can I improve our office culture with games and cook-outs?

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.

{ 250 comments… read them below }

  1. Sourire*

    Oh my gosh, please don’t do this. Forced bonding is awful and makes adults suddenly feel like they’ve been thrown back into summer camp.

    I do think the new employee thing should be addressed, if it is causing problems when different departments need to collaborate. What are your current practices for new employees and how they are introduced to the staff?

    1. Sourire*

      On re-read, I want to clarify a bit. Something like a lunch BBQ (as OP mentioned) does not sound bad. We have them and I like them. For some reason, when I read the post originally, the mention of games immediately conjured up all of those getting-to-know-you type games from camp and college orientation. Those are horrible and I would never recommend them. I do like a lot of the suggestions posed below though. The most important factor is to make any and all of these activities voluntary. And really voluntary, not just in name only.

      1. Amanda H*

        I HATED those college orientation games. For an introvert, a game where people of the opposite sex are randomly paired up to kiss each other on the cheek is so NOT the way to begin your college career.
        Only recently have I begun to think: such a thing would never be accepted/suggested in the workplace (or if it is, that organization has some severe issues). So why is it suddenly okay for 18-year-olds who are ostensibly being prepared for that workplace?

        1. Ruffingit*

          Agreed. I feel the same way about bullying. If an adult pushed another adult to the ground and hit him, that would be assault and the adult would be arrested. If a kid does it in a school yard, it’s “kids will be kids.”

      2. Girasol*

        BUT TURN DOWN THE MUSIC…ahem…turn down the loud music during the event. Whenever we have a team lunch or Christmas party it’s so loud that conversation is stifled, which sort of defeats the purpose.

    2. Vejur*

      Agreed, so much! It’s the worst thing ever to be forced to partake in “mandatory bonding activities” with coworkers.

      Free food isn’t bad though. I think that naturally encourages people to strike up conversations, without them feeling super awkward.

    3. Jessa*

      Oh, no please. I’m going to go out on a TMI limb here. I’m disabled, I have trouble breathing and I’m a picky eater. I do not like outdoor stuff. I can’t stand around, and food is not always a fun thing for me. I can’t walk around very far either. These kind of things make me stand out as an outcast and are a hardship for me and make me have to whinge and explain to management why I just CAN’T not don’t want to but CANNOT do this garbage. Please be sensitive when you’re going to try stuff like this.

      We had a trainer who loved to grab the class and have things outside on the porch by the cafeteria. I couldn’t DO this, it was too hot, too bright, too much trouble for me to breathe out there. This effected my performance, this effected my standing on team, made me stand out as a problem child. Made me look bad in front of my peers. And this was required garbage and supposed to promote team building stuff.

      If you’re going to do things make sure you know your whole team, make sure that less participatory person in the back isn’t NOT participating because they CAN’T. And if someone is quietly avoiding, don’t go pointing them out obviously and trying to force them.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This. People should not have to reveal their medical history in order to get through a “team building” experience.
        I don’t feel bonded to people when I have to explain “A person cannot swing a baseball bat properly, if they have a curved spine.”

      2. Anon*

        This. Very much this. I had two panic attacks trying to think of ways to opt out of a games thing that my office was kicking around the idea of doing (they never actually did). The problem? I don’t “look sick”, so I risked being branded as lazy, a spoilsport, etc, when it’s just that, nope, this is physically not going to happen, I actually can’t. I was panick attacking over who do I tell that I can’t, how do I tell them, and what is the rest of the office going to think when I sit out, am I going to have to explain to every single person the concept of chronic pain?

        I’m at this job to work, not compete outside in the summer with no control over when I eat and when I take breaks. If you want someone physically capable for any kind of “bonding”, put it in the fricking job advert so I am fully aware of this from the start.

    4. Kou*

      We have a deal like this at my office and the key is that it’s *optional.* Almost everyone goes because it’s nice to take a break, but no one has to.

  2. COT*

    My organization is larger than yours, and people are so siloed in their programs that they don’t always know each other or realize how they could be collaborating. So at our recent all-staff meeting, we spent some time doing “speed dating.” We rotated through several 3-minute conversations with coworkers from across the entire organization. I found it tremendously helpful, especially as a new employee. I made a lot of useful connections that have improved my work, my collaboration, and my feeling of belonging. And while it was highly encouraged to attend the meeting and participate, it wasn’t forced or cheesy. (Food was also involved, which never hurts.)

    At another organization, every new employee was set up with a series of short (15 to 30 minutes) meetings with people from various departments. The meeting was just to explain what their department does and how it overlaps with others. That was a couple of jobs back, and I would have found it so helpful at subsequent jobs. It’s another non-cheesy way to learn each others’ work, make connections, and identify people who can help answer your questions in the future.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Building on what COT said, our organization does a lot of special activities with new people to help them get to know people and the culture . . .on-ramping, on-boarding, whatever you want to call it.

      You know who’s left out in the cold? Those who are outside the “inner circle” but have been here 5+ years. My company (division & office, actually) was 150 people 8 yrs ago when I started and is 600 people now. There are hundreds of people I don’t know, but I only get introduced to the handful of new people I actually work with. Meanwhile, the newbies are off having a steak dinner with the senior managers and the loyal folks get nada. . .

    2. Judy*

      One of my former bosses set up a training plan for new employees. It just so happened that each current employee on the team had an item on the training plan. So in the first month of employment, the new employee would be trained for 30 minutes or so on something by everyone in the group.

      My current boss has gotten approval and is implementing a lunch scheme, in which each member can go to lunch with another member of the team, that they haven’t been on projects with. Each person is limited to one a month, and there are cost limits for the lunch. We get to expense the lunch, and he’s looking for the team leads to help “match-make” if they can think of useful pairings, like that Jane, in the handle team, is starting to work on handle cracking, and last year Wakeen, in the spout team, did some analysis of spout cracking. He’s trying to cross pollinate the team, so that the team becomes more cohesive. It’s supposed to be work and social, but making one on one links.

      1. Joaquin*

        Totally off topic here, but is Wakeen seriously a name? Have I missed something all my life? I have never seen this spelling before – have I just been living under a rock??

        1. Judy*

          Someone posted a story about how they thought there were two people “Joaquin” and “Wakeen” at their new workspace. We’ve adopted him.

          1. Lori M*

            I read Wakeen and I was hoping it was a reference to that post! I don’t think I have ever laughed so hard and so long as I did at that story, and just seeing the name again made me smile. :)

          2. Chinook*

            Why does everybody remember Wakeen and nobody remember Shavon? Is that legal? (kitty)

            AAM, I seriously think you need an FAQ just to explain the Chocolate Teapot Factory and the staff that you have hired (Wakeen, Shavon, the Magic 8 Ball and your cats) because you are definitely gaining some new readers. I hope your hits are improving accordingly.

            1. Melissa*

              Yes, because I remember Wakeen and Shavon but not the chocolate teapot factory. I just assumed it was an example she chose to use, lol.

        2. Sourire*

          I have completely given up on the idea that there are common, accepted spelling for names. Have seen all of the following variations on Jennifer, for example: Jenipher, Jennipher, Genifer, Jennafir, Jennifur, Ginnifer, Jynifer, Genifar etc etc etc.

        3. Victoria Nonprofit*

          Ha – there was a story from someone’s workplace about a coworker named Joaquin that she only knew by email (and she thought it was pronounced “Joe-ah-qwin” or something along those lines). When she heard other coworkers speaking about “Wakeen,” she thought it was a different person. Now a lot of regulars use “Wakeen” in place of “Jane Doe” when giving examples.

          1. Jazzy Red*

            I went to Catholic grade school, and that’s how the nuns pronounced the name. There is a St. Joaquin, but I don’t remember anything about him.

        4. Joaquin*

          Okay – as a newbie here I didn’t know that background. Having flower-power parents who had no cultural or ancestral reasons for choosing my name I know all about people seldom pronouncing it correctly in the past. It’s so much more common now and I was starting to think there was some REAL cultural aspect to the “Wakeen” version of the name. Thanks for the clarification.

        5. Elise*

          It actually is listed as an acceptable Anglicized spelling of Joaquin. Like how Rebecca and Sara were changed from the Hebrew forms Rebekah and Sarah.

    3. Escargot*

      Gawd, I cannot imagine how wretched that “speed dating” scenario would be. At least it would only be 1/5th as horrid as that 15 minutes the new employee was subjected to. All a new employee is going to remember from that is that the accounting lady had pictures of her cat dressed up in costumes on her desk, and that weird guy from who-knows-what department said “you know” 42 times during his presentation.

      1. JessB*

        I think it could be as bad as you anticipate if people go into it with a bad attitude, but when I read it, I loved the sound of it! I think it’s a great idea.

        I work on a university with hundreds of staff, and while I know most of the staff in my Faculty (who work on my building), there are lots of others I have to deal with. Working out who looks after what can be really difficult, and often you never get a chance to put a face to the name. Something like this speed-dating idea, set up between student-facing staff and ‘back-office’ administrators would be fantastic.

        As always, though, so much depends on attitude. If the staff don’t want change, they’ll resist it with everything they’ve got, which I find really sad.

    4. Vicki*

      My company did a voluntary “lunch with a random colleague in another department” thing. You signed up. They matched you with someone you didn’t know. You met at the cafeteria and had a “getting to know about another group” lunch.

      I’m a strong introvert who loathes all “It will be FUN!” activities and I enjoyed this enough to do an internal (company) blog post about it, recommending the idea.

  3. Ruffingit*

    Yeah, skip the games if the underlying culture sucks because all you’re going to achieve there is people thinking “Seriously? I can’t get a raise, feedback about my goals, the resources to achieve those goals, but we can play Monopoly on company time? Screw you.” That’s the harsh reality of it and this is coming from someone who enjoys board games and the like. It’s just not appropriate in a company culture where the really important things are being ignored.

    I agree about the food though. Free food is always a good thing.

    1. Vicki*

      Free food is good if it’s voluntary and offers choices. Not just for the vegetarians. Some people are avoiding carbs. Lots of people are on the “gluten free” train. Some people really need a break from work at lunch time.

  4. LMW*

    Thank you for mentioning having food that vegetarians can eat. I can’t tell you how alienating it is to be forced to participate in some meal related activity and then have to sit there starving while everyone else gets to eat. Also, make sure there’s enough! The vegetarian stuff is always the first to go – often before the vegetarians get to it.

    1. Sourire*

      This! I’m not a vegetarian myself, but I always try to bring veg/vegan friendly dishes to events. In addition to being inclusive, it tends to be cheaper and usually lends itself much better to sitting out for longer periods of time. Not that dairy/meat sitting out for long periods stops my coworkers sometimes (yuck!!!!).

    2. Amber*

      Also it helps if you have vegetarian food to have it labeled! I don’t know how many times I’ve had to skip the food because I couldn’t tell if it had meat or not.

      1. Chris80*

        +1 to this and also an unfortunate disclaimer – I appreciate when people advertise that something is vegetarian, but I often still ask about the ingredients. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve told someone “I’m vegetarian” only to get a reply like “Yeah, I don’t eat red meat either” or “Oh don’t worry, it’s seafood.”

        So, for the record to any non-vegetarian reading this…if the food in your dish ever had a mother or a father, it’s NOT vegetarian! ;-) This includes chicken & fish!

        1. Liz in the City*

          Chris80, I’m not a vegetarian, but I cannot tell you how many “vegetarians” I’ve met who proclaimed their veggie-ness, only to say “but I love shrimp” or “but occasional chicken is OK.” I’m not judging, but for people who aren’t veggies but know one who proclaims to be, it can be confusing!

          1. Cat*

            Someone in my office is notorious for doing this (what he really means is “I don’t eat red meat”); it confused the hell out of the poor woman responsible for catering in our office who hadn’t really ever dealt with vegetarians before, and it was quite a while before the actual vegetarians could be assured of getting a satisfying meal.

            1. Anonymous Pumper*

              I wonder if sometimes, when they are asked, people who only eat *some* kinds of animals will just say “I am a vegetarian” because it is a simple and quick way to ensure you will not be served *any* animals, including the ones you won’t eat.

              1. Sourire*

                Good point. I imagine it gets very tiresome to always have to explain pescatarian, lacto/ovo, fruitarian, raw foods, etc.

              2. tcookson*

                One of our professors claims to be a vegetarian, but when he eats out with the group, he will order a steak. We found out that what he means is, he wife makes him be a vegetarian at home, but he eats what he wants when he goes out to eat without her. Another one has a Muslim spouse, so they don’t have any pork enter their house, so he does all his ham, bacon, and/or sausage eating at work events.

                1. bo bessi*

                  I have a coworker like that too. He and his wife are gluten-free at home, but he happily partakes in the free bagels vendors bring to the office.

                2. IT Panda*

                  I have a coworker like that too, who’s vegetarian at home, but will eat (certain) meats at work. There’s now a running joke about vegetarian chicken through our IT department.

                3. Elizabeth West*

                  Wasn’t there something in another thread about the Indian coworker who liked to tag along when the group went to Red Robin and have secret hamburgers?

              3. Rana*

                I could see this, as my husband will eat chicken, fish, and lamb, but not beef or pork or turkey, and trying to explain this to people can become more involved than either of us would like.

                However, because he’s a grown-up, he has found that simply saying “Do you have chicken” or “I’ll have the fish” works just fine.

          2. Chris80*

            I agree that sometimes it’s the “vegetarians” themselves that cause the confusion, unfortunately! There are also some people that think “vegan” is just a fancy way to say vegetarian even though they have very different meanings. That throws a lot of people off, too, I think.

            With all this confusion, it’s easy to see why potlucks are anything but “fun” for those with dietary restrictions!

            1. Jamie*

              Good point. I’ve known a lot of people who self-identify as vegetarian but each chicken and/or fish.

              As an omnivore this is my outsiders understanding of the classifications:

              vegetarian: Does not eat meat of any kind, but will eat animal produced food such as dairy, eggs, honey, etc.

              pescatarian: vegetarian who also eats fish/seafood.

              vegan: No meat, nor anything produced by an animal. All foods completely plant based.

              I may be wrong – but that’s my understanding.

              1. Chris80*

                Sounds right to me…some vegans and vegetarians also avoid non-edible animal products like leather, too, but that shouldn’t affect the potlucks! ;-)

              2. Garrett*

                I would leave eggs out of the vegetarian definition. Eggs are meat to me, no matter how they look (and I love eggs btw!)

                1. Sourire*

                  Re: Hannah – not necessarily true. That is why there are the lacto and ovo differentiations for vegetarians. Most people are lacto-ovo, but not all, and you can be a vegetarian who does not eat milk or eggs, yet still not be vegan.

              3. Nichole*

                I have two vegan coworkers, one for health reasons and one for health/moral reasons. The h/m vegan will eat honey only if he knows how it’s produced (will eat if he knows the bees were not fed corn syrup instead of being left some of the honey). He also doesn’t eat sugar unless it’s raw because animal products are used to filter it. I swear it doesn’t sound so weird and crazy when he says it. I’m not a convert, but talking to them has given me a real respect for veganism. I also had a vegan carrot cake with tofu icing that was possibly the best carrot cake I’ve ever had. Mmm…another vote for bonding through food.

                1. Melissa*

                  Vegan cake is the best cake. I’m not even sure why but I’ve had vegan cupcakes a couple times (a lot of friends who are either vegan or have gluten sensitivities) and they are sooooo good.

            2. CathVWXYNot?*

              A new member of my team recently approached me in a state of great confusion. She’d volunteered to pick up a special lunch for a meeting attendee, but had been told by her boss “he’s vegetarian, so just get him a chicken salad”. Luckily, I’ve been here long enough to be able to explain that he’s not vegetarian but diabetic (and therefore couldn’t eat the sandwiches everyone else was having) – the boss had just used the wrong word by accident

            1. Anonymous Too*

              I don’t think she does. As someone else who also eats differently than the rest of the crowd, I think her tone is coming from the constant barrage of weird questions and assumptions that come from people when they find out someone eats differently. Personally, I don’t mind it at all when someone is genuinely interested in why I eat the way I do, but sometimes it’s just tiresome to deal with the different attitudes/narrow-mindedness that people have. I get where she’s coming from.

              1. Ellie H.*

                I smiled at Alison’s reply below – but also, the article is written from some time back. I think a lot more people are more aware and conscientious about issues regarding vegetarianism and veganism today. (Though inevitably, it’s never to as great an extent as we would hope to believe!)

                1. Anonymously Anonymous*

                  ++Agreeing. I just clicked on the link and was like it was written in 1995. I

            2. Chris80*

              For some reason, lots of people who wouldn’t normally bully or tease anyone think it’s OK to be endlessly critical of the vegetarian diet. I think it’s an appropriate response to those types of people.

              1. Elizabeth West*

                I agree. Many people who are vegetarian do it because they can’t eat meat for health reasons. Why should they have to defend their diet? Why should anyone, really?

              2. Gordon Morehouse*

                Absolutely agreed. The lolbacon crap is so, so, SO tiresome. It’s like the last bastion of what people are allowed to criticize and put down, now that it’s not cool to overtly make fun of most other groups.

                1. Melissa*

                  Well, it’s not the last bastion of what people feel able to criticize or put down. But it is really annoying when people criticize vegetarians and vegans, and I saw that as an avowed omnivore.

            3. Windchime*

              Wow, I didn’t think she sounded holier-than-thou. As a non-vegetarian, it’s good to be reminded that I shouldn’t be thoughtless towards my vegetarian friends.

          1. Chris80*

            Thanks for this, Alison! The comment in #4 about some people taking lessons from the bad kids in anti-drug movies made me laugh! So true.

          2. Joey*

            What I’ve never understood (and maybe you can answer this for me) is why so many veggie products are made to look and taste like meat. If you don’t want to eat meat, that’s cool, but why would you want to eat things that are meant to look and taste like meat?

            1. Sourire*

              Same reason people on diets still want to eat cake and ice cream. Some stuff just tastes good, even if you don’t want to eat it for various reasons.

              Also, sometimes it is just easier. If you’re at a cookout for example, throwing a black bean burger on the grill is a fairly easy way to include someone without them having to eat something entirely different than everyone else.

              1. Joey*

                So you want the taste of it without the guilt? Isn’t that sort of hypocritical just like the “strict dieter” who eats sugar free desserts? Or the sober alcoholic that drinks O’Douls?

                1. Joey*

                  I’m not attacking you, I just don’t understand why the objection to meat products doesn’t include fake meat products.

                2. Kelly L.*

                  Because many vegetarians object to the deaths of animals, not to the taste of meat. No animals die when you make fake meat.

                  A dieter’s objection to sugar isn’t its taste but its caloric content. A recovering alcoholic’s objection to alcohol isn’t its taste but the effects of the alcohol.

                  I have no idea what logic makes any of this hypocritical.

                3. Joey*

                  I’m confused. So some vegans like meat, they just ethically object to the idea of it? (Sorry, I’m ignorant)

                4. Joey*

                  I always though if I ethically objected to a food the thought of tasting it would repulse me.

                5. Sourire*

                  Just a note to add: There are also a lot of people who are vegetarian/pescatarian/vegan, etc for health reasons and not ethical reasons.

                  And to help put some perspective on the ethical part: I like diamonds; they’re shiny and pretty, but obviously some present a huge ethical problem. If I were to extrapolate your line of thinking to diamonds, it would be hypocritical of me to wear cubic zirconia.

                6. Cat*

                  I’m not a vegetarian, but why would you be repulsed by the taste of something just because you ethically object to it? I ethically object to bank robbing, but that doesn’t mean I would be repulsed by piles of cash. Plenty of people refrain from all manner of things they would like to do for ethical reasons.

                7. Joaquin*

                  Remember that some vegetarians aren’t ethically opposed to meat in their diet – some have health reasons or allergies, etc., that have led to the dietary change. Just because red meat is going to kill me doesn’t mean I don’t want it, or something that at least tastes and feels like it.

                8. Ellie H.*

                  To me this is a really bizarre criticism, particularly when you include the example of a person doesn’t drink alcohol but will drink nonalcoholic beer. (Would you make the same argument about sparkling cider or “mocktails”?) It’s completely random and immaterial how something tastes and people can eat anything whatsoever they like the taste of. Ethical, religious or health reasons for eating or not eating something are 100% separate from how it tastes. Baco-bits are vegan for example.

                9. Ellie H.*

                  Joey – there are so many examples of things that people “like” but ethically (or for some other reason) object to, not just food. I might “like” to sleep with my brother’s wife, but refrain for ethical reasons. I might “like” to own a blood diamond, but refrain for ethical reasons. I might “like” the taste of alcohol, but refrain for religious reasons. I might “like” to smoke, but refrain for health reasons. Etc. etc.

                10. LMW*

                  The idea of eating a bratwurst totally grosses me out because it’s eating a dead animal. To me, it’s the same as eating roadkill — my brain just isn’t able to differentiate. Eating a fake bratwurst made from vegetables and grains does not gross me out because it’s made from vegetables and grains, not meat.

                11. QQ*

                  I have met people who do think it’s unethical to wear a cubic zirconia because people see it and think it’s real and that increases demand for diamonds… Or something.

                12. Jessa*

                  @Cat some people when they stop eating certain types of things for a long time can get very ill if they end up eating them unexpectedly, hence repulsed.

                13. Cat*

                  Jessa, they’re not eating them unexpectedly – they’re eating a meat-like substitute expectedly. That’s a different thing.

                14. Jessa*

                  @Cat, sorry, I got the threading all confuzzled. It seems. got it now. But I don’t see where substitutes are problems either. I eat non dairy “butter” substitutes (margarine) and soy bacon bits in Kosher houses on baked potatoes with steak. So why not eat meat substitutes if you want to have something that looks similar on the plate to what everyone else is eating so as to not have one plate look odd person out.

                1. Sourire*

                  And if you suddenly did, but then found a product that looks and tastes very similar, but without the unethical part, you would object to eating it based on (misguided, imo) principle?

                2. Joey*

                  If somebody fed me a really good soup which I later found out was kitten soup I don’t think I’d want to eat fake kitten soup.

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Because a pig doesn’t care if you eat vegetarian fake bacon, but suffers very much if she’s kept in a gestation crate where she’s unable to turn around or even move for nearly her entire life, separated from her piglets by bars, so that we can have bacon.

              Because one causes animal suffering and one doesn’t.

              But this is not the place for a debate on vegetarianism :)

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Totally understand, think that’s a good thing, and didn’t mean to sound like I was chastising you or anyone — just don’t want to end up hosting a debate on it here!

                2. Anon*

                  I get what you’re saying I think – if you ethically object than participating in a mock of it seems like you’re perpetuating the business. Like with a perfume – if the company tests on animals and that is an ethical issue for me, but I really like the perfume, so I buy a “dupe” from a cruelty free company. I’m not participating in cruelty but I am certainly contributing to the popularity of the fragrance which in turn keeps a demand for the product up.

                  Or smoking – giving cigs to kids is obviously unethical, but what about giving them candy cigs or water vapor cigs? It still perpetuates the smoking industry in a sense.

                  I’m not saying I agree with the hypocrisy comment, but I do understand how one might reach that conclusion.

                3. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  It’s really more “here are familiar foods that you’ve grown up with, in more ethical forms.” Fake meat doesn’t really taste like meat, after all; it just mimics the associations we have with familiar foods. For instance, in our culture we tend to eat burgers and other things on bread and buns (whether made from cows, soy, or vegetables). It’s not that vegetarians eating a veggie burger want to get as close to a hamburger as possible; it’s that these are the foods we’re used to eating, and hey, here’s a version that better meets some people’s ethics/health needs/etc.

                  For most people, food is deeply entwined with social rituals, cultural norms, and other things that make it reasonable that many people prefer to stay within the same general idea of food products, just without the animal cruelty.

                4. Joey*

                  Sorry i had to respond because i want to understand. That’s not really it for me. I guess I just don’t understand what the objection actually is. If its the objection to the way slaughtered animals are treated does that mean you’re okay with eating animals that are say kosher or treated in some other acceptable terms? Or is it the objection to eating the flesh of another animal period? Because if its the latter why would you eat things that purposefully remind you of flesh like fake meat.

                5. CathVWXYNot?*

                  For some people it’s the environmental impact of meat that’s the problem, so a substitute that tastes similar but uses fewer resources to produce is preferable.

                  I’m not vegetarian, but I have reduced my intake of red meat in particular in recent years because of its environmental impact

                6. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  It varies by person. For many people, it’s the way animals are treated on factory farms their whole lives. For others, it’s killing animals when we don’t need to in order to survive and be healthy. For others, it’s about health or the environment.

                7. Rana*

                  What the above people have said – the reasons to not eat animal products vary a lot by person.

                  In my case, for example, I try to avoid animal products that are not grown sustainably, locally, and humanely – which in practice often means a lot of vegetarian food, and choosing the vegetarian option when it’s available – but I will eat ethically sourced meat and eggs when I can afford it.

                  I don’t call myself a vegetarian – because I’m not anymore – but to the people arranging for catering, I might as well be, because of my preference for the vegetarian option.

                8. Not So NewReader*

                  There’s dozens of reason why people do not eat meat.
                  And for some people it is a journey to learn to live without meat. They have some meat on occasion and then go back to their new diet.
                  Some folks decide “Ok, I am done with meat for a number of reasons.” Then they suddenly realize – “well, what CAN I eat?”
                  Things like veggie burgers can be a fill-in menu item until a person develops a new set of foods to chose from.
                  Some people want a some turkey on the holidays or it does not feel like the holidays- so they buy a tofu turkey.
                  When you change your diet like this you are learning to eat foods you never heard of and probably cannot pronounce. It is nice to have something vaguely familiar and still stay within your new guidelines- such as a veggie burger.
                  I switched my diet years ago. I gave up sugar and flour. The first few weeks were a mad scramble to find something to eat. I refused to let myself get hungry and snack on junk. In order to accomplish that goal, I spent all my free time developing a menu I would actually work with. It was WORK. Yeah, there were times I had veggie burgers and pretended it was a hamburger. It got me through my transition.
                  Everything Alison is saying in her link is true- people really do put you through hoops with what they think of to say and ask- clearly not supportive words/thoughts.
                  Nothing wrong with sincere questions though! That is how I started learning and I now realize I will never stop learning more about the topic of food and food production.

              1. tcookson*

                Things like veggie burgers can be a fill-in menu item until a person develops a new set of foods to chose from.

                This. My husband and I did a vegan diet for a year, and the book we used to figure out what to eat had a list of “transition foods” such as veggie burgers and tofu hotdogs for people unfamiliar with all the other foods. It encouraged people to use the transition foods for convenience while exploring the other, less familiar recipes.

            3. Chris80*

              I personally don’t eat any foods like soy-burgers and whatnot. The concept of meat is gross enough to me that I don’t have any desire to eat something that looks or tastes like meat, either. But that’s JMHO, there are lots of vegetarians that eat these products.

            4. Rana*

              It also simplifies things if you’re a vegan or vegetarian cook who is preparing food to share with people who do eat meat. While some people will turn up their noses at “rabbit food” or “that weird vegan crap” they will eat a Boca burger, in my experience.

              (Personally, I find Boca burgers disgusting – I’d rather have a Gardenburger – but I know some people love them.)

              1. LMW*

                I’m with you on the Gardenburger over Boca burger…and I think that it might be in part because Boca aims to imitate meat (seems to be a higher priority than taste IMO), whereas no one would ever think a Gardenburger is meat or meat substitute. It’s more like “Here’s something you can put on a bun and add toppings to that’s not meat.” Not “Here’s a substitute for a hamburger, we tried to make it as close as possible without including cow.”

              2. Lynn*

                I live in Texas, where barbeque is a big thing. It makes things much simpler and more sociable if I can toss a Boca burger or Garden burger on the grill. I mean, I can sort of see why people would wonder if my diet is unhealthy, if they see me trying to make a meal out of coleslaw and potato chips.

      2. LMW*

        I went to a social potluck last night where the hosts actually had pieces of paper for everyone to write down what the dish was and what was in it. Really helpful, as there were a bunch of people on special diets.

        1. Jessa*

          Oh and what was in it, please means EVERYTHING. I have an odd allergy. And every year in at least two companies I worked for two separate people who having been reminded in advance to please “not put the mustard in the quiche (not required, it would have been DELISH without it,)” had to stop me from eating it. Because “darn it we forgot to leave it out again this year.” Every year. I worked for one company for 5 years and the other 7.

        2. littlemoose*

          I have celiac disease (no gluten) and that would be hugely helpful. I feel like a high-maintenance jerk when I have to quiz people about the ingredients of their dishes (and I usually don’t eat it anyway, to be on the safe side).

    3. RLS*


      And, also, please be aware there are foods that aren’t veggie…marshmallows, about half the candy ever made, most cheese isn’t either (rennet) but I only know a few veg people that exclude it that aren’t already vegan…and many soups and seasonings aren’t always veg either. Saltines aren’t either, that I know of (made with lard).

      It’s definitely hard enough being veg*n, but all the people swooping in on the food you CAN eat, and then tormenting you for not eating meat? Blah! But that’s another unrelated topic.

      1. Rin*

        How are Saltines made with lard? I’m pretty up with animal products in food, but I’ve never heard this one. Als, with cheeses, there are a lot without animal rennet, and a lot that don’t lsit rennet at all (does that mean they didn’t use it?). Plus, all those glycerin and “natural flavor” ingredients. Yuck.

        1. Natalie*

          I think saltines were traditionally made with lard, but I suspect nearly all commercially available brands today are made with vegetable shortening – Nabisco uses soybean oil, for example. For a number of reasons, lard is not a popular ingredient anymore.

      2. LMW*

        I only found out about marshmallows a few years ago…can you believe I never knew what gelatin was until I was 30? Saltines never occurred to me. Eeeeewwwww.

        1. LMW*

          And I don’t mean that in a “people who eat saltines are gross way, I mean it in a “I had the flu a few weeks ago and all I could keep down were saltines and now I feel doubly gross thinking about that upsetting time.” Just to clarify, because I do not want to imply an insult to meat eaters among us.

      3. Ann O'Nemity*

        IMO, some of the most surprising foods with hidden meat include some kinds of refined sugar (animal bones), fortified juice (omega-3s from fish or gelatin, lanolin from sheep), dried noodles (chicken stock), refried beans (lard), packaged peanuts (gelatin), some soy cheeses (casein), and cake mix (beef fat).

        And I think Saltines actually have shortening, not lard.

        1. LMW*

          Yes, it was recently pointed out to me that several brands of organic milk have fish oil in it! (Omega-3)

        2. ThatGirl*

          Also, french fries and potato chips. One of the ingredients that is used for flavoring is a beef based broth which isn’t listed among the ingredients.

        3. danr*

          Look for a kosher label to avoid lard. Kosher parve will indicate that no meat or dairy products were used.

      4. Not So NewReader*

        Salt is another mystery product. Manufacturers can put additional ingredients in salt and they do not have to list them on the label. It’s okay to put sugar in salt and not mention that.
        The term “natural flavorings” can include milk. Nice. Especially for those of us who are allergic.
        This list goes on and on….

    4. Girasol*

      And when there’s a chickenetarian, order chicken and don’t laugh like you think he’s kidding. Really. I learned that the embarrassing way.

  5. Meg*

    Since the general consensus is usually in favor of free food (because obviously), maybe you could just have a monthly free lunch, where people are encouraged to get together and chat for an hour? You could call it something as simple as “Staff Appreciation Lunch”. And skip the awkward speeches. Just give people food and let them talk about sports, the weather, whatever they feel like. My office does these sometimes, and it helps us break out of our daily rhythm and talk to other people that we normally don’t interact with.

