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A Guide for Team Building with Escape Rooms

Escaping Ordinary Team Building:

A How-To Guide for Team Building with Escape Rooms

(commissioned and distributed by ARENA & released 9/12/17)
by Tyler Hayden (international keynote speaker and prolific author on team building)
& Andrew Gipson (owner of The Escape—including five escape game locations & two mobile units)

Table of Contents

Executive Summary
Complete White Paper
Sources and Recommended Reading


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Team Building With Escape Rooms

Executive Summary

Read the summary of the white paper or download it as a PDF.
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Escaping Ordinary Team Building

a white paper commissioned by ARENA & released 9/12/17,
written by Tyler Hayden and Andrew Gipson

Escape rooms are multiplying in North America at an astonishing rate—largely because they make team building affordable, accessible and fun for all sorts of organizations. The cooperation required by escape games is valuable to non-profits focused on camaraderie as well as for-profits focused on productivity.

In the business world, the cash value of team building activities is as difficult to calculate as it is to overstate. Testimonials suggest that such activities often have a dramatic and lasting impact on the ability of coworkers to solve problems collectively. Since escape rooms are so affordable (roughly $30 a head) and convenient (a drive across town instead of a trip into the mountains), it’s no surprise that culture builders in corporate America increasingly rely on them for team building.

Any business that can afford to hire team building professionals temporarily (or to keep such experts on staff) is likely to benefit from pairing such expertise with escape room challenges. For more budget-conscious culture builders, this guide includes DIY instructions for team building facilitation that non-experts (a manager or HR representative) can follow with ease. The guide challenges culture builders to define their objectives with Tyler Hayden’s three F’s of fun, fast forward and fix; summarizes Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory and David Kolb’s experiential cycle of learning; and features a step-by-step process for the in-house facilitation of any escape room-based team building activity.

From ice breaking to advanced problem solving—from small budgets to large ones—from untrained culture building to expert facilitation, escape rooms fit the team building bill for almost any organization.

The White Paper

Read the entire whitepaper here or download it as a PDF.
Download PDF

Escaping Ordinary Team Building:

A How-To Guide for Team Building with Escape Rooms

(Commissioned & distributed by ARENA)
by Tyler Hayden (international keynote speaker and prolific author on team building)
& Andrew Gipson (owner of The Escape—including five escape game locations & two mobile units)

Five years ago, the escape room industry didn’t exist in North America. Today, there are over 6,000 escape rooms between the US and Canada.[i]

The popularity of immersive entertainment[ii] helps explain why this new business model has burgeoned in industrial parks, shopping malls and historic homes. However, an equally important driver of this explosive growth is the ability of escape rooms to supply all sorts of organizations (from churches and scouting troops to schools and non-profits) with unmatched opportunities for team building.

Businesses are increasingly keen to exploit the team building impact of escape games—especially when their human resource directors are aware of the incredible returns possible through thoughtful investments in training. Most managers have long appreciated that businesses can only be as nimble and productive as their workforce, but few suspected how dramatic an impact training could have on the bottom line before Motorola demonstrated the possibility of achieving a $29 return on every dollar invested in sales training.[iii] Although no reliable studies have been conducted on the precise returns possible through investing in team building, the value of such activities is plain to anyone who understands how much the success of any business depends on the ability of its employees to reach their shared goals through cooperation.

Chad Atkins internalized this lesson after staffers at his animal rescue underwent a team building experience at a nearby escape room:

As a team building experience, we found The Ultimate Escape Rooms to be the perfect choice. Members quickly came together and worked well as a team. They experienced no hierarchy and worked very well together, while laughing a lot! Highly recommended.

—Chad Atkins, Founder
Paw Works Animal Rescue
Thousand Oaks, CA

Some businesses make the mistake of investing in team building only for low-level employees, but what’s good for warehouse workers is even better for executive officers. Escape room challenges can catalyze unexpected breakthroughs for management teams, as the culture builders & thought leaders at Methodist Texsan Hospital discovered:

The return on investment for our management team was great. We invested a tiny amount of time and money at Escape Haus in New Braunfels for this unique experience and now have developed improved cohesion with the team.”

—Scott Davis, Chief Executive Officer
Methodist Texsan Hospital
San Antonio, TX

Since different workers bring different kinds of intelligence to bear on the problems they routinely face, it’s difficult to overestimate the value of training them to synergize these disparate approaches to solving problems. For decades, such training has focused on the physical challenges associated with swinging through trees (as with Project Adventure) or climbing over mountains (as with Outward Bound). However, the social and intellectual challenges presented by escape rooms appeal to a much broader population of workers—with no safety harnesses required.[iv] Escape rooms also happen to be tremendous fun, which translates to the interpersonal bonding that yields a strong sense of community in the workplace.

