Planning office fun
November 9, 2017 3:06 PM   Subscribe

My company has a new committee to plan office activities: happy hours, theme lunches, game nights, etc. I thought I'd query the hive mind to see what different companies have done that you've enjoyed.

I work at a tech startup in San Francisco with about 100 people. To give you an idea of the culture, we have a pool table and ping pong and video games, but it's not a super-stereotypical startup with like, a ball pit and weekly happy hours.

We previously had an Operations Manager who planned things like Halloween costume contents, Game of Thrones-themed happy hours, and holiday bake-offs. She left several months ago and the position has not yet been filled, so a few of us are stepping up to fill the gap. We're looking at in-office activities, although bringing in a vendor or teacher is possible. Assume budget is not a constraint. Alcohol can be served, but I'm also looking for non-drinking activities.

What can you recommend? (Or warn against?!)
posted by radioamy to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Honestly, the best workplace I was involved in was very good at making opting-out of things you didn't really want to participate in comfortable.

So - no events where drinking was absolutely mandatory, no events after work hours where people with families were pressured to stay for, and generally a culture where people who find things fun can do them and those who don't can safely and easily say no.

Also - a good sense of the cultural, age, dietary, and other factors that you should consider as you plan things. I've worked at two office workplaces where barbecues were a regular thing and the Indians and Kosher staff in the mix were excluded because people could not remember that not everyone eats a commercial beef burger.

On the more fun side of things, if you have outdoor space a bocce/lawn bowling field is super fun.
posted by notorious medium at 3:13 PM on November 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

Chili cook-off with secret ballots and anonymous tasting.
posted by hydra77 at 3:14 PM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

We had a craft cocktail class that was a big hit. We went to a restaurant known for them and a bartender led the "training" in one of their private rooms, but you could probably find some place that would bring the class to you. The instructor talked about the history of cocktails, then brought out all the tools (shaker, muddler, glasses, ice, etc. etc.) so each table of 4-5 could walk through the creation (and of course sampling) of three types of cocktails.

It was more interesting and less awkward than your average happy hour (it was task-driven, so no awkward standing around and forced chit-chat), and still involved a good bit of team work (one person muddled the mint, one person measured and poured in the rum, etc.) And everyone came away feeling pretty buzzed and chummier with each other!

We made it known ahead of time that soda and "virgin" drinks were available for the training, but I don't think any one took us up on that...
posted by lovableiago at 3:35 PM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

notorious medium -- totally agree. I think stuff should be optional, but hopefully varied enough (with short, low-commitment options) that people find something they're interested in. I am fortunately pretty tuned in about respecting culture, age, diet, ability, etc. My boss is a vegetarian, and I have a physical disability, so we're very conscious about that.
posted by radioamy at 3:48 PM on November 9, 2017

If budget wasn't a constraint, I'd hire someone to do this, not have a few employees volunteer to do it aside from their regular duties.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 3:52 PM on November 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Seconding making activities optional and to be considerate of people's preferences when it comes to drinking or participating in activities outside of work hours (or at all). Also, planning these can be a lot of work, so definitely try to either spread out the responsibility or seek outside help for handling the logistics.

Some things I've done at my place of work for morale activities: indoor skydiving, go-kart racing, trampoline activity places, bowling, watching movies, amusement parks, walking tours, ceramic crafting, board/card game events, happy hour, going out for lunch, themed work-hours parties (e.g. for holidays like Halloween or other special occasions), hikes, visiting the SF piers, museums, pot-lucks and/or cooking contests, charity volunteer activities, etc. A lot of these aren't in-office, but I figure I'd mention the out-of-office ones as well for completeness.

I would also suggest passing around the hat at work for suggestions; that way you can at least get a feel for how people think about these activities, and probably even get some interesting ideas from them.
posted by Aleyn at 4:00 PM on November 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

My office once went out for a fun day to a local arts centre, with half the group doing screen printing and the other half throwing clay. It was lots of fun!
posted by Calzephyr at 4:02 PM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Similar to Calzephyr's comment - my agency recently held a huge workshop with over fifty easels set up at tables for two hours of stress-free painting. They hired an instructor to teach us how to paint the scene step-by-step, and we did stretching exercises before and after. It was pretty great. It was held away from the office so no one knew whether you participated or not (including the boss!), and it felt really supportive and completely different from what we do day-to-day.

