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Strength in Numbers

Team-building sessions and retreats are increasing in popularity among progressive workplaces, with employers benefitting from increased synergy within their teams. Camilla Zanzanaini, a researcher and strategist for innovation lab 17Triggers, explains how her staff trip to Kep changed how she and her colleagues interact.


“Mul shee suh yo!” Sophy yelled out the Korean phrase that had just been passed around in a game of Chinese Whispers. Our Korean colleague laughed in surprise, “That is actually really close!”

Chinese Whispers begins with one person whispering a phrase to the person sitting next to them. That person then whispers the phrase to the next person, and so on, until it eventually makes its way around the circle to the last person, who calls out the phrase to see how much it has changed.

We were sitting at the dinner table during our staff retreat and were trying this game with multiple languages. To our amusement, we failed to complete the circle with any phrase resembling the original, until Korean. From then, it was decided, jokingly, that the language of choice for communication between our foreign and Khmer colleagues should be Korean.

Improving communication was probably the biggest advantage of being with colleagues on a team-building retreat for two days. For me, this began with sitting next to our finance manager on the bus from Phnom Penh to Kep. I rarely get to talk to her, and while asking about her family and children, I found out that it was actually quite difficult for her to be away from her children even if just for one night.

“I think foreigners are more used to leaving their children for a day or two, but I also understand it is important for the company for us to be all together,” she told me. Being together in a space away from the office was important, because it gave us a chance to get to know people in a different context and in a more relaxed environment; we got to know each other as real people, and we were lucky enough to be in a beautiful seaside location in Kep.

The retreat was a chance to discuss aspirations, challenges and future directions of the company, in an informal setting for a change, which created a mood where everyone felt comfortable speaking up. I felt that this was particularly important for our Khmer colleagues who are usually more quiet with their opinions and thoughts on how the company is run. Our company is foreign owned, and sometimes having a more open and friendly work culture actually makes it more difficult to know what to say and what not to say in the workplace. Here, we all felt free to voice opinions.

Playing games was another way to break the ice and get to know each other as people rather than colleagues, being friendly rather than formal. We were split into competitive teams assigned by the facilitators, so, in a way, were “forced” to work with people that we didn’t know so well.

We were given creative and playful challenges, my favourite being when we had to build a rocket out of marshmallows, spaghetti sticks and paper. A seemingly silly game perhaps, but in a way quite similar to a real-life work scenario. We had to discuss a plan together, hear other people’s ideas, and agree on what to do. Being a highly visual exercise, everyone could sketch their ideas and this eliminated language barriers. In the end, working together mentally and physically to build a structure to support five big beach stones is no easy feat.

At the end of the day, the test is when everyone is back in the office where it is easy to slip into old habits and patterns. I do now find it a bit easier to approach certain colleagues for help and vice versa. Maybe this also just suggests it is worth doing more informal activities together, like having lunch or organising an event to get people out of their cliques but also to create a nicer and more productive atmosphere in the office. It certainly can’t hurt.