When you think of team-building, what comes to mind? For many of us, the mental picture is a cringe-worthy image of trust exercises, corporate retreats and “mandatory fun” (we all know there’s no such thing). You might even think of this funny-because-its-true commercial about team-building that American Airlines put out a few years ago:

It’s not a big shock that team-building doesn’t really work. People don’t work together because they’re friends or because they like each other – far from it, sometimes. Forcing colleagues to “be a team” through silly exercises (or by making them travel away from their friends and family to “bond” with each other) is often completely ineffective and can even create a negative situation. Yet many companies still jump through the team-building hoops because they want a workforce that truly is a TEAM. They want their staff to get along, work together, focus on goals, be productive and help build and grow the company.

So how can you get those results without team-building exercises?

John M. Fischette of StartupNation.com advocates something better than team-building: Community-building.

The key to community-building lies with the company. The company must make the employees feel like they really are part of a community, not just cogs in a machine. Many corporate office workers in a variety of fields have told me that their companies have long since stopped making them feel appreciated or supported – Instead, they say they face excessive expectations, hostile work environments, a lack of raises/perks, and a general feeling from the management that they should be lucky just to HAVE a job. It’s like the policies of their companies were enacted by the sadistic Catbert character from the Dilbert cartoons.

The companies that treat employees this way might save a little dough in the short-term, but their lack of a community culture will lead to a lack of employee loyalty, a lack of productivity and a lack of growth.

The solution, Fischette says, is to use these tips to build a community in your workplace, one that fosters growth and, yes, a team environment:

  1. Encourage your staff to think differently (read: not the “usual way we do things”), participate in lively conversation/debate about ideas, and raise objections if they have any.
  2. Make sure that all employees have an easy way to share ideas and connect with one another, and encourage ALL employees to bring their ideas to the table.
  3. Be transparent – Employees can get understandably suspicious and feel isolated if management is making decisions behind their backs. Make sure that your staff can follow any projects in real time, not just hear about them after the fact.
  4. Empower your employees – Make it clear that the company is willing to work with them to reach their goals, and make them feel that their career destiny is in their own hands.
  5. Don’t ignore milestones and achievements! Make your employees feel appreciated, because without them, you wouldn’t be in business. Acknowledge work anniversaries, awards, outstanding performance and other positives, and make sure everyone knows what has been accomplished. Do regular reviews and give merit raises annually if possible. In short, make sure that your staff get more positive feedback from you than a simple “nice work on that account, Bob.”
  6. Look for ways that you employees can blend work into their personal lives. You don’t want your staff to feel like they have to choose between work and family – That creates resentment and lowered productivity. Don’t simply roll over and allow workers to walk all over you, but do try to be flexible with hours if you have a staffer with young children, or consider letting your office workers bring well-behaved dogs to the workplace. The more welcoming and family-friendly your business is, the less likely your employees will be to call in sick or otherwise skip out on work obligations.

All of these tips will help your company foster a community environment that encourages your staff to feel more like a team. I’d also add the following suggestions:

  1. Have a sense of humor – Of course, inappropriate humor has no place in the workplace, but if you can’t laugh at yourself or laugh with your staff, you’ll come across as unemotional, uncaring and distant.
  2. Let your employees be themselves – Some offices don’t let staffers keep personal items on their desks, and sometimes, there are good reasons for that rule. But most of the time, it’s better to let your workers personalize their space. It will make them more comfortable at their desks and more likely to work happily there. In my cubicle days, I had a few family photos, some artwork that make me smile, a handful of toys (people are often really creative if you let them play a little while they brainstorm), and a drawer of snacks that anyone was welcome to enjoy. I felt happy in that space, and it made me a better worker.
  3. Keep your door open when possible – you might SAY you have an open door policy, but if your door is actually closed most of the time, people will be less likely to risk knocking on it. If your door is open and your office space is welcoming, your staff will be more likely to approach you with ideas or concerns.
  4. Don’t let too many perks slide – It’s amazing how pleased a group of people can be if the boss brings in donuts for the morning, or orders some lunches for a noon meeting. On the flipside, it’s equally disheartening to be told that one must attend a mandatory meeting over lunchtime AND supply your own lunch. Make sure your employees have some time during the day to themselves (lunch is the most common, but other short breaks are good, too), and encourage them to take that time outside the office. If you must keep them at work for a meeting or event, feed them. And before you point out the bad economy and the belt-tightening that most companies are doing, take note: Employee perks don’t have to be expensive drains on the company budget! Donuts are cheap – far less pricey than the cost of making staffers feel taken for granted. Oh, and there’s no such thing as an “employee appreciation lunch” if the food is pot-luck – No one feels appreciated when they have to cook something.

The important thing is to keep in mind while building your office community that it isn’t “us vs. them,” and it should never seem that way for your staff. Your employees will be more loyal, more eager to do their jobs and more eager to work together if they think that their voices will be heard, their ideas will be considered and their efforts will be appreciated.