There's something to be said for birthday lunches or beers after work at the pub across the street. Simple, casual, all-staff events can foster a lot of camaraderie. But they can also exclude certain people – non-drinkers, parents with small children who need to get home right after work, and plenty of others. And who hasn't heard stories of company holiday parties that ended in disaster when someone (or several someones) tosses back a few too many?
We've been digging through the Inc. archives looking for the best examples of team-building social activities companies with great corporate culture have used. But not every social event is right for every company. So we've included some motivating factors for getting the staff together before prescribing social plans.
Goal: Nurture the sweet feeling of success.
Solution: Host an annual poker night.
Each February, Inphonic CEO David A. Steinberg holds a poker party for his top executives at Washington, D.C.'s Historic George Town Club. As a reward for their long hours, his executives are treated to scotch and cigars as they bluff and bet with members of InPhonic's A-list board of directors – top venture capitalists, famous politicians, and John Sculley, the well-known former CEO of Apple and Pepsi. The tradition feels bigtime and established, the kind of ritual befitting a company that keeps stern oil paintings of past CEOs in its wood-paneled boardroom. But InPhonic, which is in the very modern business of selling mobile phone handsets and services over the Web, is no such firm. It has existed for the grand total of five years and sports a founding CEO of the ripe age of 35. Instead, the annual poker night is one more way Steinberg creates the image of success and carefully guards it until, like wet cement, it sets and becomes real. Steinberg, says Sculley, "does a wonderful job of making you feel like the company is bigger and further along in its life than it is at the moment. It sort of felt like we were all grown up and we were only two and a half years old." Read more.
Goal: Making your business feel like a happy family.
Solution: Integrate casual game nights into a family-friendly office.
The Booksource, which is based in St. Louis, sells discounted books for use in schools. Employees describe this 36-year old family-run business as exactly that — a family. Weekly bingo nights, bowling outings, and the annual company picnic (which was held at a winery last year) create a true sense of community among co-workers. The family-friendly feeling extends into the office, too. The "Baby Policy" allows parents to bring their newborns to work for up to six months, or employees can choose to receive a $50 weekly reimbursement for day care. Read more.
Goal: Get a serious work project started with a tight-knit team.
Solution: Hold a company retreat.
What does your company really need to accomplish, fast? Bruce Withrow, the founder of Meeting Facilitators International, helps his clients start to plan their retreats by asking this question first: "If I could wave a magic wand and put it into your hand, and you could make a successful conclusion to your retreat, what would it look like?" It's important to be as specific as possible. "To just say 'strategic planning' isn't enough," says Withrow, who plans between 50 and 60 retreats every year. "It's such a plastic word that means so many different things to so many different people. What is it that you think is missing? What is it that you want?" CEO and founder of Tutor.com George Cigale says of his company's past retreats: "Slowing down time allows you to think a little bit differently about the way you communicate and depend on each other." Before you stress about where you will go and what you will do, remember that, from a business perspective, this is probably the least important part of planning your retreat. Cigale's company has held retreats at a dude ranch, Las Vegas, Florida, and, when the budget was a little tighter, at a conference center near the company's offices. But he considers each retreat to have been successful. It's fun to play golf, but is it really necessary? If you can afford it, adding some fun to the trip does have advantages. First, it can help get your employees excited about the retreat and somewhat compensate for pulling them away from their homes and families. Second, it can provide time for informal discussion and help your team get to know each other better. "Just the time together at dinner and talking about the Olympics or whatever, I think that that helps with communication," Withrow says. Cigale recommends sticking with about a 20 percent fun, 80 percent work ratio. Read more.
Goal: Simply understanding your employees better.
Solution: Do lunches with a focus on sharing.
No, this isn't as dorky as it sounds. One of our AskInc. users, who posts as Tiffany Smith, writes: "I work for a company that goes above and beyond to boost company morale. Just this week we all participated in a 'Dream Board' lunch. We were all required to present our Dream Board to the other team members and share with them our aspirations of where we wanted to be professionally and personally within the next 15 years. The owner of the company's philosophy is that he cannot reach his dreams until he helps us reach ours. I feel that this is a positive message and adds to the productivity of everyone at AchooAllergy.com. Every Tuesday morning we have a company meeting in which we all go around the room and start off with a one word answer to how we are feeling that day and a positive story (of any topic of our choosing) to share with everyone. We then go around the room and each person has three minutes to share what they have been working on the past week. Our meetings keep the communication open between everyone and the owner and keep things positive around the company. Read more.
Goal: Build teamwork in each department.
Solution: Quarterly team-building outings.
At SnagAJob.com, which recruits and places hourly employees in full-time and part-time jobs and is based in Glen Allen, Virginia, there's serious strategy involved in fostering employee teamwork. Every quarter, each department plans its own team-building outing, such as trips to the shooting range, cooking classes, fishing, and mountain climbing. They even have a 'Culture Squad' that hosts a monthly event to bring staffers together; a company favorite was this year's Office Olympics, featuring events like office-chair soccer. Read more.
Goal: Fostering a feeling of fulfillment.
Solution: Start a volunteer program.
"There are three horizons for volunteering: what the business wants, what the community needs and what the employees like to do," said Chris Jarvis, co-founder of the Toronto-based company Realized Worth. "Find something that makes sense for your brand." There is nothing wrong with throwing a one-day event. "Organizations like Habitat for Humanity are totally built for employee volunteering," says Jarvis. But remember to keep your goals in mind. Will a quick gig give your employees that feeling of fulfillment for the whole year? Will it build loyalty to the program? Will it give you the community presence you're looking for? If you answer "no" to any of these questions, ask the non-profit about ways the company can stay involved after that single volunteer day. Could you hold the event every quarter instead of every year? Remember, volunteering can be a crucial team-building strategy, and as any business owner knows, it takes time to build a team. Read more.
Goal: Extreme, all-out executive bonding.
Solution: Upper-management backpacking trip.
This extreme team-building isn't for the weak of heart – nor is it really good for the whole team. But as we reported back in 2007, the senior managers of Timbuk2, a San Francisco-based manufacturer of messenger bags, made it work for them. They, as Alison Stein Wellner wrote, "gathered on a gently sloping granite ledge at an altitude of 12,000 feet, overlooking the blue-gray shimmer of one of the dozen or so Ice Lakes, slopes of stubby pine trees, and beyond onto ragged peaks. It was the middle of June, but snow still mounded on the ground. A thunderstorm had just skirted the campsite and the wind screamed constantly, cold and fierce. These four men and two women lead a growing company of 70 employees back at sea level, where they'd typically be worrying about things like financing, brand management, e-commerce, and retail sales. But for the past four days they'd been in the backcountry, and their concerns had been somewhat more basic: Would that small blister turn into a festering sore? Would those dark clouds bring rain? Does that bear paw print in the mud mean there's an actual bear nearby? The group was halfway through a seven-day backpacking trip organized by the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS. Accompanying them were two NOLS instructors and me; I'd tagged along to see what would happen. It had been nearly 100 hours since any of us had had a shower, or used a flushing toilet, cradled a cell phone to our ear, or run our fingers across a keyboard. As the sun started to set, the temperature, which had hit the high 80s when we'd set out from the town of Lander, Wyoming, just four days before, was hovering just above freezing." Read more.