Not "fun" like go-carting or indoor skydiving (how awesome - I'm jealous!), but I work in government and our options are somewhat limited in that way.
posted by onecircleaday at 4:40 PM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

I’ve been part of various office fun stuff over the past decade or so - here are the things that went over the best:
- Chili cook off - everyone brings in chili, you blind score them based on taste, creativeness, etc. and then someone wins a gift card or swag or something fun.
- Dip off - we had 2 categories, dessert dip and savory dip, and people could make one or the other or both. Same deal with the blind scoring and prizes.
- BBQ is usually fun but yes, do be conscious of your coworkers dietary needs.
- Various holiday stuff, including volunteer work, Halloween costume contests, etc. If there’s a lot of kids in your coworkers families, one thing my work did a long time ago was a Halloween trick or treat at the office. It was so fun to have all the little kids come in, dress up, and go around for candy. In December, I’ve been part of offices that do a White Elephant exchange (with small dollar value) and also a Secret Santa and both have been hilarious and fun. It can be tricky though to make it clear that people do not have to participate and spend money so YMMV.
- We went to an amusement park one time and that was super fun. The company paid for us all to go including spouses and kids too.
- In the summer, one of my prior companies would have a bean bag toss contest and we’d all hang out and eat and drink and play lawn games.
- This one was random but fun - we had a Wii bowling contest one time (they bought a Wii for the office), and the prizes were random and fun.
posted by FireFountain at 5:23 PM on November 9, 2017

I'd recommend also doing a search for whatever activity you are thinking about on Ask a Manager. The advice and comments will help you to plan something everyone can enjoy (if they choose to "opt in", of course).
posted by jazzbaby at 5:48 PM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Whatever you choose, rotate interests so that everyone has something they might potentially enjoy. My department tends to go a little heavy on sporting events, and sure, the majority of employees love the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the baseball or football stadium...but as one of the sports-hating minority, just because I don’t mind holding down the fort on game day doesn’t mean I want to always be left out of the fun.

We’ve done a hotdog picnic with mini golf, a movie, a trip to the State Fair, bowling, various bake-offs and potlucks, a trip to the museum, Ugly Christmas Sweater day, and the annual favorite by a landslide, the White Elephant exchange, which takes place sometime in December or early January. About 60 people participate, we cater a lunch, and it’s about 2 hours of outrageous hilarity. Many people will wrap and bring multiple items, in case someone wants to play but doesn’t have an item to bring. We also have some volunteer events, like Adopt-a-family for the holidays, or a fun run for a local charity, or Operation Gratitude where people can donate their leftover Halloween candy to the troops.

My company as a whole also puts on several events. After a company picnic was abruptly canceled due to weather (record heat on the scheduled day, the company opted to not give everyone salmonella and heat stroke), they replaced it with an hour-long event where they set up several treat stations around the campus: ice cream at one, popcorn at another, candy bars at a third, healthy stuff at a fourth, etc. It was a huge hit, and now we do that instead of the company picnic. In the winter, they set up a similar deal in the cafeteria with hot chocolate, tea and freshly baked cookies.

Now, granted, cookies and hot chocolate for 4000 is different than doing it for a few dozen people, but they would still be a fun way to mill around the floor and shoot the breeze with coworkers you don’t interact with very often.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:52 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

A previous employer of mine had a local scoop shop come in and cater a couple ice cream/sorbet happy hours at random intervals one summer. Like, a Tuesday at 3:45. It was a surprise and all the better for it.
posted by minervous at 6:26 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

My work group has had a lot of fun doing holiday parties with these activities—all the activities were hands-on, creative or helpful, and facilitated casual chit-chat in addition to encouraging pleasant feedback (“oh, that’s so cool what you did there!”):

1) Sorting supplies at our local food bank warehouse

2) Wine and design (or paint and sip, or some other variation on the theme of being handed a prepared canvas with snacks and drinks on the side)

3) Painting pottery, also with optional drinks and snacks
posted by witchen at 9:18 PM on November 9, 2017

I did an ice cream potluck once that was very successful. Everyone brings 1 ice cream and 1 topping. I supplied the waffle bowls and whipped cream.
posted by August Fury at 4:32 AM on November 10, 2017

My company does way too much of the mandatory-after-hours-heavy-drinking-fun!!! nonsense, so glad to hear you're thinking of the opt-outs. They recently started doing a yoga class one morning a month before work, which has been a really nice option. They bring in an instructor, and keep it slow enough for all levels and to not work up a real sweat, but it's a great way to start the day.
posted by writermcwriterson at 6:30 AM on November 10, 2017

My office has done two workday retirement lunches that were well received: a boat ride and a trip to the local horse park. I didn't attend because of summer heat in DC. My favorite happy hour is a crafty happy hour with live music and local beer. I don't drink, but I love to do the crafts.
posted by MichelleinMD at 9:07 AM on November 10, 2017

Not a group activitiy, but my company brings in masseuses a few times a year just around stressful times. They set up massage chairs, and you can sign up for half hour sessions. Great for morale!
posted by hydra77 at 12:00 PM on November 10, 2017

Lunch time activities like bingo, Bbq, ice cream sundaes, trivia contest, etc
posted by leslievictoria at 6:13 PM on November 10, 2017

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