Distinct Team Building Objectives: Hayden’s 3 F’s

To maximize the return on a team building investment, an organization’s culture visionary—the leader who knows what type of culture to build—should first define the objectives of the team building activity. One culture builder may be interested in enhancing camaraderie; another in honing particular skill sets; another in resolving personality conflicts; and yet another in all three categories. Tyler Hayden (co-author of this white paper) helps culture builders define their core objectives by having them think about the three F’s of fun, fast forward, and fix.[v]

Fun is valuable all by itself if only because it is always more far-reaching than it seems. Fun serves as an ice breaker for workers who don’t know each other well and as a way of cementing bonds between those who do. Better yet, fun is the most easily obtained component of the three F’s because it doesn’t require any facilitation at all. Having workers spend an afternoon in an escape room is in many ways like taking them to a miniature golf course. The fun happens automatically; no special guidance is required.

The fast forward objective is more rigorous because it involves moving a team from its present level of functionality to a more advanced level (usually for the purpose of increasing productivity). Specialized team building activities can help employees leverage each other’s strengths, gain nuanced understanding of social dynamics and improve their communication. A good escape game—unlike alternative team building activities—can achieve each of these goals and more. But specialized knowledge may be required to convert these team building opportunities into actual culture improvement. That specialized knowledge comes in the form of a facilitator—a role that can be played by an internal culture builder or an outside professional.

Sometimes a specific fix is required for employees who don’t work well together. Maybe a team member unwittingly acts as a bully or an office gossiper has created counterproductive cliques. Many team building activities have been devised to confront such problems. But escape games can be especially helpful in pinpointing and addressing the source of the dysfunction. This sort of work may go beyond the skills of an in-house culture builder, often requiring a consultation between a professional facilitator and a representative from a reputable escape game.

External Facilitator vs. Internal Culture Builder

Culture builders who are looking for more than just a fun time will benefit from hiring a professional team builder to facilitate the escape room experience. Those who can afford such experts will reap many benefits—especially in terms of the demands on their schedule. The professional facilitator will interview the team members beforehand and help set industry- and personality-specific goals. During the actual escape game experience, she might act as a sort of fly on the wall—not participating in the action, merely observing. Along with in-person observation, she will also keep copies of the video feeds provided by the escape room owner. With the help of these videos, that aforementioned bully, who lacks self-awareness, can immediately and privately see how he belittled his teammates. Such vulnerabilities amongst team members show up plainly during escape game activities because the challenges generate a willing suspension of disbelief along with the pressure of a ticking clock. Team members drop their guards and reveal their true colors—enabling the expert facilitator to identify opportunities for improvement and to set attainable goals for the various team members as part of the debriefing process.

Facilitated Team Building using Escape GamesTo find escape rooms that routinely work with professional facilitators, culture builders should visit the Association for Room Escapes of North America’s (ARENA’s) website (escapegamesamerica.org) and use its best-in-class directory. The Facilitated Team Building certification icon indicates that ARENA (a non-profit industry trade group) has already screened a particular room to see that it passes certain standards for this designation. Some escape rooms without this icon may also have experience providing expert facilitation—something culture builders can usually determine via a quick phone call or email exchange.

However, businesses that can’t afford the services of a professional facilitator can still reap tremendous benefits from escape room challenges. In fact, the remainder of this guide is designed for in-house culture builders who find themselves thrust into the role of surrogate facilitators despite their lack of formal training (which happens to be the more common path for team building in escape rooms if only because the bare bones experience is so much more affordable than the facilitated option). The team building magic of escape rooms is so powerful that anyone willing to read the next two pages and step outside their comfort zone can become a reasonably effective ad hoc facilitator. Non-experts need not be intimidated, as the jargon of the team building profession will be kept to a minimum.

Making any team building experience as productive as possible usually starts with understanding how such activities involve different kinds of intelligence and a cycle of learning. The multiple intelligence theory[vi] (from Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard) is a great place to start. If Alan’s favorite subject in school was art, he’s probably a visual thinker. If his sister Brenda preferred physical education, she’s more kinesthetic. If their friend Chuck enjoyed algebra, it’s probably because his mind functions mathematically/logically. Other widely recognized forms of intelligence include linguistic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical and naturalistic.[vii] Since big, complex problems are best resolved by combining different forms of intelligence, the savvy culture builder understands that successful team building activities—like escape games—will help all the participants appreciate the diversity of thinking strategies encountered in any group of people. Escape room challenges do a fantastic job of highlighting disparate intelligences in such a way that differently minded people experience the joy of solving puzzles together—relying on other people’s strengths when necessary and contributing solutions of their own when possible.

