Build a cohesive group with fun and teamwork, not by invading personal boundaries

Many workers have horror stories about failed trust exercises: toppled human pyramids, three-legged races that ended in injury, you name it.

Summer typically is when bosses try to bring workers together under the pretext of enhancing office morale and camaraderie. It’s also the time when workers cower in fear of exercises seemingly designed to invade one’s personal space.

Those planning team-building outings need to take a marketer’s approach. Managers must know their audience and carefully consider the team they are trying to unite. If a team-building event is going to induce tears, or leave workers grossed out or injured, chances are the experience will result in a team that’s more divided than united.

A good rule of thumb is to stay away from activities that force participants to invade each other’s personal space. Those can alienate introverted workers, or create an awkward water-cooler encounter the next day. Likewise, activities that promote vigorous competition between employees can isolate those unable to participate or inflate the egos of those who regularly engage in that activity.

But that doesn’t mean team-building can’t be a good thing. We’ve scoured the Eastside and found several activities that can engage many employees — and change the way they work together.


Photo by Rachel Coward


Scott Chreist has owned Woodinville ropes-course facility Adventura for close to 20 years, but his journey to his current job began when he attended the University of New Hampshire to study outdoor education and behavioral psychology. At New Hampshire, Chreist learned that play was a wonderful method for people to learn about themselves and their teammates, and decrease inhibition.

“I think the biggest takeaway is that people really love to play,” Chreist said. “If you give them the right circumstances, you can get just about anybody to play. Once they are playing, their resistance (to) play tends to fall away.”

Today, Chreist uses that knowledge to work with companies on team-building. Adventura’s ropes course is featured prominently, but it is just “a tool in our tool box,” Chreist said. “Learning to recognize what tools are well-suited to the group’s needs — that is central to our function.”

Adventura staffers ask a series of questions to determine customers’ team-building goals. If an organization is undergoing a merger, the staff may recommend activities to promote cohesion. Companies that simply want a socialization opportunity for employees are welcome to use the ropes course sans team-building exercises. However, Chreist cautions that social use of the course may alienate some members of the organization.

“To use a ropes course, you have to understand the mechanism of the team,” Chreist said. “If the team is not ready to do team-building but they want to socialize, you can use a ropes course at that level while recognizing the people who are not comfortable are going to opt out.”

Chreist encourages employers to utilize his activities at regular intervals, which would help ease the entire team into the experience. “If you do it right, the person who is most likely to not want to climb is the person who climbs and helps cause the most change in the team because they need the support of their peers to overcome their fear,” he said.

Photos courtesy Conundroom

Photos courtesy Conundroom

Conundroom Real Escape Rooms

When Aleksei Kniazev lived in Russia, he was a marketing consultant for “escape room” companies, which lock participants in a room and require them to solve a puzzle to escape. “The escape-room market in Russia was extremely popular. There were more than 500 escape quests in Moscow, more than 400 escape quests in St. Petersburg, and more than 1,500 escape quests all over the country,” he said.

Kniazev moved to the United States in 2013, when he was 20. In 2015, Kniazev and his family started their own escape room venture, and targeted as their primary customers Eastside businesses seeking team-building activities.

Each member of the Kniazev family handles a different element of the puzzle rooms. “I create the scripts and ideas for our puzzles, and promote our business on Google, Facebook, Yelp, et cetera,” Kniazev said. “My little brother Tikhon built and coded the puzzles; our mom, Lisa, helps us with design and art, while my girlfriend Anna works as an office manager.”

Conundroom has three puzzles. “Express” puts up to eight participants in a simulated speeding train with 60 minutes to escape before an impending crash. Conundroom’s “Mona Lisa Heist” is set in a mock version of Paris’ Louvre, where up to seven participants must pass through security measures and deactivate alarms before stealing the iconic Leonardo da Vinci painting. The third adventure, “Odyssey,” requires up to four participants to navigate the vacuum of space in virtual-reality headsets, solving puzzles and shooting alien enemies along the way.

