Picture this: You’re working at a remote job, you have back-to-back business meetings and a to-do list longer than you can imagine, and then you receive a new calendar invite. It’s from your people leader who is planning a virtual talent show for colleagues to get together and show off their skills.
It sounds like a fun way to bring people together. But can teams really carve that time out of their daily schedule? Not always, and that can often result in only a handful of people showing up to these sorts of people events, which are, ironically, created to boost company culture and bring people together.
It’s an ongoing challenge for people and HR leaders, particularly those who are operating remotely and don’t have organic ways of meeting other people in the organization. However, when people have such a hard time stepping away from their desks, it can affect in-person settings as well.
“Whether it’s a team lunch, a workshop or a company-wide celebration, getting employees to step away from their workload and engage in such events can be quite an uphill battle,” said Rick Hammell, founder and executive chairman of global human experience platform Atlas, who has nearly 20 years of HR experience.
So what should people leaders do about it? Do they need to do anything about it? We spoke to Hammell and Melanie Naranjo, vp of people at compliance training company Ethena, to gather tips for people leaders who find themselves in this position.
1. Avoid mandating these events
As much as it might be stressful to see only a few people show up to meet and greets, lunch and learns, and pizza parties, making it mandatory wouldn’t help.
“While making events mandatory may seem like a tempting solution, it should be approached with caution,” said Hammell. “Mandatory participation can sometimes stifle the organic and enjoyable aspects of company culture events. People may view them as a chore rather than an opportunity for team bonding and personal growth.”
Hammell suggested saving the mandatory events from HR for important training sessions or critical team meetings.
2. Ditch the pizza party, give employees opportunities to choose their own adventure
“For so long it was: we create engagement by doing pizza parties, by doing happy hours,” said Naranjo. “I think that was on its way out anyway, but in a remote world, that has to adapt. The things that somewhat worked in the past, aren’t necessarily going to work today.”
We might not know exactly what the new version of the pizza party is, but employers are trying new things. For example, Ethena employees receive a perk that allows them to expense $100 a month toward hanging out with each other.
“The beauty of something like that is it’s opt-in, opt-out,” said Naranjo. “If you don’t want to do it, you don’t do it, but I’m equipping you with the resources to make it happen if you want it to happen. I also am not trying to bend over backwards to do what I think is the impossible, which is to have one event that makes everyone happy.”
And Ethena’s employees have really taken advantage of it, with people using that money to go canoeing, see a Broadway show or to go to a cheesemaking class. Others have saved their money up — which they can do for up to three months — to pool it for larger events, like going on an evening San Francisco Bay cruise with their team. The one caveat: they must take a picture and share it with the organization, which encourages others to think about how they’ll use their perk. This approach lets people get together on their own time and in their own capacity.
But if there is a company-wide people event, Hammell suggests flexible scheduling — letting employees rearrange their schedules to accommodate these events. That demonstrates the organization’s commitment to work-life balance. It is also helpful to make team members aware of the benefits and value company culture events offer in terms of personal and professional growth. Additionally, Hammell suggested working with employees in the planning process to create events that resonate with them and their interests, which will make them more likely to participate.
3. Accept that people might not want to get involved
Employees often have pressing deadlines, multiple responsibilities and personal commitments that compete for their time and attention. Recognizing that these folks are spinning multiple plates will help HR leaders empathize more. “In a world where productivity is highly valued, it can be difficult to convince individuals to prioritize team-building activities,” said Hammell.
But accepting that some employees won’t want to — or don’t have the capacity to — go above and beyond to build work relationships, is also something all people leaders should feel comfortable with, stressed Naranjo.
“I have seen people measure engagement in terms of how many people attended the holiday party,” said Naranjo. “I think that’s an inaccurate way to measure engagement, because I might not have gone because I have a kid I need to take care of, or I want to go to bed early. It has zero reflection on how committed someone is to the company or how engaged they are when it comes to work.”
She suggested asking yourself: What are you really trying to achieve through this company-wide culture event? Are there more effective ways to achieve those same goals? There are also inclusivity issues that come up with people events too, like what if a person has kids they need to watch? What if they don’t want to be around alcohol? What if it’s a two-hour commute? Even with all that, someone who doesn’t attend is at risk of looking like they’re not a team player.
It’s challenging for HR leaders to navigate what the future of company culture events looks like because of all of those reasons. “People are really doing their best, but it’s hard to come up with something brand new when you’ve been used to doing something the same way for so long,” said Naranjo.