Researcher David Kolb’s analysis of the experiential cycle of learning[viii] is equally important because it applies to almost any team building exercise. Kolb points out that the human model of learning tends to proceed sequentially from a concrete experience (having an experience) to reflective observation (reviewing that experience) to abstract conceptualization (realizing what has been learned from that experience) to active experimentation (applying whatever has been learned to new contexts). Successful team building activities simultaneously help participants appreciate the difference of their intellectual approaches even as they go through the same learning cycle.

Escape rooms are valuable experiential learning tools because each room is unique. There’s no reason to assume that participants who have already conquered one escape room challenge will be ahead of their peers in the next. Escape room puzzles also level the playing field by engaging the attention of participants so fully that they tend to forget about social hierarchy and see each other as equal partners, which turns the activity of thinking together into an enjoyable concrete experience. Once that happens, a positive experiential cycle of learning will have begun whether the team building exercise is facilitated by a specialist or not if only because the team members will participate in a process that requires multiple intelligences to work cooperatively towards a common goal.[ix] Team building exercises are therefore beneficial even if the participants lack the expertise and vocabulary to understand precisely why they are beneficial.

From Fun Times to Great Team Building Activities

Escape rooms are so affordable (roughly $30/person) that an enterprising culture builder (serving as an untrained facilitator) can generate a huge return on a team building investment simply by following the six-step process outlined below.

  1. Certified Escape RoomDefine Goals – As discussed above, establishing goals is the first step to maximizing the escape room team building experience. If the goal is to have fun and only fun, then culture builders need do little more than consult the ARENA directory and find the nearest escape room (preferably an ARENA-certified location) to book an appointment for the best team building investment they will ever make. No further research is necessary, as the rest of this 6-step process will essentially take care of itself (with a little help from the escape room staff).
  2. Identify Options – Not all escape games are created equal. Uncertified rooms can be downright bad. Even some top-flight rooms (especially those meant for hard-core gamers) may be designed without any focus on team building at all. For optimal results, the escape room selected should come stocked with engaging puzzles, logical flow and require multiple intelligences for success. ARENA offers its best-in-class directory to help culture builders select the ideal escape game. Better yet, the in-house facilitator will frequently be allowed an initial, complementary test run as part of a larger group reservation.
  3. Choose Room – The average escape location has four rooms, so culture builders in certain cities may have dozens of great options nearby. However, with thousands of escape room owners relying on highly variable quality standards and pricing strategies, higher cost doesn’t always translate to better experiences. A little bit of homework (such as a phone inquiry along the lines of “Why doesn’t your escape room have the ARENA certification yet?”) will go a long way.
  4. Foreshadow – The in-house facilitator should set learning objectives for the experience beforehand—just as a professional facilitator would. The best escape games will parallel pertinent organizational realities, such as curveballs from competitors or interpersonal communication challenges. Since succeeding or failing at an escape room challenge is at best secondary to the team building challenge, foreshadowing isn’t about giving hints to the team about how to win the game (escape the room). Rather, this effort should be used to make the parallels between the whimsical game and the real workplace more explicit. Most escape games feature a point at which various team members must simultaneously share their individual results. The in-house facilitator may want to highlight the importance of this moment by saying, “Near the middle of the puzzle you have to get together and communicate, just like our Monday morning meetings, when we are trying to get everyone’s input for strategic purposes.” Such foreshadowing helps team members recognize opportunities for delegation, compartmentalization, communication, execution, prioritization, etc. Abstract discussion of such topics usually prompts workers to zone out, but escape games bring them to life and create opportunities for actual culture improvement.
  5. Experience – Upon entering the room, different intelligences and different personalities will have a condensed, unique, shared learning experience. Suddenly, the norms and mores of the typical work environment become irrelevant. Disbelief is suspended and the playing field for all team members is leveled (possibly inverted) as all voices are required to succeed in solving the puzzle . . . as a team.[x]
  6. Debrief/Next Steps – Regardless of the outcome, the culture builder should use the debriefing opportunity to hit on specifics of the experience by reviewing the game parallels to the workaday team environment in more detail. The debriefing process can be as open-ended as the in-house facilitator needs it to be. Some teams will benefit most from a brief meeting with the entire group that focuses on just one lesson. Other teams may need to break into individual meetings with the in-house facilitator over the course of several weeks to address specific sources of friction/miscommunication. Whatever form the debriefing process takes, the point is to establish next steps with the team collectively and each member individually. Helpful tactics may range from coaching and mentoring to reward strategies and event recall at meetings; the in-house facilitator probably won’t know which tack to take until after the escape room challenge and should give the matter some thought before reacting, as debriefing is possibly the most important step for optimizing the escape game experience.[xi]

This 6-step process is merely a starting point for in-house facilitators who wish to apply fundamental team building principles to an escape room activity. Those who seek a deeper understanding should consult the sources and suggested materials (below) to track down the research and analysis that addresses their particular concerns. The deeper a visionary’s understanding of team building is, the more beneficial any team building process is likely to be. But the magic of escape rooms is that no formal training is required for their impact on team culture to exceed the expectations of any visionary willing to invest in them.


