Citrus-colored bandanas covered the heads of the 700 executives gathered for the kickoff of United Airlines’ 2017 Global Leadership Conference in Chicago last month. Rather than sitting down with a name tag and coffee for a keynote speech, attendees engaged in motivational dancing and competitive cup-stacking while packing 285,000 meals in three hours through United’s team-building event for the nonprofit Rise Against Hunger.
A shining example of corporate social responsibility — the meals will feed nearly 3,000 undernourished children in El Salvador for a year — also could have been as tedious as a long-winded speaker.
But United flew in California company Feet First Eventertainment to make sure it wasn’t boring. Feet First pumped up participants with music and challenges such as scooping rice on the assembly line while sprinting in place to win the pedometer contest—feats not typically on display at conference breakout sessions or in corner offices.
“We’ve never done an event like this,” said Suzi Cabo, United’s managing director of corporate and community affairs. “It was the most talked-about event at the conference.”
Not just because it was a feel-good experience but also because it was fun, said Bill Egan, United’s senior manager of community affairs engagement.
That missing link in many corporate meetings has catapulted Feet First from its beginnings at UCLA into a nationwide enterprise providing more than 500 events a year for clients including Microsoft, Google, Bank of America, Time Warner, BP and United Healthcare. Feet First pulls workers away from the office and onto the streets for "Amazing Race"-like quests or into conference rooms remade as escape rooms where colleagues see if they can collaborate their way to freedom.
While the events are fun, research increasingly shows they aren't frivolous. Effective team-building away from work can contribute to employees' well-being and engagement in their work, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Research led by James K. Harter and colleagues estimated that business units in the top quartile for engagement conditions see from 1 to 4 percentage points higher profit and 25 to 50 percent lower turnover than those in the bottom quartile.
Feet First adds anecdotal evidence to those findings. Founders Kevin Cloutier and brother Dave trace their entertainment roots to their camp counseling and DJ business in the ‘80s. Their engaging games at UCLA’s family alumni camp at Bruin Woods got the brothers noticed by a TV game-show producer, who hired them to help create games for his shows. The Cloutiers were producers on a big hit in the ‘90s, Nickelodeon’s “Legends of the Hidden Temple,” and went on to create games for “Survivor,” “Endurance” and others.
Out of that experience grew a vision for helping companies invigorate and bond with their employees. The Cloutiers left television and leapt into Feet First.
"Make Your Own Movie” events are a signature of their Los Angeles productions, Kevin Cloutier said. “We partner with the big studios and take groups onto the back lots where they write commercials or films and star in them. They get the boom mike, and the Universal tram tours will come by, and it adds that extra level of magic. It’s really focused on the process rather than the final product.”
Trust falls and “Kumbaya” aren’t in the Feet First playbook. But charity challenges and other give-back events have gained popularity, as with a recent Pfizer gathering in San Diego, where workers assembled beginners’ guitars for use by Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
While some companies such as Scavenger Hunt Anywhere integrate devices into their events, the Feet First emphasis is hand-to-hand and eye-to-eye contact. That shows in its escape rooms. Rather than wiring electronics into walls, a Feet First escape might feature a superhero rescue with puzzles for the group to solve to unlock a box containing a Wonder Woman action figure. That low-tech approach is partly because the sets need to be portable, but it's mostly philosophical.
“With all of the technology out there, we get lots of calls where clients say, can you include tech?” Cloutier said. “We can, but our goal is to get you off of screens and interacting with each other. Our big push now is 'Unplug to Reconnect.' I don’t want to say we’re anti-tech, but we want to get interpersonal connections back."
Feet First isn’t specifically courting millennials, who have surpassed Generation X to represent the dominant share of the American workforce, according to Pew Research. But Feet First’s let-your-guard-down programming jibes with some millennials' preferences, which professional services network PwC says include a less rigid corporate culture and more open management style.
"Everything we do focuses on play,” Cloutier said, citing a slogan often attributed to Plato: “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
In PwC's "Millennials at Work" report, millennials said they are comfortable working with older generations and value mentors. But 38 said senior management does not relate to younger workers. Feet First aims to bridge that generational divide by coaxing out the inner child, whatever the range of ages in a work group.
“If people get outside the office and spend an hour or two laughing with the people they work with, they suddenly realize, I like this person more than I thought I did,” Cloutier said. “It’s this common or shared experience.”
Feet First’s philosophy also dovetails with a trend toward shorter corporate meetings with less predictable content, according to American Express’s 2017 Meetings and Events Forecast. “While a meeting would have been four days in the past, now it might be three days, with a focus on innovative and creative elements,” the report said.
“I hear it all of the time — that people hear ‘team-building,’ and they don’t always want to go,” Cloutier said. “But they’re not expecting to have this much fun.”