    1. Cat*

      Or have one person/group give a presentation over lunch about what they’re working on each month. Our office does that (in addition to once-a-month unstructured lunches) and I actually like the chance to hear about projects I wouldn’t otherwise.

      1. COT*

        My organization offers an occasional “lunch with the Executive Director.” It’s a casual brown-bag affair (we’re a nonprofit) but a great way to interact not only with the leadership but other co-workers and hear about what’s going on.

        In college, my honors program did a “pizza with a prof” series where we got free lunch and a presentation from a popular professor (nominated by students from across various disciplines) about an interesting topic of their choice. It was really popular and always interesting, even (especially) if the topic was from a field that you didn’t study. If your team has interesting professional or personal projects going on, maybe folks would enjoy the chance to learn.

      2. Sydney Bristow*

        I worked at a small firm for awhile that provided lunch on Fridays. Everyone came unless they were really busy with something or out of the office. It was really casual, but once everyone had their food we would go around the table and take a minute or two to explain a bit of what we were working on that week and any possible issues that might come up in the near future. I hate speaking in front of groups, but it was helpful to hear what everyone was up to from the partner to the interns to the IT person. That normally took 10-15 min total and then the rest of lunch we just chatted.

        1. Anonymous Accountant*

          We used to have something similar at a previous job, also. It went over really well. Once a month, the partners would order in catering and we’d eat and talk at the conference table about what we were working on, etc. It was a 20 person firm and it took about 15 mins for all to discuss projects, etc.

          Then we’d eat and there was no penalization for “Hey, sorry to cut this short but ABC needs their financials by 2:00pm”. We chatted and it helped to form connections with other employees.

          1. Felicia*

            I did my first internship at a place like that and it really helped me to feel comfortable. Every Friday there’d be free food and we’d talk about what we’d done that week and what we hoped to do the next week. Still a little forced and hard for me to talk in front of everyone, but I liked the food and that it was work related, and afterwards it was very relaxed and we’d chat while finishing lunch. I think with that, teh fact that there weren’t any structured non work related activities and no games was why I liked it, and that kind of thing I could see being more helpful.

        2. Chinook*

          I loved it when I worked in an environment where everyone can take the time to eat together over food the company paid for. My only issue was when I was fasting for religious reasons, it seemed to make the group uncomfortable even though I came in with my glass of tea, joined in the conversation but had plate in front of me. I had talked to the one ordering the food earlier not to include me in the order and, 1-on-1, there was no issue, but I didn’t like to be the center of attention.

          With Ramadan going on right now, it is an even bigger issue around here because there are a bunch of networking events involving food and drink during the day and I feel for those who can’t fully participate and end up having to justify having an empty hand (because they aren’t even allowed water. I also feel bad because sunrise to sunset is 18 hours.). I just wish people would not feel the need to comment on someone’s food or lack thereof.

          1. Jamie*

            I just wish people would not feel the need to comment on someone’s food or lack thereof.

            This – always. I’ve always hated this and lately with having to rearrange my schedule for iron infusions to treat IDA I am dealing with a special little version of this now. “You can get iron from red meat – you should eat a hamburger!” “Have you tried spinach?”

            Once you’re under weekly care by a hematologist we’re past one burger or spinach salad making a difference and trust me…I’ve already changed more of my eating habits than I have time to talk about.

            Interesting fact – vitamin C increases the absorption of heme iron from red meat and tomatoes are an excellent source…so for the time being spaghetti and meatballs is considered health food for me. I knew if I looked hard enough I’d find a silver lining!

            1. Ruffingit*

              Hope your treatments are going well Jamie. And I’d like to add to the “helpful suggestions” thing – it’s amazing how many people make suggestions as if you’re a complete moron who hasn’t thought of it already. Let me say first that I realize their intentions are good, but it just makes me want to cringe when people say things to someone with major health issues “Have you tried spinach?” Seriously??

              I sent a note to my network letting people know I was looking for a job so I could get the word out and one reply I received was “Have you tried” Why no! No, I have not been looking at the well-known Internet job boards, thanks for that not at all helpful suggestion.

              Again, good intentions I get it…but still…GAH!!!

          2. GeekChic*

            Thank you for that. I always cringe at the “everyone loves free food” sentiment. Actually, a lot of people don’t (or can’t) and a lot of people are subject to ridiculous commentary in an atmosphere that revolves around food.

            No, I can’t eat that. Yes, my allergies are fatal. No, I don’t trust you to do CPR. Focus on your own plate – not mine.

            1. Jessa*

              Exactly. No I’m not going to risk my life, and yes, my allergies are fatal too. And no I’m not going to taste that I don’t know what’s IN it.

      3. Anon*

        My office did that.

        The presentation was on something really medically gross, because that was the project she was working on.

        Over lunch.

        We never did it again.

        But I thikn it could be great so long as it’s not mandatory, i.e. “I have to stay late to finish this thing that’s on rush, because I had to waste an hour at lunch.”

    2. Ed*

      At a previous job, we did “Lunch and Learn” sessions with vendors. There were a ton of vendors trying to get their products in front of our team but we were super busy. They could meet with just our boss but he wasn’t technical enough to say if it met our needs. Typically it resulted with our boss doing a very poor job of relaying the info in our staff meeting. Somebody came up with the idea to get the vendor to supply food from a local restaurant and then they had a captive audience for one hour. The vendors absolutely loved it and were fighting to get on the schedule. It’s incredibly valuable to them to present their product to the team that would implement/manage the product and the person with purchasing power at the same time. To keep participation up, we only did one a month only with products we were seriously considering for purchase or new versions of products we already owned.

      But, as for forced socialization in general, hell no. We did this at a previous job and I was so much happier when I left that I wouldn’t stay at a company that tried to implement it. Even if you make it voluntary, peer pressure usually forces you into it anyway. Plus, many managers quietly pressure their people to participate because they think low turnout reflects poorly upon them.

    3. Elle D*

      We used to do this at my last office as well, and it was a nice way to team build. People could feel free to stay and eat with co-workers or just pop in to say hi and grab a plate to take back to their desks – it wasn’t mandatory and there was no pressure for not going. We also did 1-2 events outside of the office during the year, but they were also totally voluntary and typically you were allowed to bring a guest (things like a group trip to a local sporting event or a casual dinner out, and there was no pressure to bring a spouse/significant other – people brought other family members or a platonic friend as well).

    4. Jazzy Red*

      We used to have lunches like that once a month. It was fun, and a good opportunity to talk to people who worked in the various buildings we occupied.

  6. Chinook*

    I agree that free food is a good way to get people to interact. The most enjoyable meal I ever had at two different places involved food being shared “family-style” where we had a buffet of choices and plenty of room to sit at a table and eat. One place had chinese food and the other someone brought in a BBQ and corn to roast on it (we even brought tables outside so we could enjoy the weather). The big thing was being able to spend the time together over food that everyone can have.

    I also agree that making sure that there are plenty of vegtarian options and that it shouldn’t be mandatory so that everyone feels like they are wanted at the meal and not ordered.

  7. Liz in the City*

    When I was leaving OldJob (250+ people), one of my managers had an off-the-record conversation with me about how she could improve morale. Basically, I couldn’t offer anything because in the end, we all wanted raises, some sense of job security (you felt more disposable than TP there), some acknowledgment that we worked hard and some communication with the higher ups about what was going on. No amount of games or forced socializing would have helped. Plus, senior management didn’t care, so it would have been a lowly manager’s job to make “fun” happen — and it would have been excruciating.

    At NewJob, it’s completely different. There’s about 30 people here. We have Wiener Wednesdays, where we drag out a BBQ and make hot dogs for lunch. We celebrated Cinco de Mayo with margaritas and tons o’ food. The party started during work, but many people stayed till 8 p.m. (voluntarily). It’s because there’s a total buy in from senior management, who ask for suggestions and encourage fun (and usually totally fund it). I jokingly sent around an email asking if we could rent a mechanical bull for Cinco and one manager seriously considered it. Some of you guys in AAM Land probably think this sounds torturous, but we also don’t “make” people drink or socialize. We do encourage people to let loose, since we can be under tight deadlines all too often.

    Anyway, TL;DR. OP, your heart is in the right place. Maybe you should look for a new place where your commitment to community culture would be appreciated.

    1. fposte*

      As one of the people who’d hate this, I’m nonetheless totally supportive of any company that wants this culture. At your workplace, it’s clearly not at the expense of other employee support, and you’ve got a small organization with a very clear style and senior commitment. Even if it’s not for me, I think that’s great, and if I were interviewing there, I expect we’d explicitly explore the question of whether it would work for me.

      I strongly differentiate between organizations that do things in a way that suits me and organizations that do things in a way that works for them: I doubt I would be happy working for Zappo’s, but I think the place is amazing and I love shopping there. And I’m glad you’ve found a berth at an organization you enjoy.

      1. Liz in the City*

        Truthfully, fposte, I wasn’t sure I’d like it either. The culture was pretty clearly communicated on the website, so I kinda knew what I was getting in to. But after years spent at a place where “if you have a smile on your face, stop it or we’ll stop it for you!” I was ready for a change. You can be as involved here as you want to, which I think is key for keeping everyone (fairly) happy.

        And I LOVE Zappo’s too, but yeah, not so sure I could work there.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Totally been there with the “if you have a smile on your face, stop it” kind of culture. It’s so disheartening and demoralizing. I’d much rather ride the mechanical bull than deal with that. :)

          1. FreeThinkerTX*

            Yep, this. At my call center job (ahem, “Inside Sales” for world’s largest software company) I was told by my manager that if I was having fun doing my job, then I wasn’t working hard enough.


  8. Amber*

    “It is often difficult for new employees to even interact with other departments.” Being the new guy is scary especially when you don’t know anyone, you don’t know who does what, or where they all sit. Here are some ways to help that: Create a seating chart of the office with names and titles, have each department a different color. Talk to HR first so they don’t think you’re stepping on their toes. Also when someone is new walk them around and introduce them to people. When you go out to lunch with your friends encourage them to invite someone new.

    1. Chinook*

      Another way to help new employees interact with others is to have name plates for everyone. That way, those of us with horrible memories can atleast tie names and faces together (but that only works if they pay attention. I was at a networking event yesterday where one guy asked me where I worked and I had to point out that he saw me in the coffee room every morning.)

  9. Joey*

    To me, the best place to start is to get the teams together to talk about where you’re going as a group, how you’re going to get there and what role each team plays. Managers probably play the most critical role in developing culture as they are the “company” employees see day in and day out which means they have to set the tone and maintain the culture. This means living it everyday in every call, meeting and interaction with employees.

    Culture can never be fixed with band aids like team functions. Those things at most should supplement the culture your managers have created, not replace it.

    Now absent participation by senior management I think you can create a positive culture within your team, but its going to be tied to you as an individual and not the culture of the organization.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Culture can never be fixed with band aids like team functions. Those things at most should supplement the culture your managers have created, not replace it.

      +1 million!! So important for companies to remember this. Team functions will not cover up the fact that the underlying culture is a festering infectious wound. If you have a bad culture, team functions will do very little to help and may even create resentment.

  10. Runon*

    Food in the break room and a half day to work on your own projects or things that interest you and talk about them with coworkers whenever you wander into the break room. Some people will work together, cool, good for them. Some people will dive into whatever they are interested in. Give them some learning/professional development opportunities.

    Don’t do this on top of the work they already have though. Do this instead of. If you were going to make them spend the time trust falling or something else give them that same time to do something to make themselves better employees. Hey take a class or webinar. Go try and fail at learning something in excel for a couple hours. No stress just trying new things.

    If you really wanted give people a chance to share something they learned during that time, hey a short e-mail if they want or talking at a team meeting. Or not if they don’t.

    To the OP you keep saying “culture” but you don’t say what kind of culture. Can you elaborate?

  11. PPK*

    I think an hour activity every month could be nice — as long as it was super informal. I would go with food as suggested. Maybe it could be free coffee/tea/juice (if your office doesn’t already have that). Or an afternoon snack — pie, cookies, fruit, whatever. Basically, a time when some food arrives and people can mill around. People could skip, they could grab food and go or hang around and gab a bit.

    This is cheesy, but maybe a small raffle item too. Most people like to win things. Even if they are silly. Although I know that can be a minefield. One person’s useful fun prize is another person’s useless offensive crap.

    1. JMegan*

      Yes! I forgot about that in my answer below – all the places I’ve been where they have done this have had 50-50 draws. Half to the winner, and half goes back to the Social Committee for next month’s event.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Raffles are great. Just don’t put the company owner/CEO into the pot to win it. This happened at a company I worked for. During the annual holiday party, they raffled off some small gift card prizes and then some bigger stuff like two surface tablets and a desktop computer. One of the surface tablets was won by the owner’s wife…who doesn’t even work at the company. She just attended the party.

        The definition of demoralizing is watching the owner’s spouse drive away in her brand new luxury car with the big raffle prize from a company where she doesn’t even work. So yeah….

        1. tcookson*

          This! My husband’s company does an annual holiday party where they have a lot of raffle items, from small things like mugs and t-shirts all the way up to big-screen TVs, ballgame tickets, and a week in a ski cabin. The nicer prizes somehow always end up in the hands of the upper management and never go to the guys on the floor.

          1. Jamie*

            I’ve seen raffles where when your name is called you select a prize from those remaining – but a big one is saved for the last name called. So the sooner your name is called the bigger selection you have.

            I personally think management and especially upper management should stick to the coffee mugs and low level gift cards and leave the big ticket items for people who work on the floor.

            1. tcookson*

              I agree . . . otherwise it turns an event that is ostensibly about increasing employee morale into just one more thing for them to be (justifiably) cynical about.

    2. Vicki*

      At several jobs I’ve had, we did “Bagel Mondays” (or Fridays, or Wednesdays). Everyone would converge on the break room for bagels, cream cheese or jam, and chat. That worked pretty well.

  12. BCW*

    I may be in the minority here, but I don’t see it as a bad idea. Of course make it optional. But I don’t see anything wrong with saying “Hey, there is a horse shoe/bags/whatever and food outside at lunch for anyone interested”. You’ll have some people who choose to do it, and some who don’t, and thats fine. But if you have 2 people on a team from different departments, you’ve at least built one new bridge. I agree that forced bonding is bad, but offering people a break from work in a fun way doesn’t seem bad to me. I’d love it if my company did something like that.

    1. Chinook*

      The event I was at yesterday gave everyone 3 cards when they entered and the goal was to bring back 5 matching ones so you could enter your name in a draw for (good) prizes. It was a great ice breaker and, because it was voluntary, there were all sorts of extra floating around. I am normally a wall flower but it was a great excuse to join a group of people already talking, especially because I would have to ask for donations of cards to complete my set.

    2. bo bessi*

      I’m with you. My office pays for an ice cream truck to park outside the building once a year. It’s a great chance to get away from your desk for a minute and chat. Some people choose not to participate, and that’s fine. Those who do really look forward to it each year.

    3. Natalie*

      Agreed, keeping it casual is best.

      A few months back I went to an internal conference that included an evening of bowling. I don’t especially like bowling with my friends, and I was way too uncomfortable to bowl with strangers (I didn’t know anyone at the conference). Not bowling didn’t prevent me from socializing with my co-workers and getting all of the intended benefits of the event. The only thing that was uncomfortable about my not bowling were the few people who just wouldn’t drop it.

      1. Gordon Morehouse*

        Oh my god, yes.

        If you’re going to make The Team go out bowling, accept that not everyone on The Team can or wants to bowl, and SHUT UP.

        Some people have wrist RSI. Some people hate bowling and just want to sit and talk. Shut. up. about my not bowling.

  13. Felicia*

    I hate all the forced “fun” and games and “bonding” exercises some workplaces have. I hope to not work for a company that does that and when it happens I often feel less apart of the team as opposed to more . Free food however (with no forced activities attached) is always good:)

  14. JMegan*

    The last several places I’ve worked have had monthly get-togethers sponsored by the Social Committee. They’re all a bit different, but they do have a few things in common:

    ~1 hour a month, usually on a Friday
    ~held in a break room or a meeting room on-site
    ~free food (coffee and donuts, fruit, etc – nothing fancy)
    ~no games or other structured activities
    ~completely optional

    It’s a good way to get people out of their offices and talking about their kids, the weather, sports, etc, which can be really valuable for team-building. Of course, this is in addition to, not instead of, the work-related aspects of team-building mentioned above – if your office culture and morale aren’t that great to begin with, no amount of free donuts will make up for it.

    TL;DR – free food, no games!

  15. Just a Reader*

    One of the reasons I quit my last job was stuff like this. I do not ever want to go to another ice cream social, and weekly forced socializing meant that you had to stay late to make up the time you missed.

    And I got dinged in my performance review for not being social enough.

    I think having a purpose for these get togethers would make them go over a lot better–throw in lunch and hold a brainstorm, or go the guest speaker route suggested above. Don’t just hope that people will be excited about free food and will socialize.

    For some people, the social piece is an important part of the culture. For me, it’s a painful, forced activity that gets in the way of me doing my work and living my life.

    1. Chris80*

      Forced socializing is awful – I go to work to do MY JOB. I will happily go above and beyond the requirements of my job, if what I’m doing is work related. But forced “fun” that has nothing to do with work? No. Even worse is when the “fun” is touted as optional, but isn’t truly optional, i.e. non participants get snide comments from management or dings on their performance reviews. I feel your pain!

      1. Just a Reader*

        Right? I really don’t care what my coworkers think of Channing Tatum. Can I get back to work now?

  16. Zelos*

    Forced bonding is supremely awkward for a lot of people, really. If you don’t already have the supportive office culture there’s not much inclination to mingle with people you don’t know/don’t like, and taking that hour to mingle and eat – even if it’s on the clock! – means that the pile of work on your desk suddenly got higher by one hour’s work’s worth. Plus, not having the goodwill and friendliness makes most chatting attempts with colleagues rather stilted and abrupt, anyway.

    Free food, sure. But no forced games/bonding activities, skip the speeches. And like Alison said…probably start with the office culture/morale first.

  17. Jamie*

    We do quarterly cook-outs (or some kind of lunch in the winter) and most of the people really like them, even ask about them as the time approaches, etc. Tbh, I avoid these things whenever possible – but I have noticed there isn’t a whole lot of mingling – but there is some.

    The key is it’s optional – and there isn’t pressure to attend. It’s also on the clock, so it’s not asking people to give up personal time for this.

    It does cause me a little stress wondering if I’d be more approachable if I had a burger and sat down for 10 minutes with people…but I’m perfectly pleasant if someone comes by my office to see me or requests a meeting…so I don’t think I have to. But I do stress that I’m appearing unfriendly – but it’s really just my introversion and misophonia winning out over any possible benefits to going and listening to tons of people eating.

    No harm in this as long as it’s optional – and I’m continuously surprised by how many people enjoy it. Although I do have to say it’s a bigger hit with the people who work in the factory than the office…a bigger percentage of us can be found at our desks.

  18. ArtsNerd*

    I’d like to mention that the free food idea should be semi-regular, and not just a one-off. As someone who can be social-but-shy, it took months of pizza lunches for me to branch out beyond my immediate office-mates. (Though a bunch of those pizza lunches were in the form of going away parties, since it was a toxic work environment.)

  19. Joey*

    The best organizational culture I’ve been a part of involved very few social stuff. It was in a company with high pressure work. It started with some very basic things like discussing expectations, actual performance and providing feedback. Outside of that the CEO kept a light hearted attitude that permeated through the organization. It was things like merely chatting with employees when he saw them, joking about work, and really just taking the day to day pressure off of people that did a good job. Doing things like this meant other lower level managers followed his lead. And of course this was a major component of hiring and promoting- finding people who embraced that sort of attitude. Although we didnt have much of a budget for social stuff we turned the little money we had into more by doing things like cooking and selling lunch plates on the clock which would support an end of the year party. Cheap, simple, but very effective.

    1. Just a Reader*

      YES–my team socializes maybe once a quarter and it’s fun. And rare, so people aren’t giving up a lot of time.

    2. Joey*

      A few odd things that always made everyone laugh:

      1. When handing out awards at our party we’d photoshop the head of the employee onto a superhero’s body and put in on a projector.
      2. Awards were always something off the wall and weird: one year we gave away MRE’s to a team that completed a difficult and long project.
      3. At holiday time we emailed out one of those dancing Santa’s elf videos with our senior leaders as the elves.

      Dumb and silly stuff, but effective.

  20. Anonymous*

    We had office social hours every quarter. free beer and wine was nice, although the pizza they got at the last one I attended was weird (if you’re going to order pizza, for God’s sake you NEED to order some plain pizzas). I appreciated getting paid to drink for an hour, but I was not a fan of forced socialization in such a large group. Team outings were much better as I could hang out in a smaller group and really get to know people.

    Although there was one meeting toward the end that was fun. We all sent someone “fun facts” about ourselves (answering from a list of questions), then she put the facts on a BINGO card and we had to go around and match people to their facts. It was an event for everyone who worked on our account. It was fun, but no one would notice if you weren’t that involved, and it got people to have some really fun conversations with each other.

    In general there can’t be pressure for people to stay. It’s not fair to hold someone not attending or leaving early against them, some people just don’t like the atmosphere of a big party.

    Another issue: some people may have a lot to do one day, and if there’s a party before the end of the day they then have to figure out what they need to do. Can they go to the party? Do they need to stay at their desk? Do they go and then resume work, working late into the night to finish something? I had this dilemma once and when I asked my manager what he thought I should do he refused to give me a clear answer.

    1. Jamie*

      (if you’re going to order pizza, for God’s sake you NEED to order some plain pizzas).

      I quoted the above just because it cannot be said enough. THIS!

      Because some places hide the toppings under the cheese and what you think is a lovely piece of cheese pizza has peperoni hiding in there just to ambush you, or god help me, pineapple (which has no business being anywhere except on cottage cheese or in a pina colada).

      And no we cannot just pick off the toppings because pepperoni, sausage, and pineapple! leave their funky juices and tastes and smells all over the acceptable parts of the pizza.

      I have strong feelings on this topic and I’m glad Anonymous brought it up.

      1. Chris80*

        Pineapple & cottage cheese? Why have I never heard of this combination? Interesting.

        Agreed about the hidden pizza toppings and those that think “pick it off” is an acceptable solution. That said, I prefer pizza with no cheese at all, so I’m pretty sure that preference won’t ever be accommodated at an office gathering!

        1. Cathy*

          It’s quite good! Along with the Southern staple of salad bars everywhere: peaches and cottage cheese.

      2. Anonymous*

        That too! Onions leave their taste on pizza too. I’m sure they were trying to give us something extra nice, but they ended up with one hungry chocolate teapot maker because I don’t usually eat pizza with toppings.

        If you order pizza for people, you can’t go wrong with a big stack of cheese, a slightly smaller stack of pepperoni, and a few cheeseless pizzas if there are vegans/lactose intolerants in the office. No one’s gonna go in there and go “ick! no thanks, I only eat pizza with bacon and potatoes.”

        1. LMW*

          Ha! I actually only like pizza with vegetarian toppings…I don’t care for cheese pizzas. (Feels like only part of a meal, and not the nutritious part.) So just goes to show that there will be one picky person you can’t please in every crowd! :)

  21. Jen in RO*

    My company buys us lunch once in a blue moon, usually to celebrate something. Pizza day got everyone together! As long as it’s not mandatory, free food will definitely work.

    As for games, what’s working for us is sponsored activities – the company is paying for renting a volleyball/football (soccer)/basketball field once a week, and whoever’s interested can join. I loooove volleyball Monday. (About 30 people out of ~270 attend on a regular basis.)

    1. Jamie*

      We have this too – the company pays for the park district fees for basketball and softball for whomever wants to join a team…they also have a basketball tournament at lunch in courtyard.

      There is apparently no policy about wearing the same shirt for the rest of the afternoon which you’ve played basketball in – and there should be. Ick. Changes of clothes are everyone’s friend.

    2. Chinook*

      I had one place that had a Wii in the breakroom and set up a Mario Kart tournament during lunch hours. It was great fun for those who chose to play and for those who watched (there is nothing funnier than watching your buttoned down partner/boss yelling at the screen for getting hit with a blue turtle shell!)

  22. LovelyLibrarian*

    We recently merged into one huge disorganized workplace from 4 previously separate organizations, and now I have 50-60 new colleagues who I have no idea what they do or how they relate to me. It seems like most of what people are complaining about in this thread is the “forced social” aspect of get-to-know-you activities, when really the OP was talking about divided departments and no opportunities for professional interaction.

    I liked the suggestions by COT above (2-3 minute speed-dating type meetings, and 15-20 minute departmental presentations / meetings). I can’t tell you how useful something like that would be to me – to actually

    1) Be able to put a colleague’s face, name and job description together
    2) Be able to know who to reach out to if I have a question about something not in my field, and be able to actually reach them
    3) Feel like I’m not isolated in my office when there are probably 2-3 people who could help out or join forces if needed.

    So, perhaps a company facebook (yes, I come from an era when a facebook was literally that: a book of faces, names, and info) would be useful? Perhaps monthly presentations by departments or groups that could be web-broadcast to other departments on what they’re up to? (If you’re all in the same building, unlike me, you can obviously skip the broadcast.)

    And, yes, food does help – but a lot of people skip company lunches who might be okay with watching a webcast in their office, or reading a book in their space time.

    1. Jen in RO*

      A lot of people wouldn’t like it, but we have a Facebook group for employees, where people usually post funny stuff (it’s a software company, so mostly programmer humor) and company-related accomplishments (e.g. a couple of people participated in a corporate bike race). I think it was a great idea to set it up and it probably works because we are all very young (20s-30s).

      1. Gordon Morehouse*

        There is no way in hell I am “friending” anyone from work on Facebook unless we hang out outside of work, and any pressure to mix a personal online profile with work makes me extremely queasy. No. No no no no no. No.

  23. Victoria Nonprofit*

    The organization I currently work for has a great culture – in management, performance, commitment, appropriate salaries, etc…. but also in humor, genuine affection, enjoyment of each other, etc. I’m an introvert and I still LOVE our (way overprogrammed, super exhausting) all staff retreats because I love my coworkers so much.

    I’m curious about how can organization can try to get what we have. Does it all just stem from the basics of treating employees well and having clear goals and support for those goals? Does it depend on having leaders who demonstrate the kind of friendly attitude our VPs do? It feels like there’s a real difference between having a sane, professional, effective office culture and sane, professional, effective, and pleasurable office culture. Am I wrong?

    1. Just a Reader*

      I think to be successful the company has to really care about employees’ morale, professional development and value–those are the 3 things people tend to care about at work.

      If I had had a workplace that was transparent, honest, focused on enabling me to cultivate my career and that paid me fairly I might not have been so pissed off about the ice cream socials.

      1. Lindsay J*

        This! I’ve been at places of both types.

        At the places that didn’t treat us right, I hated the forced socialization and things they did to be “fun”. It was as though HR knew that having happy employees was the key to recruiting and retaining high quality people, however they didn’t realize that what makes people happy is having challenging but reasonable expectations, consistent feedback, sane hours, reasonable pay for the amount of work they do, and a leadership team that treats their employees as people. So we got musical chairs, instead. And we all spent the whole time grumbling about how we would have much rather had the raise we were promised three months before than having them spend however-much on organizing and buying supplies for a badly organized field-day/picnic. Any other attempts at paying lip-service to the idea of employee satisfaction without trying to actually change the way they treated us on a day to day basis were treated with similar disdain.

        On the other hand, with the good employers – the ones who care about the things you mentioned – I actually enjoyed the chance to socialize with my coworkers for a little bit. The difference was that the pizza and ice-cream or whatever was another thing on top of everything else that they did to show they valued us, rather than being the only thing. (These companies were also more likely to understand that we were adult human beings and not kids in daycare or mindless peons, and didn’t make us do ridiculous ice-breakers, which I have always found to be demeaning).

  24. The IT Manager*

    No! I support socialization over food (but do note that some people with specific diets feel left out). I am not fond of embaressing myself (some more tolerant people might call it laughing at themselves) even in the name of “fun” or a game so until I hear more I’d say no to the games. But free food does not force or encourage socialization across departments; people can easily stay in their own groups or take it back to their desks. Doing these kind of things during work is best, but if people are overworked or even busy they might end up having to work extra because of the activity.

    This is simply not the way to improve morale.

  25. A Teacher*

    I’m an introvert so even the idea of meals with coworkers is at times paralyzing. I don’t know where to or who to sit with, I feel like I’m on eggshells the whole time, and am just uncomfortable. Sometimes I go get the food and go back to my classroom. One on one or in very small groups awesome, but with everyone no way.

  26. WWWONKA*

    We used to do lunches with management doing the cooking if we BBQ’d. If we hit a big milestone we held raffles occasionally for a give away sometimes as good as a TV. If a vendor was bringing something like donuts or pizza we insisted that there was enough for everybody or don’t bring it. It usually worked to bring camaraderie and teamwork while erasing that management/worker line of separation.

  27. VintageLydia*

    If the games you’re talking about are the more casual backyard BBQ style (corn hole, bad mitten, bocce, horseshoes) and its otherwise unstructured and, most importantly, not mandatory to play, that would be fine. Just have a variety of foods with plenty for everyone, and let people come and go as the please (like the few hours around lunch so people can join in on their break if they want and not everyone has to take lunch at exactly the same time.)

    Sometimes my husband’s company (which is 60-70% remote workers which makes it hard to get to know people in your own department, let alone others) will have quarterly events off-site on Thursday or Friday evening at places like bowling alleys or driving ranges. Totally optional and casual and family friendly, too. Typically includes an open bar but no one cares if you don’t partake. Free food, booze, and something for the kids to do so you won’t have to find a baby sitter are huge pluses for those events.

    (And at the summer party which is usually further out, they pay for a block of rooms so if people DO drink too much, no one has to drive home drunk.)

    1. SevenSixOne*

      Having the food for several hours is important– I can’t tell you how many of these well-intentioned workplace lunches start at noon… but by the time I get to the lunchroom at 12:45, there’s nothing left but an overflowing trash can.

  28. BCW*

    So serious question. Lets say 25% of people are total introverts who hate the “forced socializing” as you call it, 25% of people who are total extroverts who love stuff like that, and the other 50% are fine either way, as in if it was something they liked they’d participate, but if not, they’d stay at their desk. I think thats probably a normal distribution for an decent sized work place. In that case whats wrong with doing it these type of social events? I mean not doing something 1/4 of the people really enjoy is just as bad as doing something 1/4 of the people hate. You still have the same amount of people unhappy. So why do these social events have to cater to the introverts and not the extroverts who like this stuff?

    My favorite job ever (it was a non-profit, so pay was beyond awful), did stuff like that all the time. It was a great way to meet people, and I’d say most people really liked it. The ones that didn’t, just didn’t go, and it wasn’t a big deal.

    1. Jamie*

      So why do these social events have to cater to the introverts and not the extroverts who like this stuff?

      I’ve never worked at a place where this was the case – it’s always assumed that people love these things. But if it were the case the reason is because it’s not work related. If you’re unhappy at work because you aren’t socializing enough, that’s not something that your employer should be solving for you. If I’m unhappy at work because of forced socialization which requires me to work longer hours to get caught up on what I wasn’t doing while I was chit chatting that is something my employer should be concerned with.

