Every now and again, I rock up to a business I've never visited before, and I reckon I can tell you an awful lot about that business - whatever it does - after just a few seconds.
It's a truism, of course, that you only get one chance to make a first impression, but in business that impression is usually a good indicator of the style of the whole operation.
In fact, I'd go further: it's also a fair reflection of the personality and management style of the owner/manager. Warm and welcoming, or cold and cheerless; over-the-top designer kitsch or utilitarian.
So what, you may ask, has that got to do with team building? Just this: whatever impression you give to your customers and suppliers when they walk through your door, you'll also be giving to your staff on a daily basis. And that impression will inform a good deal of their attitude to you and your business.
Working conditions are the fundamental bedrock of employee relations. If you want - nay expect - your people to work longer hours than the norm or put in a bit of extra effort, it helps enormously if their surroundings are pleasant and comfortable.
Make the place a bit more like home and, given the fraught relationships that some people have, you'll have a few who prefer the office to their domestic arrangements.
Of course this is a simplistic approach to team building, but attitudes towards these utter basics are nearly always a good indicator of the rest of the team ethos in the organisation.
And I know it's a mite more complicated if you're running a manufacturing operation, and health and safety considerations are paramount, but still … I've been in print works (in Spain, as it happens), where you could eat your dinner off the floor; and I've been in many in this country where you wouldn't let your dog eat off it, and I know which one I'd rather work in, any day of the week.
When I go into an office, do I hear any hint of laughter? Are there smiles on faces (whether or not you know the people)? If everyone looks terribly earnest and serious, chances are that the head honcho is of a similar disposition. We do all tend to recruit in our own image, so it's no surprise that small businesses reflect their owner's personality.
THE DO's AND DON'Ts
Let's face it, you may have a profitable enterprise that is growing like topsy, but if you're a miserable bastard who doesn't know when or how to have a bit of fun, the chances are your people are just working for the pay cheque.
And if that works for you, that's all fine and dandy, just so long as everything remains upbeat and positive. Hope and pray that the business doesn't suffer a downturn, though, because that's when team spirit can carry you through, and they won't be following you out of the trenches, if they don't really like the cut of your jib. And think how much better you could have been doing in the good times too.
So how do you generate team spirit? I always think that business owners who have never played a team sport are at a bit of a disadvantage: it's not that they can't pick up the principles and adopt a team ethic, but once you've played in a team (especially a successful one), the whole thing becomes virtually second nature.
The core principles:
Make sure everyone knows and understands their roles and responsibilities in the team, and their importance to its overall performance.
Tell them (often) what they're doing well and what needs working on.
Give praise whenever it's due, both in public and private.
It's alright to be friends with your team-mates, but you can't be friends with everyone and you shouldn't have favourites (even though everyone does in practice). You don't have to like everyone either, so long as they're doing their job, but one disruptive influence can upset the whole damned apple cart. If you've got one who is affecting the rest of the troops negatively, get them off the bus ASAP. The rest of the team will thank you for it and work better as a result.
If having fun is not your shtick, at least try to make your work surroundings as pleasant and comfortable as is possible in whatever circumstances the business finds itself. Sometime the grimmer the work that is done, the greater the need for some black humour to get through it.
If you can possible bear it, socialise with the staff outside the office (and inside ideally). Teams that play together tend to stay together.
Have a fair but competitively attractive rewards system, ideally with bonuses/other rewards for achievement above and beyond the norm.
Be consistent, so everyone knows where they stand. And act like a captain.
There: rolls of the tongue quite easily, doesn't it? Blow the whistle, and let the game commence.
If you're not sure whether your captaincy or team-building are Premiership standard (and you'd like them to be), you could do worse than invite in for a chat someone who spent over 20 years in various rugby teams (at the top of the sport, not the bottom), and who knows that performance is about a lot more than just a good pre-match team talk.
OK, let's go!
David Croydon: 01844 238692 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org