Full-Grown Humans, at least those not in the NBA, do not jump. It's not just that it's jarring and exhausting. It's one of those childish things people put away about the time they start paying taxes and stop singing in public.
But this is America, where one person's taboo is another's business opportunity. Hence the arrival of the newest weapon in the corporate team-building arsenal: bouncy castles. Pump It Up (PIU), the nation's biggest chain of indoor inflatable playgrounds--those facilities with enormous, brightly colored balloon-like structures that usually house frenetic children--is now offering business-education programs. (Read "Competence: Is Your Boss Faking It?")
Team-building, which some participants regard as re-education's perkier cousin, takes workers out of a familiar environment to coax them to think differently, view one another differently or just let off steam. PIU's version operates on the intriguing premise that intra-office communication improves when employees barrel down a 20-ft. (about 6 m) slide or whack one another with inflatable jousting bats.
Of course, the folks at PIU have not gone into this airily. The head office worked with team-building experts for a year to devise a handbook that is to be sent to all 175 PIU franchisees around the country. For franchise owners, it's a win-win. They can usually fill their facilities with hordes of birthday-cake-fueled kids on weekends and even after school. But business sags considerably during office hours. (See pictures of office cubicles around the world.)
Among the team-building activities: "Leading the Crowd Playfully" (to break the ice), "Tag Team Climbing" (to improve cooperation) and "Kneeling Basketball" (to learn to deal with downsizing, perhaps?). But will morale really improve if the 9-to-5 crowd spends a little time bouncing around--in socks, in full view of the boss?
"There's always a hesitation with team-building," says Pat Whelan, a corporate-bonding veteran who is working with PIU to run the courses in several states. But the childishness of the exercises, he adds, is the point. "When you were a kid, you didn't have to like all the other kids you played with. You just played." PIU's activities, he says, sure beat the trust-building exercise one company asked him to run using a plank between two hot-air balloons. He declined.
PIU's corporate program was officially launched in December, but even before then, a few firms had taken the, ahem, leap. Since 2005, Jody Wallace, who owns a PIU franchise in Ohio, has hosted about two events a month for local divisions of Procter & Gamble, GE, Yellow Book and Ryan Homes. She says she got the idea partly from watching parents sheepishly try out the equipment at their children's parties. "They got just as excited as the kids," she says.
While the American Society for Training & Development reports that spending on outsourced corporate education is on the decline, a session at PIU--at about $2,000 a pop--is cheaper than, say, a day of golfing. And, depending on your handicap, no more humiliating. Plus, it gives companies a rare opportunity: to guarantee their employees a soft landing.