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Corporate America Takes a Playful Approach to Workplace Cooperation


Hollywood studio executives raft down the Colorado River. Bank employees whip up a tasty three-course meal. The promotions staff of a cosmetics company abandons its sales figures to play games in Central Park.

Corporate America is spending more time--and money--putting employees into challenges outside the office in hopes of fostering cooperation in the workplace.

Years of downsizing, hiring freezes and slender raises have left many companies in need of a little pep talk. Playfair Inc., which has been running morale-boosting, team-building workshops for 22 years, has seen bookings double in the past four years.

Similar programs have become a fixture at employee orientations, annual meetings and even in business schools.

Berkeley-based Playfair now organizes 500 programs a year, said founder Matt Weinstein. Adventure programs such as Outward Bound have expanded their corporate outings into a $100-million-a-year industry; and market leader Pecos River Learning says it has 20,000 corporate clients a year.

And if mountain climbing or white-water rafting isn't your company's idea of fun, there are other options. In fact, building corporate camaraderie is growing increasingly creative.

In June, FCC National Bank of Wilmington, Del., sent seven of its senior managers to a one-day program at a Manhattan cooking school. After a morning of discussion guided by a management consultant, the executives were turned loose in the kitchen with instructions and ingredients for a gourmet lunch.

"It really did simulate a work situation," said Faye Dadzie, vice president of human resources. "Some of the instructions were incomplete. Sometimes we'd find ourselves working separately when we should have been working together to get the meal done on time."

The task was humbling, said Roland Ridgeway, vice president of community relations.

"Only a couple of people had really ever cooked," he said. "They had to be willing to step back so the rest of us could learn."

Ultimately, they produced an endive-with-tuna dip, sweet-and-sour eggplant, ravioli and tiramisu. Along the way, they learned a lot about each other, Dadzie said.

"We determined that we needed to improve on giving and accepting feedback," she said, "and I think we have."

Last week, cosmetics giant Estee Lauder sent its entire sales promotion department out of its Fifth Avenue office and into the Central Park Conservancy's Professional Development Program for a day of team-building and leadership exercises on the lush park grounds.

The 2-year-old program supplements discussions and quiet activities with games and races--even rock climbing if a company requests it. Outward Bound, it's not. But facilitator Shirley McGill said just getting out of the office can stimulate a sluggish work force.

"You need to be outdoors," she said, exulting in a sunny afternoon session. "When you spend all your time in your office, at your workstation, you forget how to learn."

Lauder's team was ripe for the challenge. They peppered each other with personal questions in getting-to-know-you exercises. They played a Twister-like game on the pavement above the park's conservatory garden. They simulated a product-development meeting to show off their newfound communications skills.

And in T-shirts and shorts, eating sandwiches while sitting on the floor, they learned to view each other differently, Cori LeVine said.

"I think we saw each other without our titles," said LeVine, a director in the department. "It helped break down some barriers that might be there when we're in a business mode."

Outside the office, some roles and behavior patterns stay remarkably intact, said Gabrielle Fisher, coordinator of the Central Park program.

"If you're an effective manager at work, you will be in this setting as well," she said. "And if you're ineffective, that's going to come out."

But some problems can't be handled with a simple day out of the office.

Distrustful employees may work well with their boss in a rock-climbing exercise, because if they don't, someone will get injured, said Craig Cantoni, president of management consultants Capstone Consulting Group in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"But back in the office, he's still a snake," Cantoni said.

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