Penn State

College of Arts and Architecture staff build team spirit outside the office

As rain drizzled outside 2000 Degrees, the downtown paint-your-own pottery studio, on Thursday afternoon, color splashed inside of it. Mugs, plates and bowls tilted and turned in their artists’ hands, one brush stroke following another.

The activity was a departure from the typical 9-to-5 workday. For this group, a collection of staff from the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture, it was a chance to flex their creativity outside of the office, besides meet colleagues whom they work with, technically, but never knew before.

“It’s getting to know somebody personally; it’s not all about work,” said Nicole Hane, the assistant financial officer for the college. “I think it’s important, too, because then you know somebody and then you work better.”

The group painting session was part of the college’s annual staff retreat, which included other educational events sprinkled throughout the week. About four years ago, the format was changed from a more standard experience — variations on professional development seminars, members of the group said — into its current slate of classes taught by college faculty and graduate students, tours of landmarks on campus and activities.

“It’s to have something to talk about other than work, so you get to know people on a more personal level,” said Nicole Cingolani, who heads the advisory council that develops programming for the retreat. “I think that’s how respect is generated.”

More organizations are trying similar activities outside of the office in order to build morale. From CrossFit to escape rooms to simulating a catastrophe, team building has become big business for facilities usually frequented by the casual public. In 2012, U.S. companies spent $46 billion on team-building firms, according to the Association for Talent Development.

The economy of esprit de corps isn’t for naught. According to Gallup, disengagement in American organizations accounts for more than $450 billion in lost productivity annually. And with less than a third of employees actively engaged in their work, according to the analytics company’s State of the American Workplace report, losses pile up quickly. Studies by the Queens School of Business and Gallup found profitability, job growth and share price all fell by more than 15 percent in organizations with low employee engagement.

“You’re not just colleagues, you become friends, you become more familiar to each other,” Cingolani said. “And it’s fun.”

Of the college’s about 120 staff members, more than half attend events during the retreat, according to Jeremy Warner, who chaired the advisory council when the retreat underwent its revamp. This year was the first it was expanded to a weeklong event.

The college makes use of its talent. For staff appreciation week, as it’s called, the staff gets to learn from faculty and students. In terms of empathy and camaraderie, the group says, it helps everyone involved.

“We get to see what the students and the faculty work on throughout the semester, whereas staff is often in a supportive role,” Cingolani said. “It’s a cool experience.”

For new employees, it’s a way to get to know their co-workers without the formalities of the workplace.

“For me, it’s a chance for me to meet my new colleagues,” said Jara Dorsey-Lash, who joined the college in March as the associate director of development for the Center for the Performing Arts. “Trying to create those relationships now in a relaxed environment is a good idea.”

As Dorsey-Lash put the finishing touches to her creation, a seat over, Ronda Craig was adding green eyes to a dish shaped like a cat’s face. Thursday was their first time meeting in-person.

“You learn something about people,” said Craig, the operations coordinator for the School of Theatre who had attended another class earlier in the day.

Cingolani agreed, saying the experience helps once they resume their work in the college. If problems arise, for instance, you know whom to call. Putting a face with a name, she added, makes a difference.

But until they get back in the office, seeing a co-worker outside of it can change your perspective of them, she said.

“Sometimes it’s comical and sometimes you’re surprised by their natural talent,” Cingolani said, laughing. “It makes people more human.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy