Fun times for the workplace?
January 17, 2009 8:33 PM   Subscribe

Ideas for fun (low-cost) activities to boost morale in the workplace?

I got put on something of a party-planning committee at work, and we have been charged with promoting a happy, fun work environment. Yeah, we plan parties, but they really aren't that practical as we want to have events every few weeks. By "events," I don't mean parties, but things more along the lines of "Decorate your cubicle day," or other, even more annoying things like "Talk like a pirate day." (Yeah, I'm really not into this).

Anyway, do you have any suggestions for fun things along these lines? I am looking at Chase's Calendar of Events for obscure holidays, but I really would appreciate some creative suggestions.

Thanks for your help.
posted by foxinthesnow to Work & Money (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Places where I've worked have done regular potluck lunches - maybe once a month, tied to employees' birthdays (if it's your birthday month, you don't bring anything). It's kind of optional, of course.
posted by dilettante at 8:54 PM on January 17, 2009

We do regular potluck lunches monthly-ish,with cards for the month's birthdays. I've tried a few times to put a creative spin on the theme (yellow, orange, and red foods only; tropical fare in January) and while some appreciate the creativity, some hate it.
posted by rhapsodie at 9:01 PM on January 17, 2009

The best way to have a happy, fun work environment is to have a well-run company. Letting the employees eat cake isn't going to change underlying problems, but I'm sure you realize this. Furthermore, there are people who do not look to their job to provide them with fun, and "Decorate Your Cubicle Day" can actually make their job less appealing. Typically I've found that while the intentions are good, spurious team-building and yay-fun events serve to polarize loyalty. Note that you are on this committee, yet you don't think much of the standard options....that kind of thing can really affect morale negatively.

That said, once a month birthday cakes for everyone with a birthday that month is fine. Also, half-days once a month would be nice (and cheaper than taking everyone bowling where you're losing those hours anyway). One of the best team-building exercises I was a part of was having the freedom and time to make alcoholic egg-nog at my desk for everybody to drink at Christmastime. Our team also had an affinity for Pho, so we all would (and were allowed to) take 2hr lunches to walk halfway across town to go to our favorite restaurants. Some of us also tended to play iTunes "Name That Tune" at the end of some days. It wasn't an "everybody" thing, but other departments did their own things. Think in terms of Google's "20% Time."

I guess my point is that the best team-builder is to let people decide themselves what to do with chunks of their time. Heck, several may just prefer to spend the two hours they would have contributed to their cubicle appearance in doing actual work. If they're happy, that is.
posted by rhizome at 9:26 PM on January 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Maybe your coworkers are more fun (and more cooperative) than I am, but "talk like a pirate day" would... annoy me. Do you have some sort of budget through which you could plan for periodic surprises? One day I got to work and found that everyone's desk had a little toy or stuffed animal on it--that was weird, but sort of nice. Personally, though, if my office is going to do something and expect me to like it and have my morale boosted by it, I need for there to be free food involved unless it's "everyone can leave early" day. There's something about sharing food with people that makes going back to your cubicle afterward seem ok.

At my previous job, every Friday was treat day, and people could sign up for a week to bring in a treat of some kind. It wasn't mandatory, so the people who signed up tended to be people who actually wanted (and remembered) to bring something. It's not especially creative, but I liked that a lot.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:28 PM on January 17, 2009

Everybody loves free food. I wouldn't try to force the issue much beyond that - people in offices are adept at coming up with their own ways of having fun. I'd suggest you try to notice what these are (they'll usually be disguised from management / HR types), and find ways to discreetly, implicitly, encourage them (without outrightly publicizing them). People can come up with their own fun. An example:

My first job out of college was as in a buyer training program for a large department store chain - I was the assistant buyer for men's sportcoats, dress slacks, and outerwear. In the office next door to us, just off the selling floor of our flagship store, was the men's tailored clothing guys - the suits office. Between myself, the associate buyer, and our boss, the buyer, and our counterparts in the next office, there were usually about 5-6 of us hanging around at any given time.

