How to get your team to bond? Lock them in a room together

The growing trend in “escape games” can be a great office teambuilding activity—if you structure it right and follow up

Employees searching for clues in an escape room together

From left, Eric Arnold, Matt Leedham and Cassie Young attempt to gather clues and solve the puzzles at Escape Room Live in Washington, D.C. (Katherine Frey/Washington Post/Getty)

The room is dark, and from what you can tell as your eyes strain to make out shapes in the murk, windowless. There’s a door behind you, but it’s locked—you heard the sound of the deadbolt slide into place as it clicked shut. Shuffling slowly forward, you check out the space. There’s an ambient glow coming from somewhere—you’re not sure where—and in the barely-there light you make out the shape of a figure, sitting on a chair. She calls your name. Stepping forward, you see that it’s your boss, and she’s handcuffed. “Look around the room!” she urges. “There’s got to be something around here to help us escape.”

Okay, admit it: The idea of seeing your boss in handcuffs is a bit of a dream come true, but the locked-in-a-room-with-her-with-no-way-out part? That’s where it starts becoming a nightmare. Yet these so-called escape games are becoming increasingly popular as a team-building exercise for workplaces. Dozens of venues offering immersive, simulated escape experiences like the one described above have sprung up over the past year or so in major Canadian cities, offering visitors adventures that range from creepy (fleeing zombies or breaking out of a serial killer’s garage) to brainteasing (Houdini-esque see-if-you-can-find-the-key-to-this-room scenarios), all for about $20–25 per person. They’re a massive trend in Asia, and locked-room venues have recently become a potentially lucrative mini-industry here (one company, Exit Canada, which bills itself as “the ultimate real-life gaming experience,” now has six franchise locations), but are they really worth a chunk of your employee engagement budget?

They may well be, says Gerard Seijts, who heads the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at Ivey Business School. Seijts points out that faddish sounding team-building activities have been around for decades (remember the conference bike?). Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook tout the benefits of Go Game, a high-tech scavenger hunt developed about 10 years ago that can accommodate thousands of employees. Other firms have dabbled in activities that include ice-sculpting, beehive building and Hot-Cha-Cha Chili Cookoffs—just a few of the dozens of options offered by U.S. consulting firm Teambonding, which counts Apple, Disney, McDonald’s and Ford among its customers. And who knows how many Canadian companies have encouraged employees to test their limits with Outward Bound?

Ultimately, Seijts says, it doesn’t matter what activity your company chooses. What matters is what you do afterward and whether you take back to the office the lessons you learned. “Nobody should ever expect that going through an exercise like this will directly improve your organization’s performance,” he says. “The key issue that organizations  must ask themselves is, how can we take the insights that we gained from this exercise and apply them to actual on-the-job performance? There needs to be incredible follow-up.”

But unfortunately, that followup rarely happens. “We have a great time, it’s high energy and on Monday we’re still talking about it. Everyone comes to the office with coffee mugs and T-shirts and the baseball cap, but four weeks later it’s all over.”

Still, Seijts says he’s an advocate of “learning by doing” and says companies that integrate experiential learning into the workplace can see intriguing results. One of the best examples is U.S. mattress company Simmons—now the subject of dozens of business-school case studies—which reportedly spent more than $7 million to roll out a program called the Great Game of Life during the early 2000s.

The program, which lasted at least four years, saw employees regularly take on physical challenges such as ropes courses in order to build stronger teams and explore expectations of what they could collectively accomplish. The company’s sales soared, but ultimately, CEO Charlie Eitel left the company a few years later under “uncertain terms,” Seijts says. “But nobody can deny that it was a pretty interesting experiment.”