A reader writes:
I manage a small department in a small organization, 20-30 people. As our office has grown and departments have been physically divided, the culture has eroded. The team culture we used to have is for the most part gone. It is often difficult for new employees to even interact with other departments. No participation or direction will come from senior management on this — other office locations are in worse shape than us. It is up to the team of managers at our facility to change this.
We’re considering setting aside some time (an hour every month or two) to do something “fun” that isn’t related to work (grill lunch, play a game, etc.). It would be during work hours, not after. I put fun in quotation marks because employees often don’t find this stuff fun at all. However, we’re not really sure how to get everyone together and start re-building the team culture unless we do something like this. The goal, as I see it, is not necessarily to improve morale or productivity, it’s simply to get people out of their office prisons and interacting more.
For the record, I’d like to say that I’d much prefer simply giving staff more opportunities to communicate in a work context. For example, I would be open to meeting from time to time to talk about goals, common projects, etc. However, I’m not in a position to implement this.
Now my question: Do you think games in the office ever work? And is there anything you can do to improve culture without senior management participating?
No and no.
The way you create a strong workplace culture is by (a) giving people clear expectations and goals, the resources to meet those goals, a sense that they’re valued, recognition of great work, honest feedback, transparency, accountability at all levels, and so forth, and (b) having senior management reflect that culture in their own actions in a way that’s authentic and real.
You say that you’re not in a position to implement meetings to talk about goals and common projects, so you’re definitely not in a position to tackle the above, unfortunately.
As for games and other organized “fun” at work … Sure, some people like it. But other people hate it, so mandating it for an entire group rarely works and nearly always leaves some people more annoyed or alienated than they were before it began. Moreover, implementing it in an attempt to improve a problematic culture usually ends up looking like a cheap attempt at misdirection, and people often feel legitimately insulted that they’re supposed to participate in games as a way to address deep-rooted problems.
That said, if you really just want people to interact more, free food isn’t a bad way of starting that. But no games, have something the vegetarians can eat, and make sure people aren’t penalized if they choose not to partake.