I had one of those small nerf-like balls on my desk, painted like a globe with an Arthur Andersen logo on it - something they had been handing out at the career fair in college. My boss used to like to pick it up when I wasn't looking and then hurtle it at the back of my head when I was on the phone. He found immense pleasure in this. I'm a quick learner of course, so I'd begin to watch closely for when he had stolen it, and then I'd pretend to get on the phone and watch him out of the corner of my eye, and try to catch the ball when he threw it, in the ultimate act of defiance. This quickly morphed into the game we called, quite simply:


The rules developed quickly, Globe was something that seemed to have a mind of its own. The thrower had to make a throw that was deemed "catch-able." A bad throw would be one that hit the ground, ceiling, wall, or something else that impeded the catcher from making a fair catch. Other than that, Globe could be whipped across the office as fast as the thrower could possibly manage, as long as the catcher had fair opportunity to catch it. Angled or "bounced" shots were the next thing we added - the intentional use of the ceiling, wall, desks, etc., with the same end result - a ball catch-able within near proximity to where the catcher was sitting. Back and forth across the office we would zip this ball at each other, counting points, usually to 5 - you got a point as the thrower for each time you could throw a fair Globe that was not caught. Win by 2. There was lots of pause for argument over interpretation of the rules, but I think this might have been more the point of the game itself, in the end.

Of course, it didn't take long for the guys next door in the suits department to get wind of what was going on, when they heard us, through the wall that separated the two offices, yelling at each other in the middle of the workday. Their door-way observation quickly turned into full blown participation. The game quickly migrated to the new playing field of the suits office next door, which had more space, and a whole wall full of racks of suits against which the dreaded "drop shot" could be thrown - you'd aim a Globe into the higher row of suits and it would drop down through the fabrics as opposed to a normal bounce off the wall. It became clear that whoever was positioned against the sample wall was at a significant disadvantage, and so the concept of rotation was introduced to Globe. The Globe could be whipped at any member in play, until a point was made by someone, and then everyone rotated positions clockwise for the next round. Because you could throw it at anyone, trick shots became key - you'd fake a throw at someone and then underhand it at an unexpected victim in another direction. Being able to pick up on the fake throw became a significant badge of honor in the game of Globe.

We began keeping stats on the associate buyer's desk in the suits office. He had one of those big flat desk calendars, that was usually covered with paperwork, so the stats were conveniently hidden by his regular work.

Such was the case one Friday afternoon when work was slow, that we had been playing since lunch for probably 2 or 3 hours. Globe involved significant quick reflexes, diving and jumping for catches, and throwing as hard as one can, so the 6 or so of us had our sleeves rolled up, our collars loosened, and our ties thrown back over our shoulders. Every forehead gleamed with sweat and determination. My boss, in the position across the room from me - in the dreaded suit rack position, winged a low, rising shot at me, surprising me as the typical threat in that position was the high, dropping shot. It was one of those things you remember acutely because your brain processed it in slow motion. Globe made a bee-line for my groin and beat my hands to its intended target.

The guys would forever come to refer to it as "The Shot Heard Round The World." They say it lifted me off the ground and into the sample racks, after which I crumpled straight to the ground, whimpering. I don't remember much after watching the blue blur disappear into the front of my pants, but the next thing I do remember, my colleagues were gathered around me, half stifling their laughter and half trying to fake concern for me.

And that was the moment at which our boss, the divisional manager, made an unexpected visit to the office to drop off some financial plans or some such work. He looked around the room at half a dozen sweaty executives, one writing in pain and clutching his crotch, tossed the file folder on someone's desk. He stood for a second longer, then smiled his slight, knowing, half-smile and said "I don't want to know." And then he left.

We were more careful after that day, Globe had to be regulated, it had to be safe. A game could never be initiated unless it was by one of the bosses, either mine or the suits office buyer. It was always initiated by a simple phonecall, with only two simple words spoken after the phone was answered: "Gentlemen...Globe?"
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:29 PM on January 17, 2009 [4 favorites]

In my experience,a lot of workplace-centred morale boosters are iffy things. The above responses, though, remind me that in my office we do the birthday thing as well: on or near each employee's birthday, we either go out for lunch or order in, on the company tab. Admittedly, there are only a half-dozen of us, but it seems to work well enough.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:29 PM on January 17, 2009

Alot depends on the temperament of the people in your workplace. In my office, they have potlucks periodically, and recently there was an "ugly sweater" contest. There have also been other things like trivia contests. These things only work with a particular type of person, and we have alot of people who didn't participate, too. I think in the end the only commonly enjoyed activity is free food.
posted by cabingirl at 10:33 PM on January 17, 2009

The best way to have a happy, fun work environment is to have a well-run company.

