By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

During a review-session at my last company, I was asked who my “best friend” at work was. The question didn’t really make sense to me – I liked all of my coworkers, but I didn’t feel I liked any one more than the others. On top of that, it seemed like a silly question – why did it even matter?

We also did lots of team-building exercises and had a quarterly staff outing, which was always a good time (watching my coworkers jam out on Guitar Hero was certainly memorable). But I always assumed the purpose was to build coworker relationships, and thus help us perform better as a team in the office.

I never considered it a retention strategy as well.

Why Retention Matters – Right Now

As we’ve reported recently, new studies show that the majority of employees are considering a job shift in the coming year as we exit the recession: Right Management announced findings which showed that 60% of employees intended to find new jobs in the next year, with another 21% saying they were considering it.

On top of that, economists are predicting a major labor shortage – very soon.

At a recent Financial Women’s Association panel discussion on the American worker, Edward F. Keon, Managing Director and Portfolio Manager, Quantitative Management Associates (QMA) explained that as the majority of baby boomers retire over the next 5 or 10 years, many companies will be left scrambling for employees to fill those positions… which will result in, “a real sharp increase in real wages in the middle of the decade.”

Not only will staff be leaving (or retiring early), it will cost more to replace them. As business advisor Lori Dernavich explains:

“While we can’t be entirely sure how long it will take the economy to recover, there are many other transitions in store for workplaces in the coming years that we can be sure about. …In 2020, the workplace will look entirely different than it does now. By staying ahead of the curve, companies will be able to effectively prepare and smoothly transition into the next decade.”

Strategies for Retention-Based Team Building

So, how to hang onto your star employees? One way is to build stronger internal relationships. Dernavich explains, “The more friends employees have at work, the less likely they are to leave the company.” Here are three factors to remember in creating retention-based team-building strategy.

Belonging to the Mission

Susan M. Heathfield writes, “Belonging to a team, in the broadest sense, is a result of feeling part of something larger than yourself. It has a lot to do with your understanding of the mission or objectives of your organization.” Rather than just be an outlet for socializing or a platform to connect with team mates on a personal level better, team building strategy needs to incorporate your company’s mission – create a connection between the team-building exercise and what your company stands for.

Cultivating Effective Affinity Networks

According to Carmen Van Kerckhove, “Over 90% of Fortune 500 companies have employee affinity groups.” They become effective tools for retention when they include a diverse range of seniority levels. Van Kerckhove explains, “encourage senior executives to get involved. Their insights into how the organization works and how to most efficiently get things done can be invaluable for all involved, resulting in associations that may lead upward in the ranks as time goes on.” By providing opportunities for informal or formal mentorship within the organization, you can encourage lower level employees to stick around, and grow into more senior roles.

Incorporating Creativity

Show some creative thought in your team building strategy – and encourage employees to get involved in the planning process with their own creative ideas. That way, they’ll feel involved and motivated to participate in the event, and interested in sticking around for future events as well.