One of my favorite books as a child was "The Saturdays" by Elizabeth Enright. It was the story of the Melendy kids, ages 6 to 14, who lived in New York City with their father in the 1940s. Short on pocket money, the Melendys decided to pool their meager allowances every week so that one of them could go off and have an adventure—something special just for them. The teen-aged daughter got her hair done; the musical son attended a concert; the budding painter went to the New York Museum of Art; and the baby of the bunch escaped—unattended—to the circus. My grade-school friends and I talked endlessly about what we would choose to do under a similar arrangement.
I was reminded of "The Saturdays" while working on this month's package about office fun, for which we surveyed close to 300 CEOs and interviewed many others. Although heartened by leaders' commitment to showing employees the occasional good time, I found dispiriting the lowest-common-denominator approach to entertainment taken by so many companies. Barbecues. Bowling. Picnics. Boat rides. Birthday parties. Who could object? On the other hand, who could get truly excited?
Then I came across Jessica Robles, founder of Thing of the Past, a coordinator of public and private culinary events in New Jersey. (Unfortunately we didn't hook up in time to include her in the issue.) Robles isn't interested in trying to please most of the people most of the time. Instead, every month she lets a different worker (she has four full-time employees, as well as numerous part—timers and volunteers) plan an outing around his or her own favorite pursuits. The rotation has produced usual suspects like baseball games, but also more esoteric jaunts like poetry slams and vineyard tours. "I have a lot of personal interests and I figured other people have a lot of personal interests too," Robles told me. "It's a splendor to see people in their natural environments." However not all environments are created equal. To indulge one high-flying employee the staff took trapeze lessons at a school in New York City. "I was very happy to watch from a safe distance," says Robles.
Like the Melendys, Robles' employees take turns pursuing their passions, enjoying a day customized just for them. Unlike the Melendys, they invite others along for the ride. That's all to the good. Through these excursions, employees may discover a fun new pastime. More importantly they will learn more about their colleagues as they enter—if only for a few hours—one another's worlds. I probably wouldn't try that trapeze either. But I'd get more out of watching my friends fly through the air with the greatest unease than from somnambulating through the 14th annual family day at the lake. Such an experience would produce memories I might actually remember.
I think this is a great idea for any company that's small enough to accommodate everyone taking a turn or two. And here's a hint for CEOs: don't kick things off by proclaiming, "The first month is my choice, and we're all going to golf!"