I'm repeating that for emphasis, and now adding to it. I like the idea of just giving people the occasional half-day (instead of forcing them to go bowling or stay at work). Another option would be to look at better ways you could spend the money it would cost to do a team-building event. For example, if it would cost you $10,000 to do an event (actual event cost + lost time), could you use that to buy people better chairs, or newer computers?
posted by !Jim at 10:48 PM on January 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

I used to work in Austin, and we'd cut out early on Fridays for everyone-goes-to-a-matinee-movie at the Drafthouse, with dinner/drinks/discussion after. I liked that.

It was a good/healthy/fun to spend an hour talking with everyone I worked with... about something other than work, and a post-movie dinner or coffee was a perfect way to make that happen, a sort of artificial topic. It also helped that it was Friday: no "tomorrow" to talk about, other than "what are you doing this weekend."
posted by rokusan at 11:39 PM on January 17, 2009

Just to keep the log rolling, furthermore to !Jim would be for the employees to vote on whether they'd like to do (x) or get some better chairs/computers/monitors. Big Boss might be surprised.

Also, it depends on the size of the company/office. My previous examples were for a ~50 person company. When I was at a 7500 person company they had beer busts at 4 on Fridays, and when I was at Levi Strauss it was OK to leave at 12:30 every Friday if you wanted. YMMV.
posted by rhizome at 11:54 PM on January 17, 2009

Honestly? I hate that shit. It makes me uncomfortable and makes me think I work for fools. It's a place of work, not a daycare.

Free food is acceptable as is swag but do not try to make me dress up, talk silly, act like a child in any way or tell you "two things you might not know about me".

One thing I do like is a nice home-y breakroom where you can keep food supplies, a mug, silverware etc. And a snack bar- I know that's a huge pita and it is much appreciated when someone goes to the trouble of collecting money and keeping it stocked.
posted by fshgrl at 12:52 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

In genuinely happy, well-run companies 'fun' events arise spontaneously amongst different groups of people with overlapping interests (every good workplace I've encountered has developed its own little traditions and activities), and rules are informal all the time instead of on special days.

That doesn't mean you can't/shouldn't try to boost morale, but in my view it does mean that you need to avoid company-wide events that make people feel pressured into participating, however entertaining and generous they may seem to most (thinking about it, all of the 'toxic' workplaces I've encountered have had events with an underlying sense of 'you WILL do this and you WILL have fun and bond as a team!', riding roughshod over different interests and personalities).

In the back of your mind always check "Is this something that'll make some people feel like they're in a real-life version of The Office?", and think in terms of the company making things available/possible for subsets of the workforce instead of dictating a social schedule for all. So if you really wanted to do Talk Like A Pirate Day you could just surprise employees by supplying gimmicky snacks, props and guides in the kitchen on the day, and for decorating cubicles permanently loosen any restrictions and offer a small budget for each employee to spend on improving theirs.
posted by malevolent at 1:23 AM on January 18, 2009

Hawaiian shirt day?
posted by Zonker at 4:26 AM on January 18, 2009

The only thing I got from an otherwise inane and inappropriate keynote by Tod Maffin was that anything that keeps people at work cannot be fun.
posted by scruss at 4:45 AM on January 18, 2009

In the mid 90's, I worked at a software company in Austin, TX where each Friday afternoon coolers of really good beer would show up in the outdoor area in front of the building.

My oh my... those were the days.
posted by ezekieldas at 6:36 AM on January 18, 2009

Add me to the list of dissenters who absolutely cannot stand what I've come to call "enforced fun" in the workplace. Thus, I have no advice to offer as to what to do, but what *not* to do: don't make it mandatory, and don't pressure people to participate if they don't want to. And I wholeheartedly agree with "anything that keeps people at work cannot be fun" - I want to come in, do my job quickly and efficiently, then get out :)
posted by chez shoes at 7:20 AM on January 18, 2009

I don't think enforced fun is a good idea. But games like allkindsoftime mentioned are great. One day a whole bunch of Nerf guns showed up at the workplace of a friend of mine, and he and his coworkers (including bosses) had great fun with those. I think having a more relaxed work area that allows those kinds of things is key to making the place happy.
posted by Anonymous at 7:28 AM on January 18, 2009

No amount of free food/coffee/alcohol will make me enjoy working at an office where managers backstab eachother; toss you under the buss; pretend like they care about you but wont let you take a half day to goto a doctors appointment with our spouse; doesn't appreciate when you go the extra mile (god; you should have just gone home instead of staying here all night fixing that stupid exchange server -- that being said -- we probably would have fired you if you didnt fix it -- so good job).

