Three Ways to Increase Participation at Your Next Culture Event

I ran into a colleague of mine, Sam, last week who has been working hard to strengthen the culture at his organization. They’re working on their core values, aligning their vision throughout the organization, and hiring and promoting based on both of those initiatives.

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Naturally, they’ve also been ramping up the ‘fun’ events in an attempt to break down silos and get team members interacting on a more personal level. The challenge is that even though they’re spending good money on these events the turnout isn’t as high as they’d like it to be. If the events are in the office, employees will show up, get the food, and eat at their desks. What Sam really wants is for people to want to stay at these events but for now he’d settle for getting people there in the first place.

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When he asked for my advice I told him that there are three important things to remember about the ‘fun’ events:

First, there is strategy behind the ‘fun’ that, for the most part, goes unnoticed. The strategy is that big events are meant to break down silos between people and teams. They are designed to give people a chance to get to know others within the organization on a more personal level that will, in the long run, make it easier for teams to communicate, interact with, and have empathy for the people they don’t know very well.

The value in the “Fun” events isn’t to check a box that you’re trying to be cool. The value happens when you create an environment that encourages people from different offices, teams, and departments to interact and get to know each other.

This takes strategy. At one company I worked for we designed a Compete to Eat competition that happened before we ate at our monthly events. As employees walked in they drew colored straws and found their ‘team’ somewhere around the room. People weren’t allowed to select which team they were on because when people get to choose they form teams full of people who know each other. That defeats the point. The point is to get them interacting with people from other groups.

Once the groups were formed and introductions had been made we started the competition. Each one was designed to have some people from the team competing and the rest of the team cheering them on. This allowed newer or more shy employees to play an active role without being forced into the spotlight.

The team that won was able to get their food first and the team that lost got their food last.

We knew that breaking people into teams would encourage cross departmental interactions but what we didn’t anticipate was that the teams would sit with each other once they had their food. However, that’s exactly what happened. After the very first competition we realized that all of our new hires had a ‘group’ to sit with which eliminated the awkward experience of being the new kid in the cafeteria. It also allowed employees from varying departments to strengthen their bonds with fellow co-workers.

Second, ‘fun’ events only work if people show up. The goal isn’t for your HR or Culture department to send out reminders making the events mandatory. That never goes over well. Remember, there is strategy to the ‘fun’ stuff. That strategy is that it builds relationships, breaks down silos, and increases communication. This is high level, important stuff so the ‘fun’ events need to be backed and supported by the high level, really important people in the organization. That’s the Senior Leadership Team. Once the events are backed by the Senior Leaders then they need to hold their direct reports accountable for getting their people to the events.

I’ve worked with several organizations who actually have, as part of the leadership job descriptions, measures of accountability that include getting their employees to attend culture events. These events, if executed well, are a huge part of building a strong culture but it requires that leaders and managers are showing up and are strongly encouraging their teams to be there, and stay there, as well. If the leaders don’t show up and actively engage in the event why would the rest of the employees?

Third, if people aren’t showing up you need to ask yourself if the events are hitting the mark. In order for events to hit the mark they have to have high levels of attendance, have support from the Senior Leaders, and support a strategic need the organization has. If you’re having low attendance at your events, are all three of these things happening? I’m willing to guess they aren’t.

A crucial error that companies make is that someone sitting in an office, slightly removed from the front line employees, decides it’s time to do something fun so they order some pizza and invite people to lunch. Instead, invite employees to give feedback about these events. If you’re hosting a happy hour, ask some of your employees to offer up suggestions for new restaurants they’d like to try out. If you want to host a competition, ask some of your employees to come up with the next competition. Task them with hosting the event, creating the crazy trophy, and designing the tee-shirts. You’ll be surprised at how much involvement a team of employees excited about the next Oreo Eating Contest can drum up.

If you’re trying to strengthen the culture at your organization by adding some fun, remember that the goal is to do something for your employees to help reinforce behaviors that you want to see more of.

What are some of the fun events you host at your company and how do you get the maximum number of employees to participate?

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Marisa Keegan
by Marisa Keegan
Marisa Keegan has held culture and engagement roles inside two nationally recognized great places to work, started the networking group Culture Fanatics, and wrote the book Culture: More than Jeans and Margarita Machines. She was recognized as one of the Top 100 Employee Engagement Experts in the US in 2013 and is currently a consultant to organizations interested in creating a great culture.
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