It’s easy to understand why someone would rather spend February in Palermo, the capital of the Italian island of Sicily, than in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden.

Palermo’s yearly temperature averages a pleasant 55 degrees, double that of the Scandinavian city. The sun shines for an average of five hours each winter day in the Southern European locale, compared to three in Stockholm.

But weather isn’t the only reason why tech company Mentimeter decamped to Palermo from Stockholm for the month of February. Escaping long-established routines for a new environment can lead employees to think more creatively and bond together more intensely as a team, according to Johnny Warstrom, chief executive officer of Mentimeter, an interactive-software developer. “People are more bold, more open,” he says.

The annual sojourn to a different city has been a company tradition for four years, and Warstrom acknowledges that holding it has become more challenging as the firm has grown from seven workers to 45. Family obligations now mean that not everyone is able to stay for the retreat’s duration.

“The main aim is to keep the small-company mentality as we grow,” Warstrom says.

The strategy appears to be paying off. Only one employee has left Mentimeter voluntarily in its five-year history, and the number of customers has been growing 100 percent a year, hitting 30,000 in 2018.

Few companies go to such extraordinary lengths to build team bonds, of course, even though teamwork is an increasingly important part of the corporate environment and thus critical to a company’s success. Employees spend more time than ever working in teams. Over two decades, the amount of time spent by managers and workers in collaborative activities ballooned by 50 percent or more, according to data from researchers Rob Cross, Rob Rebele and Adam Grant, which they cited in a 2016 article in Harvard Business Review.

It’s essential that these teams are cohesive and highly functional. Only 8 percent of employees say they’re fully engaged at work, according to a 2019 survey by the ADP Research Institute. Separately, Gallup has estimated that disengaged workers cost U.S. companies anywhere from $438 billion to $605 billion annually.

However, the ADP research found that 17 percent of employees who work in teams are engaged in their roles. When team members trust their leaders, the percentage of engaged workers jumps to 45 percent. That level of engagement and trust can make a huge difference to a company’s bottom line.

“In the last five to 10 years, there has been a whole different philosophy around work,” says Christina Zurek, insights and strategy leader at the ITA Group, a West Des Moines, Iowa-based consulting company specializing in employee and customer engagement. “There’s heavy collaboration and not as much hierarchical structure.”

Zurek adds that the trend toward teamwork is being driven by Millennials’ preference to work in groups, along with companies’ increasing efforts to create inclusive workplaces. That means organizations have an ever-wider selection of activities and programs designed to help them form bonds between employees, as well as between teams and their leaders.

“There’s more variety,” she says. “The default used to be a happy hour or a potluck.”

Not anymore.

More-Affordable Activities 

A customized scavenger hunt costs between $1,500 and $2,000 for up to 70 people to participate in an “Amazing Race”-style experience from the Thrill of the Hunt, a Pennsylvania-based company. 

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