Trust falls are passé. Paintball leaves bruises. The best way to bond with coworkers now is doing an “escape room,” a game in which participants are given a set amount of time (usually an hour) to solve a series of puzzles and free themselves from a locked space. A theme or conceit gives the game urgency—players are told they have an hour before a killer virus wipes out their city, for example, or they must break out of prison before the warden returns. One particularly meta room in Florida has corporate participants escape from an office.
The first escape room opened in Japan about a decade ago. Today an online directory lists rooms in 101 countries, from Cambodia to Colombia. They’re popular with students, overstressed urban professionals, corporate retreat organizers, and the Obama family, who busted out of a Hawaii location with 12 seconds to spare. It’s a relatively low-stakes way to learn how a team operates under pressure, outside the confines of the office.
On a recent Thursday, three coworkers and I paid a stranger $30 apiece to lock us in a room in Brooklyn. We are a far-flung team whose members work from home and from satellite offices in New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and, in one case, a cabin in the woods near Santa Cruz, California. This week was our first time being all together in a room of any kind, and now we were standing in a dark and cramped one, listening to a woman tell us how we got there.
“It’s the day after a nuclear holocaust, and you are the few survivors who managed to make it out into this bunker,” she explained. “But now, time is running out. The plants are mutating, the oxygen is running low, and you have only one hour to escape this bunker and get to a place of safety.” She dramatically flipped a switch—and nothing happened. The Nuclear Room malfunctioned. Escape room lesson number one: Be prepared to adapt to unexpected circumstances. We followed her down a hall to the Haunted Room, whose backstory was a lot less exciting.
“It’s a Thursday afternoon. There’s a haunted house. You have nothing better to do so you check it out,” she said, impatiently ushering us inside.
The room was dark and furnished like a picked-over antique shop: a piano in one corner, a phonograph in the other, a torn panel screen concealing a grandfather clock and a fish tank with a rubber goldfish floating on top of the water.
“I stress faint,” a colleague whispered, alarmingly, but it was too late. The attendant closed the door and the countdown was on.
About 65% of teams make it out of the Haunted Room, the attendant said later. I’ll spare you the suspense: we did not. As a team we possess many skills; MacGyvering our way out of a knock-off Haunted Mansion is not one of them. But we did learn some valuable lessons about how we work individually and as a team from the experience.
We were reluctant to ask for help. The game’s staff are watching on hidden cameras at all times and if you’re stuck, you need only press a button to summon a staffer for a clue. There are zero downsides to asking for help. It is just a game. And yet, when we were stuck, the teammate who made the eminently reasonable suggestion that we ask for assistance got a reflexive “No!” from the control freaks among us. (At least, I think someone else said it with me.)
We were too easily deterred. Eventually we did ask for help, after sacrificing a fatal amount of time trying to piece together a clue involving a piano. The attendant appeared with the smug expression of someone who has been watching idiots on reality TV and pointed out a solution so irritatingly obvious that we sort of shooed her out of the room and pretended she’d never been there. The really annoying part was that we’d actually already had this thought—we tried it early in the search and abandoned it midway through. The problem in this case wasn’t lack of ideas; it was follow-through.
Still, knowing when to let go of a bad idea is a useful skill. Escape rooms are full of red herrings. I spent at least 10 minutes rearranging a bunch of creepy dolls, convinced they held the key to our escape. They did not. I also found myself fiddling with the same props over and over again, like a lab rat certain that somehow, this time, the lever would dispense another pellet of food. Comfortingly, I’m not alone in this. Room escapers tear props to pieces in the misguided certainty that clues are buried within. Multiple signs at Escape the Room NYC warned us not to physically take things apart. This warning made more sense once we’d been playing awhile.
We were our own worst enemies. As a group, we were cooperative. As the time ticked by, however, our personal stress responses sabotaged us individually. One member of the team felt self-consciously deferential and was uncomfortable advocating for her ideas. Another found the eerie setting so creepy that she shut down. I became quietly furious at myself for not being able to solve a puzzle that some banker probably figured out drunk. All of these responses were ultimately distractions from the task at hand.
The post-room takeaways have been helpful. “I am 100% making a note to push back more,” the colleague who felt intimidated to speak up said later. “The worst I can be told us no, and it’ll teach me to really back up my arguments better. So I’d say it was productive.”
It also gave us a shared experience to talk about, something that can be hard to come by when you work a few thousand miles apart. Ultimately, I liked doing the escape room, but I really liked talking with my co-workers about it afterward. It seems an hour in a haunted chamber can do for work relationships what months of Slack conversations can’t.