      For many of us the clock doesn’t stop and we have the same amount of work to do whether there is forced fun time or not – so it does bleed into our off hours.

      It’s not an equivalency.

    2. Just a Reader*

      I think the middle ground is not making it mandatory, not measuring/judging people on it and not fostering a culture where the introverts are left out of work-related things because of the lack of socialization.

      1. anon*

        +1. Exactly my thought.

        Let the people who want to participate enjoy the events, and those who don’t? Leave them be. It works both ways.

      2. BCW*

        Yes, I’m all about not making any of these things mandatory. And I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. Not “optional” in the sense people will look at you weird if you don’t go.

    3. Runon*

      I see 2 problems with this.

      1. Assuming all extroverts like this. (I’m a complete introvert, but I have a couple extroverted friends who all despise this at least as much as I do, they like the social part, but not the forced part.)

      2. Assuming that having the extroverts show up to this will fix the problem. If you have people show up and have fun and you now have a culture where 25% of people don’t participate (which of course isn’t always going to be the case, plenty of introverts know they have to play the game they just are exhausted and don’t get much done for the rest of the day). Those extroverted %25 are likely already out there talking, socializing, being friendly and reaching out to coworkers.

      Bonus: What is the problem really? That I don’t know what Joanie down the hall likes on her burger? Or that coworkers don’t understand the work that other people are doing and don’t have an understanding of the impact that they have on the organization? Because finding out about Wakeen’s kids dance recital is fine but it doesn’t make me any more likely to speak up when I see a problem that I don’t know is a problem because I don’t know Wakeen is working to create a chocolate teapot and so when I find out Joanie is going to turn the heat up in the building I don’t see that the teapots will melt.

      1. So Very Anonymous*

        This. I’m an extrovert, but my office is very heavily weighted towards introverts. There have been a number of quasi-forced social activities which have gone over like lead balloons because so many people just don’t want to be bothered. And to be honest, by this point I know who the other extroverts are and socialize with them on my own. Extroverts have limits as to what they want to do socially, too: personally I find it draining to be forced to socialize with people who would prefer for me to just leave them alone.

    4. Runon*

      Also lots of people gave suggestions that had plenty social things going on. The biggest key is that it has to be not mandatory. Not even kind of or a little or implied, but genuinely not mandatory. And not taking up your free time.

    5. BCW*

      Again, I’m completely not about forcing people to do things they aren’t comfortable with. I just think these things can be good for some people if they do enjoy that type of thing. I love the happy hour or sports type of thing myself, but know its not for everyone. Its like if a company has a book club or something. Thats not my thing, but if they want to do it, and invite anyone who is interested, I won’t have a problem that its there.

      1. Jamie*

        I don’t think anyone has an issue with that. Even in the heated introvert vs extrovert discussions I don’t recall anyone insisting on banishing all socializing. Just making sure it’s truly optional and not optional in name only, but will really hurt your career if you decline.

  29. J*

    One way to have people get to know each other in spite of isolated work functions is to encourage or set up carpooling. As a new intern I sent out an office wide request for rides because of practical reasons, but I found it was a great way to meet and get to know my coworkers. If you’re into “green” initiatives or you offer travel stipends, carpools can also work out.

  30. Lily in NYC*

    My office (400 people) does a lot of this kind of stuff, and it actually does help morale. We have a cook-off once a year, a charity bake sale, a health fair with lots of free stuff like massages, pizza parties, etc. The reason it works for us is because they are never mandatory – people are more likely to attend because they don’t feel pressured. Sometimes I feel like going, sometimes I don’t.

  31. Windchime*

    Enforced “fun” is never fun. However, my workplace does some completely voluntary stuff. Examples:

    –Provided lunch in the big conference room. You can eat-and-run, or you can stay and participate in a WII bowling tournament if you want. No pressure either way. There are always vegetarian and gluten-free options.

    –Free food on a quarterly basis to celebrate employee anniversaries. Warm pretzels with toppings, cookies, or sometimes in the summer an ice-cream truck will come and you can go outside for free ice cream.

    –Quick and easy contests that coincide with holidays. Cubicle decorating, guess the jelly beans in the jar, stuff like that. Low participation, low pressure, small prizes.

    What I like about this is that nothing is enforced. It’s all fun, low-key, an excuse to leave your desk for a few minutes and visit while you enjoy a treat or a prize, and then back to work. Nobody is pressured to play a game or bring a potluck dish. It’s perfect for a bunch of IT nerds!

  32. anon*

    My company does a lot of social things, most of them organized by an employee-led committee (weekend events at the local amusement park, bowling fundraisers, golfing, etc.). I dislike work social events, but I’ve never felt like any of them were mandatory or that I’d be looked down upon for not attending. This culture is very much promoted by our CEO and senior management (a couple of VP’s are actually part of an employee house band that plays at some events). So in that sense, the social things might not be my cup of tea, but I respect that I never feel pressured to participate and that it’s just a small part in our overall culture.

    On the subject of free food… I love food in general, but as someone who eats gluten-free, this has been very tricky. I’m not celiac so I don’t have to be super strict, but not being able to eat anything but the scraps left from the fruit or veggie tray gets a bit sad.

  33. Brton3*

    This is a little off topic but it’s relevant on a way. I am a musician and, when I was younger, I was into acting and did a lot of community and regional type theater.

    People in the arts LOVE to have massage circles. Especially amateur choirs and community theater companies. I really dislike participating in these – it just makes me uncomfortable to touch and get touched in that way by people I don’t really know. So, whenever I’ve been in a situation where a group massage starts, I always step out of the line (and inevitable one or two other people will do the same). This, of course, calls attention to me and how I “don’t want to participate” or whatever. I’m certain there are people who just grin and bear it and do it, without wanting to, because they want to be troopers.

    Just goes to show, not everybody likes these kinds of group activities and it’s not necessarily fair to expect people to have to make a small spectacle of themselves by not participating.

    1. Chinook*

      The accounting firm I was at was trying to improve the camaraderie and one person wanted us to do trust exercises. As soon as I heard that, I told my office manager that I would quit before participating. She was taken aback until I explained that these things usually a) require touching and b)require putting my physical safety in the hands of others. I told her that I trust her completely with my career but that I have no reason to trust her not to drop me in a trust fall because I was an AA and that is not a job requirement. I hated those things in school (where bullies and queen bess exist) and they give me chills in an adult environment.

      1. Jamie*

        I’m shocked this was done at an accounting firm. Most accountants I know would be way too logical for this kind of silliness.

        Fwiw I’d have done exactly what you did – no way would I have participated. It’s just not something I feel is appropriate.

        1. De Minimis*

          Big 4 firms are notorious for this kind of stuff, and also for pressuring people to participate. When I was there we had a lot of these activities…you could get a bonus if you participated in enough of them, but I decided it wasn’t worth it to me and decided not to do it. Next quarter I got a phone call from HR asking me why I didn’t do it, and saying it was strongly encouraged. Big reason why I regretted taking the job almost immediately after starting.

          One firm even has their recruiting structured like the old college orientation activities everyone hates, and the potential candidates are observed throughout and evaluated based on how they participate.

          1. Gordon Morehouse*

            Hopefully with the slow but steady decline of fratclone culture, we’ll see a corresponding slow but steady decline of this kind of inappropriate and ill-advised crap in those types of companies.

      2. Julie*

        The downside of saying you’re not going to participate in trust falls and other stupid exercises that like? Getting called out for not being a team player.

        Never had to do anything like this at work, but one of the first weeks of college all freshmen in my school had to attend a day-long trip to a Boy Scout camp to do a variety of team/trust building activities. For an introvert like me, it was my worst nightmare.

        I made a total ass of myself in front of about 10 of my new classmates and an upperclassman who was leading our group because I wouldn’t fall 8 feet into their arms, or climb a wall with the rest of them pulling/pushing me over. His question: “Don’t you trust them?” Me: “Uh, no. I just met them 20 minutes ago – why would I? Also, I wouldn’t trust my best friend or my mom not to drop me. Doesn’t matter if I trust them with my mind/feelings/whatever other bullshit this is supposed to represent – I don’t trust their muscles.” I’m pretty sure I was in the right here – a good dose of healthy skepticism has led me to be able to read people much better than others who trust blindly in people they shouldn’t.

        Reading your trust fall work experience gave me awful flashbacks to that day. Ugh. Awful.

    2. saro*

      This would be my personal hell.

      Good point about not wanting to make anyone feel uncomfortable by not participating.

      1. the gold digger*

        I cross my arms at church right before the “Our Father.” I am not a fan of physical contact with strangers or even with people I know unless they are my husband, my sister, or best friend.

        1. Jamie*

          That’s when I go to the ladies room, or start searching desperately for something in my purse not looking up and avoiding all eye contact.

          My thing is if I didn’t marry you or share mitochondrial DNA (covering siblings and children) with you I’d just as soon not touch.

        2. Brton3*

          Oh my gosh! I grew up in a church where you just stood there and said the Our Father. The first time I went to a church where people held hands I was like NO THANK YOU!

  34. mel*

    The thing about forced bonding is that what usually happens is that a group of already bonded people will have some fun, while those who are typically wallflowers will sit outside the circle and stare at the clock. No advancement there.

    I don’t even go to the work parties anymore unless I feel pressured by scheduling (it’s a restaurant, so we still need cooks and dishwashers so someone is always intentionally left out to serve/clean after everyone else).

    The parties are always segregated into stations, it seems. Front staff are the rowdy fungoers, kitchen staff drink and chat on the sidelines. Unfortunately, I’m pretty much the only kitchen worker who can only speak english (thus excluded from any conversation) so I usually hang awkwardly in a dark corner alone for an hour before getting the hell out of there.

    1. mel*

      Though I would much rather grin and bear an hour at the party as a guest, then sit in the back for eight hours washing dishes while all my coworkers get free drinks and free food and door prizes.

      1. Chinook*

        Mel, I feel for you. I once was invited to a poorly planned volunteer appreciation event where I was then asked, as a volunteer, to work in the kitchen (I don’t think I even got to sit down to eat). I was only 16 at the time and I remember thinking that this was 10 kinds of wrong.

    2. Persephone*

      mel, that’s exactly what happens at my current workplace! We have monthly team lunches and quarterly “team-building” events, all mandatory, where the central clique has a blast and the rest of us just try to look like we’re participating. Every event centers around alcohol (e.g., bowling and beer, Cinco de Mayo with beer). I don’t drink and I’m not part of the clique, so I have absolutely nothing to do at these things except stare at the wall. It’s miserable, and part of why I’m looking for a new job.

