When Madison Dreiger joined a Seattle-based surface water engineering firm as a marketing assistant last year, she didn’t realise that egg tosses in the firm’s courtyard, hula-hoop making and even a tutorial on making hair-ties would be part of her job description. But like most meetings, attendance is mandatory.
Forced fun, as the events are referred to in the office, are “strongly encouraged” for all employees of the firm, even though they have nothing to do with actual work — and might not be all that fun for everyone.
A year and a half later, the 23-year-old is still not entirely comfortable breaking away from her deadlines to attend. But Dreiger said the short activities are helping her establish informal bonds with colleagues and higher ups in the office.
“It all feels like we are on the same level when we’re doing something outside of our normal job,” said Dreiger about the events that are held each Thursday during office hours at Osborn Consulting.
Mandatory social outings or team building exercises are a part of a growing trend to get workers to go from anonymous colleagues to fast friends. Stepping away from the stress of the workday, say proponents, can be a good way to get to know colleagues and better communicate on the job. But others say these events and activities aren’t always enjoyable and can make an already long work week seem even longer.
And, as the name implies, forced fun can feel, well, forced. But, knowing how to cope with these mandatory events can also help you forge more successful career connections.
Personal relationships are the foundation of teams
“Personal relationships are the foundation of teams and that requires appreciating each other as people,” said Marc Kaplan, a principal in Deloitte Consulting’s organisation transformation practice and talent practice in New York.
Tweaking the start-up approach
To be sure, impromptu company-wide ping-pong tournaments have long been a natural part of start-up life, but older and larger organisations are now investing in a more strategic approach to informal bonding, said Kaplan.
“There is a lot more process and infrastructure” in more established companies, which increases the need for leisure activities that are planned ahead of time, he said. “In a larger organisation [your boss] may be sitting in Paris while others are in different time zones,” so the need to be on the same page by forming tighter bonds is even more important, he said.
But when participating in forced fun becomes a requirement, employees can become resentful of needing to step away from tight deadlines in order to do what feels less important. Others simply don’t want to spend what can feel like unnecessary time with work colleagues they already see more than 40 hours a week at the office. And frankly, for some people, forced participation is just not enjoyable no matter how you look at it. Not everyone is interested in a faux basketball tourney or yet another happy hour.
To create more excitement around events, Veronique James, chief executive of The James Agency, an advertising firm in Scottsdale, Arizona in the US, now hosts activities on a bi-monthly rather than a bi-weekly basis. The firm’s employees know the schedule months ahead of time, but they are required to attend.
Fences are brought down when we have fun together
She budgets $20,000 per year for events, which are considered part of employee benefits for tax purposes. The 30-person team has gone indoor skydiving, taken a ballroom dancing class and gone through an afternoon of trapeze training together.
“We all have daily struggles with co-workers, but those fences are brought down when we have fun together,” said James.
And she’s seen a big upside: investing in forced fun has helped James with employee retention. During the work hours there’s a better team dynamic because of the ability to bond through one-of-a-kind experiences and employees are more hesitant to leave their position because they’ve made friends, she added. James said she is also mindful of employees’ time and is careful to not host events outside of work hours.
The limits of forced fun
But, some studies warn against being too close with colleagues.
Getting together socially doesn’t solve for how you get at the root cause of the culture issues
Three years ago, a study looked at emails from more than 180 teams that worked in a single Canadian company to track team effectiveness across multiple offices. The best functioning teams had a high level of cohesion with close ties between team members, something that non-work events can help achieve. But groups with too much cohesion were also less successful, according to Sean Wise, an entrepreneurship professor at Ryerson University who conducted the study.
It turns out that sometimes group events can camouflage the changes and environment that’s really required to improve work culture on a day-to-day basis.
“Getting together socially doesn’t solve for how you get at the root cause of the culture issues,” said Deloitte’s Kaplan. Rather than using dinners or happy hours away from the office, Kaplan works with companies to show employees how they are valued while on the job. For example, setting a culture of working regular hours without the need to check email at night, can help ease resentment once employees are invited to participate in non-work related events, he said.
As well, rather than making an event mandatory, Kaplan suggests giving choices of which event to attend to lessen the pressure on colleagues. Knowing that you have a choice can make it more palatable for to pick one that’s enjoyable.
And use absences to learn. No-shows at non-mandatory social events can be a good barometer for the happiness and stress levels of staff and serve as a way to diagnose deeper organisational problems, Kaplan added. While more casual social events may take place outside of regular work hours, it’s beneficial to host longer affairs during the work day.
At the James Agency, each event allows participation on multiple levels. For example, three employees who were afraid of heights during a recent hot air balloon outing, got to ride in the chase van to celebrate when the other employees arrived on back on the ground, said James. She’s careful to plan all-inclusive events that make it simple to join regardless of fitness level or other constraints.
“It’s not all in or all out,” she said.
Since starting at the company, Dreiger has made it a point to attend as many forced fun events as possible, a strategy that’s helped her acclimate to the small team environment. The events are a time for some off-the-radar work gossip. If you don’t show up, “you get the impression that you’re missing out,” she said.
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