Argus Leader

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) _ Mixing work and play can lead to better productivity.

That’s why it’s not uncommon to see grown men and women jumping on trampolines and climbing ropes at Leif Ericson Day Camp or even learning the sport of curling.

“We try to introduce activities that are out of everyone’s element,” Karla Santi, a partner at Blend Interactive, told the Argus Leader ( ). The staff of 17 at the Web strategy, design and development business recently went curling.

“Nobody even knew the rules,” she said.

The only real rule was to have fun and embrace something new.

“We could all be silly and be bad at something together,” Santi said. “It was competitive but not.”

After some recession-related cutbacks, several businesses in Sioux Falls increasingly tout the importance of team building for employees. Activities vary and often include a community component or additional training.

When people work hard, it is important to balance that with play, executives say.

While none of the companies can list a monetary return on investment for team building, they say it fosters teamwork, stronger communication and content employees. That adds up to better company productivity.

Getting to know each other outside of work helps at work, Santi said. That’s one reason Blend has lunch catered into the company kitchen each Friday. Workers sit around one big table and can talk about things other than work. Blend designed its office to have a full, homey kitchen and other collaborative space.

“I feel like communication is critical on projects. When you know the people well that you work with, it’s easier to communicate,” Santi said.

At ethanol giant Poet, with more than 300 employees in Sioux Falls and 1,700 companywide, it’s important that people have the chance to get to know each other instead feeling like strangers who happen to work at the same company, executives said.

Without an emphasis on training in smaller groups, department team-building events and community service work outside the office, the company likely wouldn’t have the same warm, friendly atmosphere that senior vice president of human resources Colleen Stratton sees.

“If team members spend time together, they find their department works better and the company tends to grow and flourish,” she said.

After one department did the Leif Ericson ropes course more than a year ago, employees came back with a new appreciation for each other because they had to work together to complete tasks on the course.

“I remember them coming back and saying how much they learned about trusting each other,” Stratton said.

Poet also held leadership training recently that included being stranded on an imaginary island. The scenario was that their plane had crashed on a deserted island, and in teams, they had to build the helicopter to leave, she said. It got intense, but the groups had fun.

Other company activities are less serious, including golfing, bowling, beanbag tournaments and marshmallow golf where employees try their luck at seeing how far they can drive a weightless puff. Employees compete in chili and dessert cook-offs with traveling trophies, play on softball teams, attend Canaries games and deliver Christmas presents.

They also have a community garden at their office at 4615 N. Lewis Ave., where they can take the produce home, and a percent is donated to Feeding South Dakota’s food bank.

Most of the activities are planned by a group of employees who are part of the company’s Team Inspire. There’s a company budget for events, and departments also have money for special things such as birthday cakes or something they want to do as a group, Stratton said.

To make team building successful, it takes buy-in from management and workers, she said. Both have to understand the importance and participate. The payback in benefits is that employees interact better with co-workers and customers, she said. They enjoy being at work.

“I always think team building relieves stress,” Stratton said. “Being able to relax once in a while is always important.”

At Raven Industries Inc., with 950 workers in Sioux Falls, employees are given the chance to be involved in as many or as few activities as they want.

Of those employees, 200 are part of a young professionals’ network that involves speakers, Frisbee golf, ice cream socials, a kickball league, wellness events and volunteer projects, including sorting food at the food bank for Feeding South Dakota.

This spring during the company’s annual leadership event, all employees were invited to listen to a national motivational speaker who talked about how people can better interact with each other.

Those shared experiences help people build friendships and develop teamwork, said Kristin Tilus, communications manager. “It does improve the quality of our work I believe.”

Jan Matthiesen, vice president of human resources for Raven, said team building is important for the company and is promoted though training, activities and volunteerism.

“First of all, it fosters communication, which is so important to any company. Better communication breaks down barriers and builds relationships _ all of which help to motivate and draw out creativity among teams,” she said.

“We know how hard everyone works, and if we can provide an opportunity to participate in training, exercise in a fundraising campaign or volunteer in our community, it allows team members an opportunity to see people they don’t always connect with on a day-to-day basis,” Matthiesen said. “Better communication creates better relationships and ultimately better work lives.”

Sometimes a team-building event is the only time everyone gets together. That’s the case at the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science, which this year held its annual picnic with games and a barbeque at Strawbale Winery near Renner.

“As an organization where we have so many part-time employees and full-time employees, it’s critical that at least once a year we all try to get together,” said Michele Wellman, public relations director.

It’s a time when backstage employees get a chance to see ticket booth workers or management, for example. The Pavilion has more than 50 full-time employees and nearly 150 part-time workers.

For the Pavilion staff members, whose jobs involve making sure others are entertained, the annual picnic itself is typically low pressure.

“If you want to sit and relax, you can sit and relax. If you want to get involved (in the games), you can get involved,” Wellman said.

The Pavilion often helps other companies set up their team-building events, too, by renting out rooms and providing services to those businesses.

Other Sioux Falls companies that offer entertainment see companies coming to them for corporate team-building events, as well.

At Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park, general manager Jeff Reed has seen banks and other companies show up to jump on the trampolines or play dodge ball.

“I think the biggest thing, they come here and it’s out of the work environment, which helps. It allows them to be free and interact with each other,” Reed said. “We are all about fun here. It’s just a time for them to more or less bond than anything.”

Tony Axtell, owner of Empire Productions, has had team-building training and knows the value it can play in employee morale and a sense of trust at work. Companies have hired him for a “Family Feud” or “Jeopardy” type of game, casino night parties and even inflatables. He sees his own team-building efforts with employees as a way to cut down on turnover.

Team building is especially important when new management comes on. There’s a learning curve and playing together can help, he said.

“The team members kind of get to know each other or know that manager on a deeper level,” Axtell said.

At Blend Interactive, where company partners try to create a culture that supports creativity and communication, employees are comfortable egging on each other and having a good time getting out of their comfort zones.

For Stephanie Uher, who has been with Blend for a year after graduating from Dakota State University, the atmosphere helped her decide to take a full-time job after her internship.

“It kind of breaks up the monotony of going in every day and just doing your work stuff,” she said of the activities. “I was very shy when I first started. Just getting out and doing things with fellow employees helped the camaraderie.”

Uher considers all of the company events a job benefit, and her friends who have taken positions at other companies find the events impressive.

“They are always amazed at some of the things we do activitywise,” she said. “It doesn’t get boring.”

In January, the group went to Bros Brasserie Americano to try some new foods for their team event. This fall, they will have a cookout at Santi’s house.

“We are so heads-down focused on work so often; we’re really trying to complete our projects on time. It’s nice to purposely step away from our timeline and do something fun,” Santi said.

That close teamwork helps on the personal end, too. “One of the reasons why we’re pretty focused at work, we really try hard to keep work at work.”

There’s no chance that team-building activities will end at Blend.

“I’m now calling it mandatory fun,” Santi said.