Team building is focus for Colorado companies and event providers

January 24, 2015

Denver Post

Justin Lang pulls off his crash helmet, peers at the race results and high-fives his go-kart racing colleagues from Denver-based Craftsy.

Trash talking ensues. Lang placed second in his heat, but he vows to finish first in the next race. And, with a smirk, he warns his boss to stay out of his way on the track.

On a recent weekday, work gave way to corporate team-building for the production department at online video instruction firm Craftsy.

If the field trip to Unser Karting & Events seemed more like fun than team building, well, that’s the idea.

“Our workforce is young, talented people,” said John Sacco, senior vice president of production and operations at Craftsy. “You need to have an environment that attracts these types of employees. This is an opportunity for people to meet and interact on a different level.”

The transition from recession to a healthier economy is giving companies more opportunities to invest in intangibles, such as team building, that don’t immediately appear on the bottom line.

And it’s a chance for entrepreneurs to serve the corporate market for teamwork activities.

Boulderites JoAnne Carilli-Stevenson and Jeff Mendel, both with extensive backgrounds in brewing, use their expertise to hold food and beverage pairings for client organizations seeking to build better rapport among employees.

Their firm is named Sapere Aude, Latin for “Dare to be wise.”

“People can be guarded, territorial and political about their statements and positions,” said Mendel, also a partner in Left Hand Brewing Co. “But if you get them together in a relaxed and enjoyable setting, then maybe they’re willing to go a little further in their conversations.”

For three years, Mendel and Carilli-Stevenson have led business clients on behind-the-scenes tours at the Great American Beer Festival.

“It gives participants a unique setting that they wouldn’t get from other training opportunities,” Mendel said.

Sapere Aude is seeing a transition in its tasting events from primarily consumer-oriented groups to businesses.

“We had that ‘aha’ moment last year,” Carilli-Stevenson said. “We discovered that companies are hungry for this.”

Team building can be as simple as meeting for drinks after work or as elaborate as multiday outings sailing or in the wilderness. The key is getting people communicating and interacting outside of their normal channels.

“Engagement is the buzzword. You want your employees to care about each other,” said Cindi Fukami, a professor of management at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business.

“It can be very productive,” she said. “The key is planning carefully, having good aspirations and then finding a way to bring it back to the workplace.”

For example, a company that takes its employees bowling can issue bowling shirts and have workers wear them to the office on designated days, Fukami said. Photos taken at team-building events can be posted at the workplace to remind employees of their bonding experiences.

Seagate Technology, a California-based data storage firm with 1,300 employees in Longmont, engages regularly in off-site activities.

“Team building is something that corporate management here really supports,” said senior engineering director Gary Counts. “It’s so important that we work closely together to keep lines of communication open.”

Activities include gathering and delivering items for the homeless, cooking meals for clients of human services agencies and geo-caching competitions.

Noble Energy is an advocate of corporate team building.

“It’s something we’ve been building more and more upon,” said Greg Synowka III, a stimulation adviser in the well engineering group.

“I feel that a lot of the progress we make is not in structured meetings. It’s when you see someone in the hallway and ask them if they watched the game yesterday. And then productive conversations start taking place.”

Business customers represent a growing volume of traffic at Unser Karting & Events in north Denver. Since its opening four years ago, Unser has hosted 2,000 corporate events, an average of about 10 per week.

Businesses spend an average of $80 to $110 per employee, including food and beverages, for use of Unser’s ¼-mile track and its fleet of four-stroke Honda racers that can reach speeds of 50 mph on the flats.

“Team building is a big part of our focus,” said Scott Sutton, president and CEO of Unser. “It’s exciting to come here, and it gets companies out of their comfort zone.”

Clients can choose to have their employees race individually against one another, or have team relays.

Sutton said post-event feedback from corporate clients is 95 percent positive. But he acknowledges that racing can occasionally foster hard feelings.

“It’s really competitive, and it can be detrimental,” he said. “Once we had a business owner who was ramming his employees’ karts. We had to remove him from the track.”