  35. Kethryvis*

    OMG i wish i could find a way to give this to my office people anonymously somehow. We are constantly having these MANDATORY “team bonding” events and frankly, i do not like them. I do not fit in this office culture (and am looking to find a new job) so these events are pretty torturous for me. i have tried to play along and fit in, but these events just aren’t my cup of tea and are almost always filled with those terrible “getting to know you” games.

    The fact that they are mandatory is what kills me. NOTHING kills a spirit of fun more quickly than making an event mandatory. (the last one was also planned for when i was already signed up to go to a conference… so i had to cancel a conference in my field so i could spend the afternoon and evening “bonding” with co-workers that i don’t really fit in with. That really rubbed me badly.)

  36. Frances*

    At my last academia job, we had a scheduled coffee time every morning where coffee, hot water, and usually some small treat were set out in a common area for about an hour. People could come and go as they pleased – it wasn’t uncommon for people who were very busy to run down, grab coffee and go straight back to their desk – but most people would have a 5-10 minute conversation with whoever else happened to be in the room. It was a good way for people to get to know each other without feeling forced to socialize more than they felt comfortable with.

    1. Ellie H.*

      This sounds like a nice idea to me. It’s very low-key. I’m definitely the type who prefers to focus on work and would be repelled by forced socialization but I do like the occasional activity where people are “supposed” to interact with each other; then you don’t have to feel so awkward talking to others you don’t know well for just a few moments, because it’s what you’re “supposed” to be doing. If everyone is doing the same thing, it’s much less aversive or intimidating than if I am responsible for striking up social conversations on my own. That’s why even though I’m kind of introverted I love going to parties, receptions and bars because I can enter into what everyone is “supposed” to be doing there – I just don’t enjoy social interactions that interrupt other ongoing activities.

    2. Cassie*

      Just as long as the common area isn’t right by cubicles. I sit near the coffee maker/water cooler. It seems like most mornings, there is an unofficial 10+ minute morning meet n’ greet. And then again around 10-ish, when people start to get hungry/bored. And then again close to noon, when people figure out lunch plans.

      We have an open area with some chairs – they really should move the coffee over there, or utilize the staff room upstairs. But nope, it’s always in the middle of the cubicles. I don’t like starting off my day agitated. (I try to ignore it but some days it’s excruciating).

  37. Anon*

    Just have to throw something in after all the lunch suggestions above. I LOATHHHHHHHHH team bonding over lunch. My lunch hour is unpaid – and if I’m not being paid, I’d much rather be running errands, fitting in appointments or chatting with non-work friends via skype. If I’m forced (and yes these things are usually oped outable… but only if you want social/work consequences) to be with co-workers on my own, un-paid time, I’m usually pretty irritated.

    This isn’t to say I don’t smile and show my appreciation for the nice lunch I didn’t pay for. But I absolutely would much rather go hungry and have the time to myself. I am a much more productive and happier co-worker when I get my 1 hour of alone time a day.

    Now something I have really enjoyed: An early brunch at 4pm. This meant the time was paid. It didn’t interfere with the middle of my day. AND I got to have my 1 hour lunch all to myself. If I wanted to stay longer and chat with friends on my time – that was an option.

  38. WDG*

    Yes! Forced bonding sucks. I worked at a place that tried to motivate us, but this coincided with our busiest time of year. They had snacks, lunches, and meals, complete with mandatory eating-together-time, and worst of all, A MOVIE. We were gathered from our desks and told to go watch the movie (“Tower Heist”–double ugh). We were told it was to build morale. Somehow, though, we were to meet multiple deadlines per day and still devote time to inane chatter as we made ice cream sundaes or were held hostage in the break room watching a movie. I stayed 15 minutes and returned to work. The signals were very unclear. Meet deadlines or face consequences; bond or face consequences. I couldn’t figure out the priorities. Please, please, spare people the games.

    That said, my husband works at a video game company, and they have Beer Friday, a totally optional, unpaid hour after work to enjoy beers on the patio. They get lunch brought in one week and breakfast the next. These build and support morale without forcing people to gather for activities and they don’t interfere with deadlines or assignments.

  39. AnonAdmin*

    I’m an extreme extrovert and I hate things like this. I put in an appearance but I leave as soon as reasonably possible. And the only reason I go is because I don’t want to be labeled as antisocial or not a team player – and in almost every organization I’ve been in, that’s exactly what happens if you don’t go.

    Free food is nice, but I have a lot of pressing work to do, I can get my extrovert “fix” in other, better-for-me ways, and I don’t see how finding out what my coworkers do on weekends really adds to my productivity.

  40. Grace*

    Ugh, I used to be “voluntold” to organize our department’s forced fun. The complaining I used to get – no one wanted to do it. I know! I didn’t either!

    What we really needed was our boss to stop micromanaging us and to support us, but she instead threw a few breakfasts and bbqs our way and called it even.

  41. Scott M*

    Do employees need to interact with people from other departments in order to perform their job? If so, then the problem is not office culture, but poor management.

    If not then what’s the problem? There are plenty of people I never interact with at my company, because I don’t work with them.

    1. Cat*

      I think there’s a middle ground where you may not strictly need to interact with someone – or naturally come into contact with them – but where it’s useful to know what they’re up to in case something comes up for you that their expertise can bear on. Of course, the way to make sure that kind of cooperation can occur is not by having a field day, but sometimes it is sound management to find ways to get people together when their work doesn’t dictate it so that they know what knowledge and resources are available across the company.

  42. Claire*

    At my job, we have monthly Lunch n’ Learn meetings where there’s free pizza (and salad for gluten-free/dieters) and there’s a presentation from someone in the company. Topics have included ways to interact with your audience on Facebook/social media, how to feel more comfortable in videos, the process of getting a book published, and an “ask the publishers” roundtable (it’s a hobby publishing company, books & magazines). I usually go because I’m new to the workforce (plus, pizza!), and I see some people who are at all of them, some people who just go to ones that sound interesting/when they aren’t too busy, and some don’t go at all. It seems like a pretty good mix of socializing + information to me, plus low pressure.

    1. LMW*

      I used to work in hobby publishing too (in Wisconsin. I was in jewelry)! My company did not do that when I worked there, but my current company (in a different industry) is huge and does a variety of these types of things. I find it really great way to learn about things like how pricing for our products is determined and who actually does that (a department I have absolutely no contact with) or to get an in-depth look at value propositions for specific business areas (an area I don’t work directly with, but frequently need to know what they are doing). I really love this idea.

  43. Bonnie*

    Alison is right that culture is based on what employees see senior management do everyday. Even eating with co-workers once per month isn’t going to improve culture if senior management is exempted or doesn’t engage with other employees.

    I’m very lucky that I work in an environment were people like to be together. When we have events it is actually difficult to get people to leave because they genuinely like to be together. For those who don’t like it, it is not mandatory but you probably have to endure a week of people talking about it. We have so many great stories from our events. If people opt out no one mentions it or notices it and later will usually assume you were there. On the other hand be sure to say hello on the elevator but that is a big deal.

  44. MLJ*

    My workplace is holding a sports day tomorrow that includes piggyback rides and other very close contact with men in my wider department who I’ve never even spoken to before (I’m female). We’re told participation is optional, but when I decided not to participate, I was told that the department couldn’t have a team without me, which turned out to be a lie suggested by the team captain (my manager) because she really wanted all of her reports participating. I was then constantly pestered to participate, so eventually signed up, only to then hear my director talking about how my manager is basically evil personified as team captain. Said manager has since sent out a spreadsheet asking us to list our strengths and weaknesses, and warned us to get lots of sleep and not drink in advance of the day.

    This really doesn’t help me to do my job in any way, shape or form, and it in fact makes me want to not go in on the day despite having other work to do that day which I would otherwise happily do.

  45. workinmom*

    No. No fun events. At best U win a prize or get a free drink…thanks $$ and Ill be happy. I have seen it all and can’t say I would have preferred work fun to $$. FUN has turned into some sort of benefit in place of real ones. Just let people go home early.

  46. Elizabeth West*

    Today I was invited to a pizza / cake thing on Tuesday for a retiring employee. He’s not on my team; members of a different department sit near me and I spend more time with/see them more often than my own department/team. It’s nice though because everybody gets along when they are in the office. The company is so huge that we couldn’t do potlucks like we did at OldJob. Those were great, but there were only about 45 people, tops.

    The best one was Chili Dog Day, not long before I was laid off. Oh man, I stuffed myself so full I couldn’t eat for 10 hours.

    1. workinmom*

      “The best one was Chili Dog Day, not long before I was laid off. Oh man, I stuffed myself so full I couldn’t eat for 10 hours.”

      Hmmmm……Chili Dog day and next thing ya know you’re laid off!
      Coincidence?I think not! :-) BS I can’t stand these benefit distractions- geez, at my oldjob the holiday party used to be offsite and “catered” now they crepe paper the lunch room and serve use
      sheetcake and lasagne…good lord.

  47. Anon Z*

    I used to work at a govt. organisation which promotes sports. In a way, it is the authority at sports. We have a Sporting Friday where everyone HAS to participate in some sports from 4pm onwards. According to the CEO, he found our office lacking in the camaraderie which sportsmen have. I was in a project management role so I tried to catch anyone who would be available. My Boss knew the reasons. My manager knew the reasons. Yet, during appraisal, my Boss wrote that I need to improve by participating more often at Sporting Fridays and marked me down! Is this fair?

  48. Cassie*

    Free food is good – in a conference room (not near cubicles) for breakfast or lunch. Make it casual so people can just stop by and grab something if they’re busy, or stay and chat.

    But don’t ostracize people who don’t participate – don’t call them a party-pooper or a loner. That’s just not cool.

  49. Liz*

    OP, I think optional free food events are a great way to get people socializing more!

    My workplace does brown bag lunch seminars, which always have time for people to chat after, and a monthly lunch presentation from one area. Everyone shows up for the free [catered] food and gets to meet people from other areas, and learn what they’re working on and what’s important to them.

  50. MovingRightAlong*

    Coming late to this conversation, but I’m confused as to why the OP isn’t able to set up work-related meetings. For the record, my take-away is that she’s part of the “the team of managers at our facility.” Even if that assumption is incorrect, what is the obstacle to setting up meetings with co-workers? My assumption is that, usually, if you have time for games during work hours, then you have time to set up work-related meetings. Can anyone help me understand why this isn’t the case in this situation (unless of course, senior management has said, “By the way, no meeting about these projects! BBQs, ok; meetings, never!”).

  51. Vicki*

    “No and no.”

    Once again, I must say “Thank you, Alison”.

    I’m also happy to see that the OP is mostly confirming her own mental compass direction. “Fun” is the wrong way to build a work team.

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