The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Finding top talent can be a true challenge in today’s workplace. Keeping a good group together once you have assembled it? That’s even harder.

As reported by New York-based recruiting company The ExecuSearch Group in their 2019 hiring outlook, entitled The Employee Experience: Four Ways to Attract, Engage & Retain Employees in Today’s Competitive Market, 66 percent of professionals polled do not plan to stay at their organization on a long-term basis.

Another challenge lies in bridging generational gaps. Millennials (those born between 1977 and the mid-1990s) and Generation Z (those born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s) frequently have different aspirations than their counterparts from previous generations, and this can lead to workplace tensions. What is the best way for company leaders to ensure that their employees are motivated to stay on in the first place, and then are working well as a cross-generational team?

One tool at a company’s disposal is team-building activities. This can range from games and outdoor excursions to volun­teer projects. Whatever the form, they share a common purpose: fostering a stronger sense of togetherness and creating oppor­tunities for companies to improve communication among team members.

As Dr. Greg Story, president of Dale Carnegie Training Japan, explained, team building can provide a three-fold benefit for participants:

  • One is self-awareness—participants often come away with a deeper understanding of their role on a team.
  • The second is a realization of the power of the group. “You’ve got your individual power and you understand what you can do, but then you realize that the group can achieve more than one person.”
  • The third is that team building can develop greater efficiency in a business, as members are able to recognize their collective strengths and weaknesses. “When they get this exposure, they start to see the full gamut of what’s actually available.”

Story has noticed that companies are looking for a taste of the unfamiliar when it comes to their team-building experiences. “They want to have people mixed up with people they don’t normally work with. So, again, when they do problem-solving activities in a group, they come out with a different perspective. They start to understand who people are. They start to build that rapport, and they start to have the sense that the people they work with have value. I think it builds a lot of pride in an organization.”

Andrew Silberman, president and chief enthusiast at Advanced Management Training Group, K.K. and co-chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan Membership Relations Committee, makes a distinction between team building and what he calls team bonding.

“Team bonding exercises are anything that the team can do together—drinks, bowling, attending a baseball game, anything outside work,” he explained. “These activities can bring a team closer together and can be a lot of fun. I am all for them. But a truly good team-building exercise is different. It will focus on getting people together, free of distraction, to discuss their personal and organizational goals, clearly articulate a vision, bring up potential obstacles to achieving that vision, and create accountability among the leaders.”

Silberman added that the results of a team-building exercise “should be judged well after the event, based on changes that are made in the workplace that are—or are not—leading to better results.”

He believes that what can best help companies get the most out of team-building activities is a clear sense of purpose. “Companies want better performance. People know intuitively that highly motivated people who enjoy working together tend to produce better results. What’s not commonly known or practiced is the following fundamental truth: clarity and shared ownership is what produces results. So, the exercise that needs to be done, for most companies, is to help everyone gain clarity—clarity in expressing their own goals and the team or company’s goals.”

Whether you call the activities they devise and deliver team building or team bonding, many companies and organizations are dedicated to giving staff a chance to get out of the office, have rewarding experiences, and, in some cases, give back to communities in need.

One of them is The Super Fantastic Company K.K., which specializes in team building and corporate training. As co-founder and owner Gabriel DeNicola explained, they offer a wide range of services, including team-building games, venue management services, and transportation. The company was launched in 2017, building on DeNicola and co-founder Tommy Saunders’ event organizing experience and back­ground in edu­cation. Their approach is based on critical thinking, requiring participants to come up with creative solutions to the puzzles that their games pose.

DeNicola said that one source of inspiration for starting the company was seeing that many of the people around them were not getting the most out of their work life. “After looking around at our friends and acquaintances, we saw an unacceptable level of dissatisfaction in their work life that could be solved with a little fun and the explicit action of building their teams into a more complete whole. We realized that our services would be well received in this market and started working toward those goals.”

Their hallmark offering is The Go Game, a scavenger hunt that incorporates elements of television shows such as The Amazing Race and America’s Funniest Home Videos with the collecting elements of the incredibly popular mobile game Pokémon Go. To play, participants take on geo-pinned “missions” that can range from riddles based on features of the area to tasks that require teams to work together to create funny photos or videos. Teams earn points by completing their missions. The points are tallied up and the winning teams come away with prizes.

The Go Game was developed in the United States and has been used to produce more than 10,000 events globally. The Super Fantastic Company is the official provider for The Go Game in Japan and offers variations, including one themed on espionage and another on Japanese school sports festivals.

The Go Game is always a hit with participants.

The Super Fantastic Company has already worked on team-building activities for big-name clients such as Nike Inc., Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., and Bloomberg L.P. But they have their sights set on growing and helping even more people get the most out of work. As DeNicola explained: “We keep expanding our repertoire of activities and really want to help professional teams enjoy their work environments so they can accomplish the most in their professional lives. We want people to understand that life should always be enjoyable—even at work.”

