This summer, publishing executive Christy Light and about 50 colleagues beat drums for 90 minutes to improve their teamwork.
The drum sessions are the latest in a long line of offbeat corporate attempts to foster workplace collaboration. From rope courses in the 1980s to office foosball in the 1990s, employers have toyed with games, outdoor quests, and other group activities in hopes of making their work forces jell better.
After the dot-com bubble burst, many companies shied away from purposeful fun to focus on business nitty-gritty. But some employers continue to experiment with cooking classes, ballroom dancing, and paper-airplane making to motivate and inspire employees.
Proponents have said such activities can spice up otherwise dull meetings and encourage employees to think more about working as a team. Drumming has emerged as a popular option because it is interactive, doesn't require elaborate setup, and doesn't require participants to have experience or talent. Employees gather in a room, pick up drums, and mimic rhythms banged out by session leaders.
"It's very energizing, it's fun, everybody gets to participate, and it definitely sets a high energy tone for the rest of the meeting," said Clare O'Boyle, U.S. director of entertainment at Jack Morton Worldwide, a marketing agency owned by Interpublic Group of Cos. Ms. O'Boyle has booked drumming sessions for clients as well as the agency's own employees.
One group that leads drum sessions is Drum Cafe International, a partnership founded in South Africa. Aviva Nash, president of Drum Cafe New York, said drumming can foster teamwork and collaboration, as well as teach participants that they can achieve ambitious goals by listening to each other and working together.
Some management consultants are skeptical that banging on a drum has any value beyond entertainment. "It's not going to change your culture; it's not going to change people's behavior long term," said John Putzier, president of FirStep Inc. a Prospect, Pa., management consultancy that helps companies improve workers' performance. "Where I think it is a valuable experience is if you're just trying to break the monotony of a conference."
Robert Kelley, an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh, said these activities frequently don't relate directly to participants' workplace culture and tasks. "What I advise companies is if you're going to do this kind of stuff, build the task around something you actually do," he said. He warns that loosey-goosey activities can backfire if they raise false expectations of workplace change.
Pat Galagan, executive editor at the American Society for Training & Development, an Alexandria, Va., human-resources association, said employers looking to improve teamwork now more often make changes tied directly to work. Strategies include refashioning office space to facilitate group work, or tying bonuses to group performance, she said.
Hy Pomerance, who heads learning and development for the Americas region for the investment-banking unit at UBS AG, hired Drum Cafe for the opening session of a two-day off-site meeting for senior information-technology managers. Most of the attendees didn't know each other; organizers hoped to break the ice before assembling a business plan for 2008.
Participants "started out quite skeptical," Mr. Pomerance said. But most got over their embarrassment and began to enjoy themselves. Participants said the drumming helped them relax and speak more openly during the rest of the meeting. "They wouldn't have had the confidence to express themselves as directly, as openly," without the drum session, he said.
Ms. Light, a group business director for Meredith Corp., a Des Moines, Iowa, publisher of magazines including Parents and American Baby, said she enjoyed her drumming session, on the second morning of a two-day conference. As employees ate breakfast in a conference room at a Manhattan hotel, Ms. Nash and four other professional drummers began playing in an adjoining room.
The magazine staffers streamed into the room, where there was a drum on each seat. They sat down, picked up their drums and began beating them, without instruction or prodding. Staffers mimicked the beats the drum leaders played.
For about an hour and a half, they played different rhythms, including a variation of a West African beat and some created by Drum Cafe. Each set was slightly more complicated than the last. Ms. Nash explained the parallels to work: They could make great music together -- even while playing different rhythms -- as long as they focused on the core beat, or in the corporate world, the business mission.
"Everybody dropped their inhibitions and just went with it," said Norma Blatto, publisher of American Baby Group at Meredith, who ran the conference. The company encourages employees to share information and work together. "I think the spirit of [the drum session] was really good to get people into that mode," she said.
Some participants said the session was more about entertaining than skill-building. It was "more about fun than learning how to do your job better," said Chuck Hajj, a managing director in the American Baby group. But he did appreciate the teamwork metaphor.
Ms. Light said the session helped her and co-workers bond over a shared experience. "It's a conversation piece that everyone can remember and say, 'We did that together,' " she said.