“We chose those themes because everyone understands them,” Kniazev said “When we created our quests, we tried to build an amazing adventure for a wide range of people, adults and kids (alike).”

Conundroom’s proximity to the Microsoft campus and other tech companies was by design, according to Kniazev, so games could be played on an extended lunch break.

“It only takes an hour, but that hour will be spent with challenging team-based gameplay, since you cannot escape without the use of a collective mind,” Kniazev said. “It won’t take all day. You don’t need to drive a long distance, and you don’t need to wait for good weather. Just book it.”

Photos courtesy Run Brain Run

Photos courtesy Run Brain Run

Run Brain Run

Run Brain Run exists because David Schargel saw a void in the Northwest team-building market. “We felt, and still feel, that … most team-building options miss the two most important goals,” said General Manager Bob Fisher. “They aren’t inclusive — not everyone can, or wants to, swing on a zip line, or shoot their cube neighbor in the face with a paintball gun — and they forget to be fun.”

Run Brain Run has an array of team-building activities throughout the Portland and Seattle areas, including Search Party, the company’s modern take on a scavenger hunt.

“Unlike the object-based scavenger hunts … where you’re challenged to find a purple crayon or a yellow flower, our Search Party game is a competitive puzzle-based game,” Fisher said.

The Eastside version takes place in downtown Kirkland, where teams of six to eight collaborate to solve a series of clues and creative challenges. Teams can enlist the help of high-tech add-ons like video cameras and GPS devices.

If traipsing around Kirkland in the elements isn’t your idea of a good time, Run Brain Run offers a couple of offsite options that bring the games to the nearest office, campus, conference room, or meeting space.

“‘Game Show Live’ is a television game-show experience we bring to you,” Fisher said. “Think of a blend of Jeopardy!, mixed with a dash of Amazing Race, with a generous helping of stupid human tricks.”

In “Operation Care Kit,” teams work to unearth factious military secrets, decipher codes, and answer real-world military trivia. The event culminates in the assembly of care kits benefitting U.S. military members overseas.

Another Run Brain Run activity is called “Freewheel.” Participants are divided into teams to build a bicycle, not knowing the bicycle will later be given to underpriveliged children from the community.

Fisher said it doesn’t matter what activity a company chooses as long as everyone has a good time. “Our goal is to put the fun and team back in team-building,” he said. “All of our events are meant to be fun, memorable, and engaging experiences for all participants. Lots of laughs, good memories, and not a Myers-Briggs test or trust fall anywhere to be seen.”

Photo by Rachel Coward

Photo by Rachel Coward


After Kris Neese, founder of KurioCity Games, was laid off from a downtown Bellevue business, his former employers’ team-building attempts remained fresh in his mind.

“We kept doing all these team-building things that were getting a little bit stranger and a little further away from actual team building,” Neese said of outings that included curling and foot golf.

In an attempt to counteract those experiences, Neese developed map-centric MetroDemic, a mobile game that leads up to 50 participants through downtown Bellevue during a fictional disease outbreak. Teams of four or five follow symptoms to navigate sidewalks. Correctly answering trivia questions along the way saves fictional lives.

“The trivia and challenges are written by hand, and we put in some pretty bizarre stuff, from personal grooming to Metallica’s history to Disney movies,” Neese said. “We try to find a theme to fit the spot that they are at and just try to create really quirky trivia.”

Participants can cheat and use their smartphones if they want, but Neese said his team chose trivia questions that a large selection of participants should be able to answer by taking an educated guess.

Friendly competition and teamwork aren’t the only benefits of MetroDemic, Neese said. Playing the game gives participants a chance to take in their surroundings without the burden of a hectic commute. “Having worked in Bellevue, you don’t realize all the artwork that is down there. It really makes the city beautiful. It is kind of like being a tourist in your own hometown,” he said.

