Innovation, Teambuilding, and… Fire Drills?

Fire drills can be a major annoyance. They force people to leave the building, they interrupt work and they can feel like a colossal waste of time.

But as a colleague of mine just experienced, there are hidden benefits to the fire drill, too – and I don’t mean knowing where to go in case of a fire. Being mandated to step away from your desk can have the impact of refocusing your mind and clarifying your priorities.

There’s the physical aspect, too. If the day is nice and the locale has a bit of nature to it, it can boost your spirits and refresh you. Escaping the limited space of an office, and stepping into the much larger outdoors, can expand your mind.

Getting outside can expose you to opportunities for socialization you wouldn’t have in the office. You can’t work, so you’re free to talk, to catch up with people you haven’t seen lately, to build connections with new faces. Bonding with and learning about others can change your perspectives and open your mind to new ideas.

Finally, there’s the opportunity for emotional release. Work is stressful, and when you are pushing at it too hard, it will wear you down. That “excused absence” can give you a chance to reset, refresh and return to work renewed.

So why don’t organizations do more of this? Maybe not more fire drills, but more activities that give workers a chance to re-focus, de-stress, and interact with each other in nontraditional ways.

There’s sound science behind the idea. Gabriel Radvansky at the University of Notre Dame has researched what he calls “the doorway effect” commonly experienced when people walk into a different room and promptly forget the reason they entered it. Radvansky suggests that this happens because our brains construct “event models” that match our surroundings. In other words, we focus on what is significant to that setting.

What could you do to replicate some of the benefits of a fire drill? Here are a few ideas. How about an employee art show where employees can see another side of the people they work with? What about inviting employees to share the insights they gained at a recent trade show over a catered lunch? What about simply picking a beautiful summer day and inviting people to grab their lunch and bring it to a nearby park for a picnic? The possibilities are endless.

Don’t be afraid of being spontaneous, either. Pulling off occasional surprises can make these breaks from routine even more effective. Just make sure your ideas follow these guidelines, so they have maximum effect. Seek to put people in a new environment – occasionally outdoors if possible. Insist everyone participate, unless it falls after work or during lunch. Keep it short – no more than 20 minutes – so no one feels drawn back to their desk.

The point is to nudge people out of familiar settings and into situations where they’re likely to look at things a little differently, deepen connections with others and refresh their minds before coming back into the familiar work environment. Will everything they experienced “stick” when they walk back through the door and head to their desk? No. Some of it will evaporate when their “workplace mind” kicks in again.

But don’t underestimate the sticking power of experiences that stand outside the normal routine. Connections with others will grow – sometimes in ways that can inspire unexpected insights and collaborations. Thought patterns will shift – perhaps subtly, but they will shift. And, if nothing else, employees will come back ready to approach their work with refreshed minds.

Want to talk more about how to help employees reset, refresh and reconnect for a more energized and effective workforce? I’d be happy to help you achieve your goals. And, make sure you enjoy your next fire drill!