Hosting a Solid Team Building Event on a Limited Budget

Dec 27, 2019

Hosting a successful team building event on a limited budget is possible. In fact, having a limited budget may lead you to explore activities, locations, and facilitators that you would not have considered before, inspiring creativity that will set this particular team building event apart. A limited budget will also challenge leaders to have a strong rationale behind why they are hosting a team building event in the first place.


Begin with the “Why”

Leaders must know why they want to host a team building event — and, ironically enough, the main reason should not be to build the team. Having strong teams contributes to increased collaboration, work productivity, employee retention, happier work environments, and many other factors, which then leads to the greater likelihood of achieving the organization’s goals and purpose. Start with the big picture “why” and then narrow down to greater specificity to articulate clearly why the event is being hosted and what you hope to achieve through the event. 

The rationale and objectives for the team building event should be made clear before, during, and after the event. For instance, when doing a team building event for a centralized office following a reorganization, we clarified the event’s objectives with the leadership, emailed the participants about the purpose of the event ahead of time, stated the objectives at the beginning of the event, built the event evaluation questions around the objectives, and then followed-up with the leadership and team afterward about how the purpose of the event ties into their goals.

If the rationale for the event is clearly tied to the goals and purpose of the organization, the cost of the employee time will be seen for the investment it is, rather than a frivolous expense of lost operational productivity. In order to tie the team building event even more to the organization’s purpose, select questions and activities that will facilitate your participants learning about each other in a way that enhances their work. For instance, to support team building among members of a committee that was focused on learning and development, we asked them to share one thing from their childhood that contributed to their growth mindset. Rather than asking a purposeless question about everyone’s earliest childhood memory (which may be fun for some and traumatic for others), asking about something from their past that has influenced their work ethic, sense of creativity, or appreciation for collaboration can tie to the purpose of the organization and help team members understand each other better.


Think about “Who”

Leaders should avoid any natural instinct or assumed social expectations that they facilitate the team building experience. Senior leaders should encourage and support team building, but they should avoid any sort of situation that may be interpreted as top-down “compulsory fun.” To build strong teams within a work context, the unit leadership needs to be an active part of the team. 

There are several ways to host team building on a limited budget without the unit leader being the facilitator. One way is to empower the team members to be involved in the planning and/or facilitation of the event through a distributed leadership model. We have invited members of a team to sign up for various tasks, such as securing space, refreshments, transportation, and supplies; being in charge of written or photographic documentation of the event’s activities; or coordinating and facilitating various activities throughout the event. The sense of responsibility that is generated from co-creating the event yields greater buy-in and satisfaction.

A cost-free way to have an external (or semi-external) facilitator is to leverage the skills of others in your organization or from partner organizations. That may involve reaching out to your organizational development or human resources offices to see if they have the interest and ability to plan and facilitate a team building event for you, which is how I have been invited to facilitate such events on multiple occasions. At an institution where I worked, we temporarily borrowed time from a respected employee in another division; I coordinated the event and she successfully facilitated it, which allowed me to be part of the team during the event. “Swapping” facilitators between different departments or even different organizations (allowing a member of your team to facilitate their event and one of their team members to facilitate yours) can also be an effective way to access a cost-free external facilitator and to strategically strengthen ties with another trusted group.

Just because you are operating on a limited budget does not mean that hiring an external facilitator is outside of your reach. The calculation of the investment in employee time spent attending the event (number of hours x number of attendees x a rough average hourly rate for the attendees) can be a helpful reference for your price range, since you may be willing to spend up to a certain proportion of that cost on a facilitator’s fee. Depending on the size of the group, the impact that the team building event could have on the group reaching targeted goals, and other critical success factors, it may be a greater risk to not bringing in a professional facilitator. Your group can get the most out of a facilitator whose values align with those of the team and the organization.


Crowd-source the “What, When, Where”

There are numerous ways to successfully achieve the why of a team building event, so to help narrow down what exactly to do, as well as when and where to hold it, ask the participants for ideas. To be as respectful and inclusive as possible, share the rationale and objectives for the event so that the team members are informed, and then ask them what they would like to do and what restrictions they may have. We have had success sending them an optional simple online form where they could anonymously express their preferences and needs.

Asking them ahead of time what they would like to do gives you an idea of the types of activities they can do and what they would value. It also provides them the opportunity to express if activities after work hours or out of town are preferred or stress-inducing. Asking also allows them to express a need for a space to pray, meditate, express breast milk, or decompress if the nonstop team building is a bit too draining for the introvert in them.

Regardless of where you end up hosting the event, make sure it is a fresh space, one that is out of the norm for your team. If your organization has another campus, building, floor, or space that your team doesn’t typically use, it can be a free or low-cost space option. Alternatively, contacting partner or community organizations to use their space can be a strategic move to enhance collaboration between your team and theirs. We have found non-traditional spaces that encourage movement and conversation to be the most valuable for team building within the office environment context, though parks, museums, restaurants, libraries, educational institutions, co-working spaces, and other locations can offer their own unique contribution to the event.


Hosting a team building session should not be a one-time check-the-box event. Simply hosting a team building event because it is what has always been done or to fix a short term blip in employee civility is not a sufficient reason to host it. In fact, such motivations may actually be counterproductive. Only host the event if you believe it will be helpful, since in some cases, the best course of action in addressing an issue may be a different intervention. 

To be successful, the team building event needs to be integrated into the overall goals of the team, complementing daily positive interactions, crucial conversations, and proactive management. A thoughtful approach that starts with a clear why and with empathetic leaders who are intentional about the needs and wants of their teams can yield powerful results not just for a team building event, but in building strong teams that will deliver on the goals and purpose of the organization.


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