Company leaders like to believe their company is fun and attractive, with an active social calendar to strengthen morale and internal relationships. But how to make this happen? It can be the touch of death for any activity to be organized by the leadership, coming off as too corporate, with money spent but attendance low and the effort unappreciated. Yet if the office is all work and no play, where is the joy – much less the warm company feeling – in that?

To improve events and increase staff engagement, executives may put HR in charge of driving social activities. They may ask a “younger” staff member to lead, hoping they will “understand” younger colleagues and be able to tap into fresh energy and fun ideas. A survey may be sent around to gather suggestions and get a sense of what people might want. Or they may decentralize the process, and let local leadership drive activities in local offices, in hopes this will give better results. But the problem remains: No one really digs a party thrown by their boss.

Doing Their Own Thing

To get staff truly engaged, a better way is to drop the top-down approach and let employees organize social activities themselves. Encourage teams to form organically and choose their own leaders, and give them the resources, time, facilities, and other support to determine and run events they decide. Be enthusiastic but stay hands off to avoid making their efforts “company” events rather than employee activities with company support. Let them do their own thing.

“Some years ago, my employees were doing such a great job on our annual client golf tournament, so I thought, why don’t I have them work on some social events for the office?” recalls President and CEO Kevin Peterson of the Long Beach, California-based engineering and design group P2S. “A number of people volunteered and said they’d love to do it, so I gave them a budget and they ran with it. Since then, the whole thing has just taken off.”

How to Build a Department of Fun:

  1. Leaders must plant the seed, inviting a handful of employees to form a team, name the team, determine participants and leadership, and initiate activities. Usually a least a few employees like this opportunity. Seize that natural energy and encourage it. Then step back.
  2. Allocate meaningful resources. Events will take a bit of money and time. Agree on this from the start so the teams know what they have to work with, both in terms of direct expenditure and including some non-billable hours so they can give real attention to the effort.
  3. Lend the effort support from marketing, to promote the work internally (such as an events calendar and a sign-up form on the intranet) and add promotional zing to invitations. Allow the staff committee to ask facilities to do the heavy lifting on the day of an event to make sure everything runs smoothly. This will also build a team feeling and encourage attendance.
  4. Company leadership should show up at all staff-organized events, participate in them with a full heart, and demonstrate belief in them – just as much as if they were leadership events. Effusively thank team members for their work and encourage all employees to become engaged. But remember, it’s a staff thing, so don’t steal the limelight.
  5. As social engagement increases, establish multiple teams to tackle different areas and to create more opportunities for employees to take part. There could be separate committees for the annual jamboree, happy hours, sports, and charity drives. Breaking into smaller groups or subcommittees allows new people to take leadership roles so there are always fresh ideas and more people feel included. This is especially important for keeping up the momentum. And don’t forget to allocate budgets!
  6. Recognize social engagement in annual reviews. While it would be inappropriate to penalize anyone for not taking part, it is positive and very appreciated to commend staff for a role on an activity committee as a legitimate part of performance. This acknowledges that promoting and supporting the corporate culture is important and encouraged.
  7. The operative word is fun. Being on these spirit teams should be enjoyable for participants, and they should want to join and be active. Make sure they know they have the leadership’s full support, and appropriate budgeting, but that it is legitimately theirs and not just another work-related task. If the effort becomes a chore, it will fail.

There are potential reservations. Aside from the direct expenditure, committee time could expand and get in the way of client matters. Social events are fun, and if leadership has emphasized its support, why wouldn’t people give it priority – even at the cost of billable work? Alternatively, dedicated staff may be just too busy to carve out any time at all for such activities, and if they won’t participate, why would others? Some staff skeptics may sniff out a corporate initiative in disguise, so the effort may not achieve its objective of real staff engagement anyway.

Let the Good Times Roll

The pump may need priming – to get things started gradually, to win over less enthusiastic or overly busy staff, or specifically to ensure that new employees join in. The process could also reveal some employment problems, if any staff abuse the system (though any such slacking staff shouldn’t be with the company in the first place). Budgets and time allocations need to be monitored regularly, and if any staff really can’t keep up with their workload, they may have to be excluded.

But this investment and effort in building staff-led social activities and committees can pay great dividends, releasing a huge gain in corporate spirit, staff energy and commitment and even new ideas and synergies from breaking down internal walls. Great internal vibes can also do wonders for recruitment as well as staff retention.

At P2S, the result has been a cascade of committees and activities, and a true culture of staff engagement right across the company. From the Department of Planning Events (which they call the DOPE Team) and sports clubs, staff at P2S have driven the formation of specialist groups for incubating ideas, following technology developments, and spreading awareness of the work of different internal units.

“Putting my heart into staff activities keeps me up to date on our current culture, because things are always changing and new people are always coming in,” says Fred Ortiz, a BIM Manager at P2S. “It improves my relationships throughout the company and builds teamwork – not just within my particular group but with other people I might not see day to day.”