber, a project analyst with logistics firm Wincanton, recently completed the company's graduate management development programme. She suggests leaving your preconceptions at the door before embarking upon any team event. "Think about what you want to take back into the workplace and how you will utilise the skills learned. Go in with an open mind."

One of the many tasks Barber participated in on the programme was a tandem biking exercise around the Forest of Dean, designed to develop performance enhancement and expose graduates to other people across the business.

And if paint-balling is your preconceived notion of what team-building events are all about, forget it. Graduates can anticipate increasingly innovative programmes. Lizzie Barrett is an accounts executive for workplace communications consultancy CHA. African drumming was one activity she enjoyed with her team, but not the only one. She says: "We did circus training last year, which meant we had to learn how to literally juggle, as well as spin plates. It made us aware of timing, control, and ultimately how to delegate, and say no!"

Digital media agency E3 is going a few hundred thousand steps further, taking its entire workforce of 30 on an all-expenses trip to Dubai. Joint managing director Mike Bennett thinks the standard structures on offer for corporate events are lacking in creativity and unsuited to an organisation of this size.

Bennett says: "We give people their own time and space to do with whatever they want but plan several team activities around them. For example, we try to make sure we all eat together of an evening, go on a tour together and, in the case of Dubai, go sea-fishing together."

Joe Thorne, an employee who graduated in multimedia design, was on E3's last event to Las Vegas. "As a recent graduate I found the whole experience extremely beneficial," he says. "We all partied together and recovered with hangovers from hell around the pool. We bonded massively as a team. But this didn't stop after we touched down at Heathrow. Far from it - the buzz, the memories and the experience lasted for months."

From Thorne's experience, it seems that whatever the consultancy gurus say, sometimes the value really is in the "getting-to-know-you" part, and many graduates have had plenty of practise with this skill already.

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