[i] Consult Wikipedia for a brief description of escape games. There are over 1,500 brick-and-mortar escape game locations in the U.S. and Canada. The average number of rooms in each location is around four—hence the 6,000+ room figure. Not all games are played in a single room. Some are played virtually, in mobile units, outdoors (at least partially) and in various other abstracted forms.

[ii] This article focuses on escape games before delving into other forms of immersive entertainment. This video interview reviews immersive entertainment vehicles other than escape rooms.

[iii] See “An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of E-Learning, Mobile Learning, and Instructor-Led Training in Organizational Training and Development” by Dr. Tyechia V. Paul in The Journal of Human Resource and Adult Learning (2014), p. 6.

[iv] Escape rooms also tend to be more accessible to businesses than wilderness-based activities. From a productivity standpoint, it’s much easier to justify a 15-minute drive to a local escape room than a 3-hour trek to the nearest mountain range or ropes course.

[v] See “‘F’ Words in Team Building: Shaping the Right Team Building Solution for Your Needs” (2017).

[vi] See Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1985).

[vii] Of course, most individuals can use multiple intelligences and some individuals have the rare ability to alternate quickly between different forms of intelligence.

[viii] See Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (2014).

[ix] For the sake of giving laypeople a solid handle on some slippery subject matter, the infographic that accompanies this guide deliberately oversimplifies the relationship between team building and Kolb’s cycle of learning as well as Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory.

[x] As a general rule, the internal facilitator should be patient enough with the learning process to allow the team members to discover the value of collaborative thinking on their own during the escape game. However, some social dynamics may require that this lesson be explicitly highlighted prior to the team building challenge. When team members don’t reach this conclusion without explicit guidance, illustrating it with specific examples from the activity becomes an important part of the internal facilitator’s role in the next step.

[xi] Culture builders seeking more quick tips on in-house facilitation should visit the team building blog maintained by Dan Willis. Willis spent 28 years in corporate America, most recently with a Fortune 100 company, before cofounding Bustout Colorado, a mobile escape room dedicated to creative team building and training. His insights concerning celebration, communication, leadership and clue overload are helpful to anyone contemplating an escape room-based team building activity.

Sources and Suggested Materials

Amy Driscoll & Nancy Nagel, “The Eight Intelligences” (excerpt from Early Childhood Education, Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2008), https://www.education.com/reference/article/eight-intelligences/.

Forbes Coaches Council, “14 Things Your Team-Building Activity Needs to Succeed” (Forbes.com, March 2017), https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/03/10/14-things-your-team-building-activity-needs-to-succeed/#75576d5b747e.

Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Basic Books, 1985).

Luke Graham, “Welcome to Immersive Entertainment” (CNBC.com, August 2016), http://www.cnbc.com/2016/08/11/a-theater-in-90-rooms-across-5-floors-welcome-to-immersive-entertainment.html.

Tyler Hayden, “‘F’ Words in Team Building: Shaping the Right Team Building Solution for Your Needs” (linkedin.com, April 2017), https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/f-words-team-building-shaping-right-solution-your-tyler.

Susan M. Heathfield, “12 Tips for Team Building in the Workplace” (Balance.com, March 2017), https://www.thebalance.com/tips-for-team-building-1918512.

Eric Kohn, “Horror Movies You Can Live: Why Immersive Experiences Are the Future of Entertainment” (IndieWire, May 2017), http://www.indiewire.com/2017/05/immersive-theater-future-of-entertainment-overlook-film-festival-1201812723/.

David Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (Pearson Education, 2014).

Tyechia V. Paul, “An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of E-Learning, Mobile Learning, and Instructor-Led Training in Organizational Training and Development” (The Journal of Human Resource and Adult Learning, December 2014), http://www.hraljournal.com/Page/1%20Tyechia%20Paul-new.pdf.

Brian Scudamore, “Why Team Building Is the Most Important Investment You’ll Make” (Forbes.com, March 2016), https://www.forbes.com/sites/brianscudamore/2016/03/09/why-team-building-is-the-most-important-investment-youll-make/2/#62157f61db2f.

George Serafeim & Claudine Gartenberg, “The Type of Purpose That Makes Companies More Profitable” (Harvard Business Review, October 2016), https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-type-of-purpose-that-makes-companies-more-profitable.

Suzanne Willis Zoglio, “7 Keys to Building Great Workteams” (TeamBuildersPlus.com), http://teambuildersplus.com/articles/7-keys-to-building-great-workteams.