Building Camaraderie Through Cooking, Climbing, Cracking Puzzles (Duke Today)

How special activities foster teamwork and positive results

By Jonathan Black

During an afternoon last summer, Nicole Schramm-Sapyta rolled out a pie crust while coworkers blended herbs, chopped vegetables and sliced fresh peaches.

Staff members from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences were in the middle of a team-building activity – a farm-to-table cooking class at Southern Season.

“You learn about a person while doing something low pressure,” said Schramm-Sapyta, chief operating officer for the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. “Then, when there’s a more high-stakes occurrence, it’s much easier to trust and talk to someone.”

Teamwork – one of Duke’s guiding principles – involves working collaboratively to solve problems and reach team goals, said Joy Birmingham, senior practitioner with Duke’s Learning and Organization Development. To foster positive work relationships, she recommends team exercises. 

“Getting to know each other outside of work allows us to trust one another,” she said. “We learn about each other’s background, likes and dislikes. It leads to us not being afraid to ask for help or feedback with one another.”

Here are some ways Duke offices build teamwork.

Chopping vegetables

Shortly after joining the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences last year, Schramm-Sapyta wanted to get to know her new team. She asked, “what better way to do it than to surround ourselves with food?” She and a dozen employees whipped up corn pudding, cold soup with shrimp, salad with vinaigrette dressing and a peach tart at Southern Season. 

“I find that people are more productive when they are comfortable with each other,” Schramm-Sapyta said. 

Solving puzzles

Ginny Boyer wanted her newly formed team to bond, so she locked them in a room together. 

Boyer, director of strategic planning for Duke’s Open Library Environment, booked time at Bull City Escape, where small groups solve puzzles to find their way out of a locked room. Rooms feature varying themes, from stopping a spaceship from self-destructing to finding magical jewels.

“It was important to get everyone together in an environment that was fun and challenged us to work together,” Boyer said. “It breaks down barriers.”

Climbing to new heights

Duke’s Karsh Office of Undergraduate Financial Support has made a habit of visiting Duke landmarks. The team has visited the Nasher Museum of Art and the Lemur Center. And, most recently, about 10 colleagues climbed 210 feet to the top of the Duke University Chapel.

Lisa McClain, information services specialist, says getting out of the office allows everyone’s personality to shine.

“You work together all the time, but you don’t necessarily get to know each other all the time,” she said. “We learn to work better together after experiencing something like the amazing views from the Chapel.”