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Christmas Dinner In June

May 6, 2013

“I don’t understand why you can’t have your team pic-nic on a Saturday?”

“Mostly because I WANT people to attend.”

“It’s your team, do it your way. But, I still don’t get it.”

I enjoyed working for Mark. Even when he didn’t agree, he was the kind of boss who allowed his managers to run our teams the way we felt was right. In this case, I was explaining to him that my team was going to have a pic-nic on a Wednesday afternoon in June.

Like many organizations, our company set aside a certain amount of money each year for “morale.” This was about $50 per team member. Most managers, (including mine) used the money to take the team to dinner at Christmas time. I’m not sure where this tradition originated, but it was certainly not started by someone with a houseful of kids and trouble finding babysitters.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it was awesome that the company set aside money for the managers to do something nice with their teams during the year. We all put a lot into our jobs and it’s great when the company recognizes that and tries to give something back.

The problem with the company Christmas dinner was that it was not convenient. In fact, it was often a stressful event in the middle of stressful season. Scheduling was always a challenge. Finding an evening during the holiday season when everyone was free was impossible. The best that you could do was pick a day that inconvenienced the least number of people.

Our organization was staffed mostly with people who had families. So, now we also forced our employees to find a babysitter. When your family is as big as mine, that’s the work of several days, if not weeks to line up a sitter, or sometimes two.

We would normally have dinner at a restaurant somewhere. Figure there are 8-10 people on a team, add in spouses and you are booking a reservation for 15-20 people. That’s not a huge issue. We knew the dates well in advance. The problem is that when you sit down at a table with 18 other people, you are realistically going to be able to talk to 5 or 6 of them. If your boss and his wife are seated at one end and you are at the other, you can do little more than wave when you arrive and offer a quick, “Thanks for inviting us” as you leave.

Additional stresses were “How expensive an entree should you order?” The boss is at the other end, so you can’t really see what he’s getting. My company was all non-drinkers, but if you have alcohol, do you order a glass of wine? What if the boss orders a couple of bottles after you’ve ordered? And then there’s the challenge of “How long do you need to stay?” Long enough to be polite, but short enough that you aren’t taking the babysitter home at 2:00am.

Like I said, it’s a stressful event in the middle of stressful season.

I took a different approach.

Around Christmas time, I would take my immediate team out to a movie. One year we saw “Avatar” in 3D. We’d take a long lunch and everyone had a good time, and no one was expected to make conversation. (Yes my team was entirely men, how did you know?) I do the movie for two reasons. First, I want to make sure my team has a December event. For those who feel it’s required to do SOMETHING in December, this fits the criteria. Second, budgets get cut at odd times, and I want to make sure I’m spending at least some of my morale money the same time of year as everyone else.

But, the big event is planned for the summer. We take a Wednesday afternoon and find a local park. Everyone’s kids are out of school, so scheduling is not really an issue. We do it early enough that it’s not going to conflict with summer vacation plans.

I use the rest of the morale money to buy hotdogs, hamburger patties, brawts: whatever the team wants. We assign out the drinks, and salads and condiments. We bring softball equipment, frisbees, and even some golf clubs one time.

Unlike the Christmas dinner where you spend the evening talking to 4 or 5 people, the pic-nic allows you to mingle, to hold causal conversations with team members, their spouses and kids. The schedule is pretty relaxed too. We eat, and after that, people can come and go as they please.

My one rule is NO ONE is allowed to go back to the office. It’s a “work from home” day the rest of the afternoon.

The worry that my boss had about our pic-nic was that by scheduling it during the work day, we would be unavailable to handle any emergency issues.

Instead, my team all had cell phones and they occasionally had to take calls. They simply stepped away from the kids softball game and helped the customer. If there was ever a major emergency, the park was close to work. We could have been back in less than 10 minutes.

I don’t remember many of the Christmas dinners that I went to over the years, but even now, years later, my teams still talk about the pic-nics. And isn’t that what morale money is for?

From → Team Building

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