IT’S NOT ALWAYS A PARTY heading up a company’s fun committee. Just ask Rae Sanders.
The 32-year-old manager at staffing firm WinterWyman and veteran fun committee volunteer organized the company’s 2016 Office Olympics, which included a paper clip chaining competition, rubber band archery, and office chair shuffleboard event, to name a few. The result was fun, even if the planning and preparation weren’t exactly. “It took more hours than I want to disclose,” Sanders says of her efforts.
Call it the fun committee, party team, or event entourage, but more workplaces are asking employees to plan everything from cornhole tournaments to cupcake bars. The idea is to give workers a break, help them socialize, and build esprit de corps. But as anyone who has ever volunteered for a fun committee will say, the business of fun is a lot of work.
There can be hassles recruiting helpers, challenges finding a way to diplomatically nix a superior’s idea, or disappointment when events that take significant planning fail to draw big crowds. Cara Silletto, a Louisville-based workforce consultant at Crescendo Strategies, says it takes more than installing a foosball table to get employees engaged socially, but the companies that prioritize fun retain more workers and may even see productivity gains. “The job market right now is so good, employers are doing it in most fields,” Silletto says. “It’s almost like the old version of team building, when people used to go on retreats.”
Carrie Gonzalez, a human resources employee at Hebrew SeniorLife, a network of rehabilitation centers affiliated with Harvard Medical School, says she volunteered to co-lead the fun committee with colleague Deena Karas because they “knew the temperature of the organization.” Their responsibility: Come up with an inspiring roster of Employee Week events and execute seven days of fun for 1,400 people on the Roslindale campus, from nurses to janitors, food service staff to administrators.
Her first and foremost strategy? “Food, food, food,” Gonzalez says.
Unswervingly upbeat about her work, Gonzalez has organized cupcake parties, Waffle Wednesdays, and sushi-making classes across the company’s nine campuses. She has hired mariachi bands, asked the maintenance crew to build a wooden stage for a fashion show, and persuaded the chief executive to deliver cookies in person to employees. “We delegate, we do,” she says, adding that she can be relentless in her pursuit of help with various projects.
Gonzalez says she twists arms and pushes to make the events special because staff work hard, and Employee Week is a way to celebrate those efforts. But the 45-year-old concedes there are trying moments, such as the time the ice cream was accidentally put into deep-freeze and the senior citizens recruited to do the scooping struggled to make a dent in it. “The next day, everybody’s wrists were sore,” Gonzalez says.
Planners recognize the trial and error nature of it all. A fashion show at Hebrew SeniorLife, for example, drew big crowds to see employees vogue their way across a homemade stage in extravagant, sometimes handmade evening gowns. But when Needham-based TripAdvisor planned an event merging fun and fashion, it fell flat. They invited employees to sign up for mini wardrobe reviews with a stylist, but there were far fewer takers than expected, says Kayla Malone, a volunteer employee organizer. “We tried to make it fabulous,” Malone says. Still, she took it in stride, saying even the flops help inform future events.
There was a big win last summer with an outing Malone helped organize around a South by Northeast theme. The afternoon party on the company’s Great Lawn (the size of two football fields) was home to a stage featuring bluegrass, rock, and country artists, as well as a beer garden, shrimp boil, and gumbo station. Employees wanted to join the volunteer committee after that, she says.
Sanders of WinterWyman enjoys the way events can get high-level company executives taking lessons from recent college graduates about things like how to fire a rubber band. But mishaps do occur. Office chair shuffleboard, for example, was the scene of a crash that gouged a wall. Sanders says the “athlete” responsible was none other than the director of facilities.
Chairs were already bubble-wrapped, but at next year’s event, they’ll make it a double layer.