Players needn’t worry about being busted for trespassing, as Neese brought in lawyers to ensure the course doesn’t encroach on private property. “We looked into what the public throughways are,” he said. “There are a lot of private spaces (downtown), so (players) would never actually run through a building. There are spots where people don’t want outsiders snooping around.”

MetroDemic has expanded to other cities, including Los Angeles and Dallas, and Neese said he hopes to develop more games under the KurioCity name in the future.

Photo courtesy Sizzleworks

Photo courtesy Sizzleworks

Sizzleworks Cooking School

Chef Carol Dearth opened Sizzleworks Cooking School after years of formal training, including a stint at Le Cordon Bleu in London. At the time of the school’s inception in 2007, Dearth anticipated that corporate team-building events would total approximately 30 percent of her clientele. However, these events have become the crux of her business; team-building accounts for 70 percent of Sizzleworks’ business.

At Sizzleworks, participants work as a team to make a dinner in the expansive kitchen, a place that Dearth said is the great equalizer.

“If you’ve ever had a party at your house, you probably know that everyone always winds up in the kitchen,” she said. “It is kind of a level playing field there because even though some people know a lot about cooking, everyone has to eat, so it sort of works out.”

Guests can choose from an expansive do-it-yourself menu that takes participants from a bowl of ingredients to the dinner table. Informal dishes like pizza, tamales, and street tacos are on the menu, or the staff at Sizzleworks can help participants prepare five-course meals from Asian, Italian, Moroccan, Greek, or Spanish origins.

When it comes to participation, Dearth said some are initially more excited than others.

“There are people who are really, really excited about doing a cooking class, and then there are those people who wish they’d gone bowling,” Dearth said. “We get them over there and get their fingers in the dough … and then we get them started rolling the pasta in the pasta machine. Lo and behold, they are totally absorbed.”

Since cooking large meals is collaborative, Dearth said, it doesn’t alienate less-experienced chefs in a team setting. “Whenever you do something that is competition, like bowling, paintball, or go-kart driving, it becomes more of a competition than it is doing something together as a team,” she said. “We can certainly do competition, and we do build that into a lot of our menus, but it is competition as part of the preparation of the meal. So it doesn’t become the end all, be all of the event.”

More team-building adventures

If cooking classes and escape rooms aren’t right for the staff, consider these other Eastside adventures — plus one for those who want to take the team away for a while.

Photo by Jean-Marcus Strole Photography

Photo by Jean-Marcus Strole Photography

Woodmark Waterfront Adventures
Managers can rent an entire fleet of kayaks, paddleboards, or personal watercraft for their staff. Launch from Carillon Point in Kirkland and spend the day on the water to reward the hard work of dedicated employees.

Adventure Games Inc.
Not much is more thrilling than saving your boss from kidnappers (a mock kidnapping, of course). Teams will follow clues through a twisting narrative to retrieve the missing executive. This is just one of the many games offered by AdVenture Games Inc.

The Go Game
Bellevue, Kirkland, and Redmond
The Go Game is a highly customizable, app-based game that can acommodate 10,000 people, so long as there is data coverage. The Go Game will provide the devices, and it’ll award the top team a trophy at the end-of-the-game party.

Photo by John Murphy

Photo by John Murphy

DirtFish Rally School
DirtFish combines scenic Snoqualmie isolation with high-octane exhilaration. The conference room at DirtFish can accommodate more than 40 individuals, which is ideal for both customer appreciation events and team-building rally experiences.

Alderbrook Resort & Spa
Want to take the team away from the worksite on an overnight retreat where you can take care of some business and have fun, too? Alderbrook Resort & Spa on Hood Canal has all the amenities of a first-class resort — water- and mountain-view rooms, indoor pool, spa, restaurant, and 7,000 square feet of meeting space — in addition to organized activities that can help you bond with your coworkers. Group geocaching, golf, kayaking, art classes, culinary adventures, group yoga and meditation, and chartered cruises on the 54-foot Lady Alderbrook top the list of team-building offerings.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of “425 Business.”