In the past an organization I worked with was doing fairly poorly -- and they took away the coffee machine; the cleaners; asked everyone to help pitch in and take their own trash out; and began limiting internet access to promote productivity.

All of this while management still had their lobster dinner retreats at nice hotels; the CEO drove their company car; and all the executive perks remained.

In my experience nothing can help morale that is destroyed in such an insidious way.
posted by SirStan at 9:40 AM on January 18, 2009

Sorry to rain on your parade, but parties don't make a workplace fun. The workplace environment itself and genuine camaraderie is what makes it fun. I used to work for a company that spent over £220K (yes, as in thousand) on a superlush, all expenses paid, inspirational speakers and lifestyle coach heavy, five star "team bonding" trip for senior managers and their partners in an exotic resort. After all that money and planning hassle, the morale was still crap... within three months, roughly a third of the attendees had left the company and gone elsewhere.

I'd give each department a discretionary budget and let them decide amongst themselves what to do with the cash. IT departments will want slightly different things than marketing departments. Let them decide what they want, and don't insist on sticking a really obvious company logo on the event. They already know that the event has been brought to them courtesy of Kraft durch Freude EmployerCo, A Fantabulous Place to Work! (C) If they have a monthly budget to start a foosball tournament, or take skydiving classes, or give a goofy award that's passed around by internal vote on who's contributed the most to the team that week (complete with goofy awards ceremony)... or if they spend it on hookers and blow... I think the good feeling towards the company will grow.

Besides, you'll get a chance to see what actually takes off, and where.

Best workplace improvers, in my book - long lunch on Friday afternoon, or happy hour Friday afternoon... every Friday afternoon... so people can come and go as they please, or as their project load allows. That's less of an event, though, so I'm not sure it fits within your remit on this committee.
posted by Grrlscout at 9:49 AM on January 18, 2009

No games, please - mandatory "fun stuff" is patronizing. Things that almost always go over well, though, are free food (birthday lunch, Friday happy hour, even a daily snack bar) and time off. A half day off before a major holiday is great.

More problematic: group activities. It can be very hard to find something that everyone will enjoy, so if you're not sure that 100% of your people like to go bowling or visit museums etc, you might as well just let everyone go home early instead of forcing them to grin and bear something for those few hours. Of course, you don't get any "team building" when people just go home, but trust me, it will make for happier employees who will work better as a team in the long run.

Some of the most cringe-worthy experiences of my career have been "team building" exercises. Don't inflict that on anybody with an iota of professional pride, or anybody whose respect you wish to keep.
posted by Quietgal at 10:45 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I work for the government, so of course "fun" by definition can't be fun. However, we actually do have a lot of fun. Each month we have to have some sort of politically correct theme: Pacific Heritage Month, Black History Month, Women's Equality Day, etc. For Black History Month last year, we had a speaker come and give us a lunchtime lecture on Gullah culture. Lunch was a potluck, and we had provided people with websites of Gullah recipes. The point is, it was more fun than people were expecting, so it was fun. Plus it was educational, so people opposed to fun on principle could look on it as job-related.

The most successful thing we ever did was have a "Wellness challenge", where we found a website that gave calories burned for various activities, divided into teams, and tried to fit more exercise into our lives. The idea is that once you've done something for over 4 weeks, it becomes a habit that you may be able to keep up with. Well, it was great. We had a speaker on health and fitness, we had a ping-pong tournament, we gave out heart-healthy recipes, and a lot of people really did change their habits. The only problem was some people becoming overly competitive and making other people feel bad, but we've tried to curb that. We've had six wellness challeges over the last 3 years, and it's still very popular.
posted by acrasis at 3:42 PM on January 18, 2009

I like Grrlscout's point: empower the staff / departments to spend their own discretionary budget on anything other than "take bonuses home", perhaps by explaining that you wouldn't want the CEO making that decision either. :)

Some will want toys, some parties, some better chairs, whatever: it's the fact you're engaging them that will be the real benefit.
posted by rokusan at 5:38 AM on January 19, 2009

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