Board games: When child’s play enters the workplace, the grown-ups learn valuable lessons on how they can all get along

By: Dave McGinn, National Post

The World RPS Society recently ran a Rock Paper Scissors event for two divisions of TD Waterhouse as an employee morale-booster.

One evening a few weeks ago, employees of TD Waterhouse squared off against one another to battle over a key strategic question: rock, paper or scissors?

The financial institution had hired the World RPS Society to run the Rock Paper Scissors Tournament in Toronto as a way to boost morale between two of the company’s divisions.

“It became quite raucous,” says Doug Walker, managing director of the World RPS Society.

Brad Ciccarelli, associate vice-president at TD Waterhouse, praised the tournament as a “fantastic and unique ice-breaker for people who didn’t know each other very well.”

Mr. Walker has been organizing general-interest tournaments since 1995. Last month, he launched RPS Events, specifically targeting companies in North America and Europe looking to strengthen bonds between staff members. On April 12, RPS will organize a tournament for the Canadian Marketing Association.

With companies fighting harder than ever to recruit and retain talent, businesses are turning to unorthodox games such as Rock Paper Scissors as a way to promote team-building and encourage loyalty. So long company golf tournament. Hello, human Trivial Pursuit.

Workopolis knows as well as anyone how important team-building exercises can be in today’s job market.

Last month, the job-search Web site hired Critical Pathfinders, a Toronto based company that specializes in corporate team-building, to arrange a scavenger hunt for Workopolis’s annual sales conference. About 24 sales and marketing managers roamed downtown Toronto searching for clues and completing tasks, such as finding bird feathers and Canadian Tire money.

“It was great,” says Debra Chapman, vice-president of sales at Workopolis. “We had five or six new sales-team members joining our team, so it was a great way for them to get to know and have some fun with other people.”

Critical Pathfinders boasts a client list that includes Microsoft, Ernst & Young, Molson Breweries, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Pepsi and The Body Shop.

If executives playing Rock Paper Scissors or running around on scavenger hunts sounds silly, those in the corporate- events industry say these kinds of games can play a crucial role in an employee’s sense of job satisfaction.

In October, Critical Pathfinders commissioned a study by Empire Research to show how companies benefit from team-building games.

“It’s predicted that in the next five to 10 years in North America, the labour shortage is going to leave companies short by 10 to 40 million employees,” says Critical Pathfinder founder Andrew Long. “What that means is that companies are going to have to work really hard to attract and retain the best employees.”

The study also showed that people in Generation X, men and women who were born from1961 to 1981, have much different priorities than Baby Boomers when it comes to their careers.

While salary was the top priority for Boomers, Gen-Xers ranked salary near the bottom of the list.

“In terms what [Gen-Xers] want to get out of their careers, salary came third-last,” says Mr. Long. “The top priority was having positive relationships with their colleagues.”

It’s no surprise then, says Mr. Long, that he has seen business increase each year since he founded the company. In 2006, Critical Pathfinders organized 160 events for companies in Canada and the United States.

“Team-building is certainly not the only solution to these problems,” he says of the difficulty of retaining talent. “But if team-building can help contribute to a positive working environment, or help build relationships between employees, then it’s going to have a significant value to employers as the labour pool gets smaller and smaller.”

Bryan Burns, president of Corporate Play People, a Kelowna, B.C.-based company, agrees.

“There’s a lot more emphasis on finding ways to build better relationships and communication,” he says. “People want to stay within their companies, but you have to add more things to keep them there.”

While traditional team-building exercises such as golf tournaments or a night at the bowling alley are still popular, more companies are turning to games that let employees put their business skills in play. “We see who the leader is. It comes out in an activity,” says Mr. Burns. “When you watch people play a game, you know that that boss or that leader is probably doing the same thing in the workplace.”

There are even a few board games on the market now that test players’ business acumen. Whereas Monopoly taught us all the basics of capitalism, these new games offer more industry specific challenges.

In Burn Rate, created in 2002, players are cast as CEOs of a dot-com enterprise trying to keep a start-up afloat. Inc.: The Game of Business has players running a corporation, hiring employees and buying stock with the goal of acquiring $1-million in cash and a full staff.

As much as they may help a company develop staff ‘s skills and retain employees, the games are also about letting people blow off steam.

“First and foremost, it’s fun,” says Mr. Walker. “The absurdity of the whole thing is what gets people talking.”