In most places I’ve worked, birthdays are celebrated with a group card and sometimes a gathering for cake. But the marketing and communications team I joined at the company where I now work takes birthdays to another level, tapping into everyone’s creativity to honor co-workers on their special day.
We once redesigned our company’s advertisements to feature the face of one co-worker, with a fake tagline and quote for her. For another, we made an album cover with his face on the front and our team’s inside jokes printed as a track list on the back. And so it went. Then COVID-19 hit.
My birthday, March 21, fell on Saturday of the week everything abruptly closed and we all started to shelter in place. I had planned the day far in advance — get a massage, meet up with friends for an early dinner, and then go see the Hamilton musical at night. I couldn’t wait!
But as the pandemic began to spread, all those activities were canceled, one by one. By Friday, I was a little bummed out that I wouldn’t be able to do any of the exciting things on my agenda. My spirits lifted, however, when my colleagues sent me something very special. I hadn’t expected anything — we couldn’t celebrate in person — but working with such a thoughtful and talented group, I shouldn’t have been surprised that they’d do something new for me.
The office might have shut down — the ingenuity of my co-workers had not. My co-worker Nadine, who makes the company’s podcasts, reworked the regular intro and format to customize a birthday podcast from everyone on the team. One person strummed his guitar and sang “Happy Birthday” to me in his best Elvis voice. Someone else used an audio clip about celebrating birthdays from a TV show I like. And the other greetings included some of my often-said lines (“Let me check my files”), nicknames, and obsessions. It was genuinely one of the nicest gifts I’ve ever received.
As COVID continued, so did the birthdays. The podcast had set a high bar. Now we had to do something different for the next person. We each recorded video birthday greetings for our co-worker on our phones, and a teammate skilled in video editing stitched them together. Another surprise, another success.
We thought we’d for sure be back in the office for the next person’s birthday . . . right? Wrong. Our idea pool needed to deepen. What next?
Our director had mentioned a service called Cameo that offers video messages from actors, singers, athletes, and other celebrities for a fee, with proceeds then going to COVID-related causes. The women on our team love the show “Jane the Virgin,” and one of my colleagues, Martha, had used an audio clip from a lead character, Rogelio de la Vega, in her podcast message for me. So, to return the favor, we arranged for actor Jaime Camil (who plays Rogelio) to create a birthday message for her. He even did it in Spanish, Martha’s native language. We gave him some details about our friend so it could be truly personalized.
We presented it to Martha during one of our virtual team meetings. Her initial confusion turned to surprise when she realized this TV actor had recorded a greeting specifically for her, and brought joy to all of us. Another one for the books!
I love how my work family came together to do something creative to make everyone’s birthday special during this challenging time. Working at a distance for so long can make co-workers who are used to seeing each other every day feel, well, distant. Carrying out these ideas for each of our birthdays has helped our team stay connected. When it’s safe to go back to the office again, we’ll probably have to up the ante. I wonder if “Rogelio” makes in-person appearances?
Debra Rughoo is a writer in Toronto. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your story. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.