Use Thick Presence For Better Team Building Activities

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Thick Presence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A couple years back a viral craigslist post denounced smartphone use for declining restaurant profitability.

The theory went like this:

Restaurant patrons are preoccupied with their cell phones. They check Facebook instead of reviewing the menu. They take photos instead of eating. Etc., And as a result, they spend more time at the table, without spending more money.

This argument could be true! But it only looked at what was happening from one angle — table time.

The reality of how this evolving behavior affects the bottom line is much more complicated. It’s difficult to measure the ROI and the marketing power of customers sharing photos of their dinner.

Today I want to talk about something beyond the bottom line, i.e., the experiences you have, and what happens when you spend your time glued to your phone instead of present in the moment.
This is a short essay on thick presence.

Thin Presence & Experience Layers

In late 2014, author Tim Leberecht coined the term “thick presence”, and it can be loosely defined as “the experience of being thickly in one place instead of thinly anywhere”.

The opposite of thick presence is thin presence. And we all experience thin presence on a daily basis. Just imagine you could split an experience into layers.

In the restaurant example, one layer is at the table with your dining partner, another layer is checking Facebook, another layer is thinking about the work waiting for you back at the office, another layer is scrolling through emails, another layer is feeling sleepy after poor rest the night before.

The restaurant patron described is fictional, but not without foundation. Like most human behavior there is a wide spectrum, where you see business people that turn their phone off at meals and you also see dads playing elaborate multiplayer mobile games while their kids play with their lunch.

Another example is office meetings. It’s not uncommon for you or a colleague to be typing away on more pressing matters while others discuss the actual meeting topic. This too is thin presence, and I’d argue that the company suffers for it.

These two examples may seem obvious. The gamer dad isn’t fully engaged with his family. The email-distracted colleague likely isn’t making their full contribution to the meeting. There are endless examples of how adding these additional layers of activities detract from the value of the core experience where you are.

And perhaps not all thin presence is bad, e.g., if you listen to podcasts while you drive safely to work it may be a good thing!

So instead of wallowing in “thin” let’s switch the focus back to the merit of thick presence, and how you can use it to create a big win in your business.

How To Use Thick Presence To Improve Your Business
Every company with more than one employee should regularly invest in team building (and if you are a company of one we recommend weekly self-care). By making “bonding with your teammates” a priority once per week or even once per month, you build a solid company foundation and set your business up to thrive.

Thick Presence is used by all members of Museum Hack's team to increase engagement
Museum Hack thrives through team bonding at our favorite museums.

Recently we wrote a guide on how we do team building at Museum Hack, our company “trainages” where we learn new skills together like vocal training and improv. These sessions are typically two hours long, but employees are welcome to hang out after for snacks, drinks and conversation.

We also do team getaways, extended sessions (full day and sometimes multi-day), where the primary focus is team building activities and having fun together instead of just bonding over work.

Why these long sessions together?

Answer: Thick Presence.

The idea, summed up in this Fortune piece, is that “if you want to forge a deep connection with someone, you’re better off spending 10 non-stop hours together than meeting them 10 times for one hour. It’s the same footprint in terms of total time spent, but the two approaches deliver vastly different outcomes.”

In a quick one or two hour session everyone can be on their best behavior, and perhaps even focused on the topic at hand. When you commit to a longer period of time with your group you set yourself up to benefit from:

  • the “highs and lows” of natural conversation;
  • working through longer problems together that require more patience;
  • the serendipity and creativity of being “all in”;
  • productivity increases from having everyone untethered to constant e-notifications;
  • and countless other benefits.

Important note: this doesn’t mean that EVERY team building activity needs to be a full day event. We recommend a 3:1 mix, where you do one extended session of 4+ hours for every three shorter sessions.

So what can you do on your team building days?

Getaways

At Museum Hack we get the team together for activities outside of NYC. The new environment is refreshing and provides a great platform to learn and grow together. A getaway is also a great way to reward your team for all their hard work because it feels like a mini-vacation. Examples include our ocean cruise and forest retreat.

“I Am Here” Days

In a Psychology Today article by Leberecht, he cites an example of a great thick presence activity, “I Am Here” days.

Take the example of Priya Parker, founder of Thrive Labs. Parker, her husband, the writer Anand Giridharadas, and a handful of friends gather one Sunday a month for “I Am Here” days. The group meets for eight-hour stretches to explore New York City. Everyone makes the commitment to being “thickly in one place, not thinly anywhere,” as Giridharadas puts it. Conversation may flow—or not, but it’s all part of the process; the group values “being” over doing. Given that we are human beings and not robots programmed for ever-increasing rates of production, the chance to stop, breathe, and reflect has become an opportunity we must fight to preserve. Parker and her friends have faith in getting things done by just letting things unfold. The concept may not be revolutionary, but when applied to business, it has the potential to shake the way we view—and do—our jobs.

The above paragraph doesn’t describe some elaborate and expensive team building event. Instead it’s about removing distractions and committing to being together and seeing what emerges. Companies of any size can do this to plan fun team building activities on a very low budget.

Project Crunches

A lot of the time we talk about team building activities being away from the office and work routines because there are massive benefits of this reframing. A new environment with fun, non-work activities gives your team a chance to communicate and bond in new ways. This opportunity sparks creativity and gives everyone a chance to refresh.

But that’s not the only type of team building. “Crunch time”, when everyone works together to meet a deadline or otherwise stressful experience can be an EXTREMELY powerful way to create bonds that reach far beyond the workplace and create genuine friendships. Basically, by forcing codependency you build countless levels of trust between your people.

There are a few ways to do this…

  1. Actual Deadlines — Elon Musk is well known for working with his team to set ambitious deadlines and then pushing them hard to reach these goals even faster. You don’t have to be on overdrive all the time, but when deadlines loom, have your team focus on these together. i.e., make the deadline the priority item that everyone is working on.
  2. Procrastinator Method — a popular productivity method for known procrastinators is to set an artificial deadline. If an essay is due December 14, then YOUR essay is due December 7. The idea is to push yourself into crunch mode before it’s actually critical. You can do the same with your team. If you are working on a public product launch for April 1, set an internal deadline a week or two earlier. This can double the crunch time your team spends together. Another way to do this is to set deadlines on activities that otherwise may not have them, like ongoing efforts in sales and marketing.
  3. Hackathons — in the startup world, hackathons are a common way to bring attention to your brand and to improve your technology. Usually teams attend these events, you give them a brief overview, and then they spend the day creating something together — like a new app or way to connect with your software. You can use hackathons internally in your own business. Give your team one day a month for “Hack Day”, where you set loose guidelines like “we are looking for ways to make our product more senior friendly”. Your group can then break into smaller teams, each of which “competes” to create the best solution and present it by the end of the day. These hackathons are a great way to do team building and improve your product offering at the same time.

The examples above: getaways, “I Am Here Days” and “Project Crunches”, are just a few ways to use thick presence in your business. And these examples focus on how to create thick experiences around your team building efforts. You can also use thick presence to amplify your efforts with clients and other stakeholders. Just find a way to make “the experience of being thickly in one place instead of thinly anywhere”.

Want help integrating thick presence in your business? At Museum Hack we consult for business ranging from small local startups to Fortune 500s. Get in touch via email at [email protected] or read more here.

Want to organize a Museum Hack activity for your company? Click directly to: Team Building Activities in New York City, San FranciscoChicago and Washington, DC.

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