Another company offering a fun spin on the team-building experience is Invite Japan. Started in 2015 with an escape game facility in Asakusa called Nazobako (Puzzle Box) Tokyo, they design, produce, and develop puzzle games and plan events based on them.

A puzzle from Invite Japan’s Hidden Secrets Journey

Lee Sorkin, communication strategist at Invite Japan, explai­ned that the company grew out of a desire to give teams an opportunity to bond in an original way. “The idea was that the concept of escape games was perfect for organizations and companies looking for something different in their outings aside from the regular of izakaya and bonenkai route. Japan has a great tradition of team building and socializing outside work, but many companies get stuck in a routine. So, we wanted to give teams the opportunity to try something new and learn together.”

Invite Japan’s headquarters are located in Asakusa, which is also where the Nazobako Tokyo escape room—the company’s most popular offering—­can be found. However, because the escape rooms can only accommodate 30 people at a time, larger groups—and groups looking for a different kind of experience—can try the Hidden Secrets Journey (HSJ).

The HSJ programs, which are growing in popularity, are outdoor scavenger hunts based on puzzles that use objects such as building façades, monuments, and signs. In most cases, the scavenger hunt includes a final mission that is customized to involve a company motto or message.

Looking for clues in The Go Game

Because of its proximity to the company’s headquarters, Invite Japan holds many HSJs in Asakusa, but they have also carried them out in Yokohama, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, and one in Tochigi Prefecture, for Honda Motor Company, Ltd. And they have projects in development in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, and Nihonbashi.

Sorkin said that getting workers out of their everyday surroundings has positive benefits. “I think there is definitely a difference when groups get out of the office. We see it even with the escape games, which take only an hour. Getting people out of that office environment is essential, we feel, and giving them these immersive puzzle challenges, in sometimes unusual environments, gets them excited and able to relate to people differently,” he said.

“And, of course, there is also the undeniable benefit of being outdoors, breathing fresh air, and moving around, which I think everyone needs a bit more of these days. We have had groups do HSJs in the middle of summer, in the middle of a rainstorm, in the middle of winter—a Sendai winter no less—and all types of weather in between. Each time, everyone was smiling and having fun.”

Invite Japan counts a number of large companies, such as Google LLC and Rakuten, Inc., as repeat customers, and they have also conducted team-building activities for Japan Tobacco Inc., Facebook, Inc., and, Inc. The company wants to develop HSJs in more diverse locations and create second versions of existing activities for repeat customers.

Playground of Hope offers a different take on team-building activities, and has its origins in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011. A year later, Michael Anop founded the organization, which now builds playsets for disadvantaged children around Japan. He was inspired to launch Playground of Hope through the volunteer work he was doing in Tohoku after the multiple disasters.

“There were lots of organizations helping business owners get back on their feet, or rebuilding schools and offices. But nothing was really being done for the kids—especially the kids who were living in the temporary housing units where I was doing a lot of volunteering. The buzzword at the time was community building. And I thought, what if we built temporary parks in the parking lot areas in these temporary housing units as a community building idea.”

The first playsets were built in a few Tohoku locations where Anop was volunteering. But, as he explained, “The needs were beyond my wildest imagination.” To date, Playground of Hope has built playsets at about 70 sites in Tohoku, and in about 30 other locations around Japan.

A Playground of Hope playset being built

These playsets, which cost between ¥500,000 and ¥5 million to build, are completely funded by sponsors. The supporting companies usually pay for the projects with funding from their corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets. They bring volunteer teams comprising members of their staff—usually 10–170 people—to the location where the playset will be constructed.

The teams represent all levels of the organization, from executives to back-office staff, and everyone has a chance to strengthen team bonds and learn about themselves at the same time. As Anop explained, regardless of their position, most volunteers are out of their element. “Most of them have never held a power tool or built anything of any significance aside from an IKEA table for their house. So, it’s a level playing field.”

The playsets need to be completed in a day, and the projects are divided into 40–50 tasks. The teams are given manuals, but they have to figure out things for themselves. Professional playground builders are on hand to supervise, but an important part of the experience for the volunteers is making mistakes and learning from them. This gives teams the opportunity to communicate across positions and company divisions while working towards a common goal. Anop pointed out that the building projects can also help company executives discover leadership qualities among their employees that they might have otherwise missed.

A number of major financial institutions have taken part in Playground of Hope projects, including Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Deutsche Bank AG. Anop added that Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. and its properties are currently Playground of Hope’s largest donors, and they have done five or six projects yearly over the past five years. The cost of Playground of Hope projects means that partner companies need to be large, with healthy CSR budgets. However, after seeing what participants get out of the projects, Anop is thinking about pitching Playground of Hope to potential sponsors purely as a team-building opportunity.

Whether it’s about having fun or doing good, team-oriented activities have the potential to strengthen work relationships, improve employee retention, and bring about new ideas.

Alec Jordan is a staff writer at Custom Media for The ACCJ Journal.
In most cases, the scavenger hunt includes a final mission that is customized to involve a company motto or message.