Well last week was an interesting one. Just as many teachers are back in school preparing for the new school year the Microsoft US Academic Developer team (the group I am part of) was having their annual “off site” meeting. Just like a back to school week for teachers it involved looking forward to the new school year, learning about new things like programs and procedure changes. We got to meet new members of the team and get reacquainted with people who have been around for a while. It also involved some team building events. Schools don’t seem to do as many of those as industry does for some reason.
My work group has some similarities to groups of teachers I think. Like teachers we work individually for the most part. While teachers are spread out through a building we are spread out through the country. We both have regular meetings (though my group meets mostly virtually via teleconference) but in between meetings run fairly autonomously. Teachers rule their classrooms (with in the strictures of policy) and people in my group run their local business fairly autonomously (with in the strictures of policy). There are of course many differences. But as I think back to my own classroom teaching I think one similarity may be that it is a little easy to become isolated and too self-contained.
My first teaching job was part-time at two schools. I spent two days teaching at each school and on the fifth day I was at which ever school had the most need for someone to take care of computer problems that week. My time during the day was packed. There were days when a 20 minute lunch would have seemed like a luxury. At one school I already knew many of the teachers (having served on the school board and having had my son go through the school) but the other one was new to me. It was hard to learn enough about those teachers that year. In hind sight some more team building time may have been helpful to me.
Even when I was at a school for a number of years and had gotten to know all the teachers I think team building exercises might have been helpful. Sometimes in these events we learn more about ourselves and each other then we thought possible. For example, last week my team went on a kayak tour. I shared a three person kayak with my manager and one other member of the team. You’d be surprised at what one can learn from such an experience.
My manager pointed out that he was content to take breaks and look around but that I paddled all the time. At one point when he was ready to relax and delay the return to the dock he heard me say “look we can pass them on the outside.” referring to the kayak in front of us. I learned that my manger knew how to relax which I sort of knew before but this brought it home. I really respect that about him. One doesn’t always learn that sort of thing in formal meetings.
I’m not sure what my manager learned about me but I confess that I learned something about myself. In thinking abut the event I realized that I was worried, perhaps too much, about keeping up with the younger members of the team. I am the oldest member of the team and about half the members of the teach are younger than my son. So I worked at trying hard not to be left behind. I probably missed some of the enjoyment of the tour because of it. This is something I need to think about in my interactions with the team. Do I just try to keep up or do I do what I think is right in a way that works for me?
Many of us tend to brush off these sort of team building programs as a waste of time. Or dumb. Or a way to avoid work. But as I go along I am starting to see more value in them. They help build a common culture for a group with a set of shared experiences. And they are a chance to learn new things about our selves and our co-workers. Is “team building” a part of your work experience? Does it work for you?