50 Ideas for Building Team Culture More Effectively
Hint: The answer is not more happy hours
Show of hands: When your team’s morale is low, how many of you work at companies that tend to immediately reach for a bottle of alcohol as the fix?
Have you ever stopped to ask why?
In an effort to provide a positive work culture, tech companies often confuse inclusivity with friendship, opting for stereotypical “fun” activities like happy hours and overnight trips. While the intention is good, these events tend to cater to young, single, and able-bodied employees. Even for such employees, these events may not prove helpful in achieving the main goal of increasing employee productivity and happiness. Moreover, many typical work events may include unnecessary risks.
All of this has a large impact on a business’s bottom line, employee happiness, and the products employees help build. It also has a disproportionately negative effect on employees from non-traditional backgrounds.
This article will give you an arsenal of ideas for approaching this problem more effectively.
An Easy 2-Part Formula
If happy hours aren’t a good solution, how can you create a productive environment for everyone at your workplace? I’m personally in favor of breaking a problem down to its core and building on top of that. Let’s try that with a 2-part formula.
Step 1: Identify the Core Problem You’re Trying to Solve
Instead of defaulting to a solution like a happy hour, start with the problem you’re trying to solve.
- Do team members seem demoralized?
- Do people want to feel more collaborative in order to do their best work?
- Is motivation waning?
As a designer, I’d call this “crafting the problem statement”. First, identify the core user problem. An example problem statement might be:
People on x team want to be able to enjoy their time in the office and feel motivated in order to do their best work.
Instead of immediately defaulting to a lazy solution, identifying a core issue helps you focus on solving the right problem.
Step 2: Come Up With a Solution That Actually Moves Towards Your Goal
Now that you’re starting with your problem, you can come up with a whole slew of creative ideas for how to improve working conditions.
Some solutions can be events, but events are often just a band-aid on a bad situation. Focus on crafting a better work life by focusing on team dynamics, work environment, processes, and outcomes.
Listed below are 50 ideas to jumpstart your thinking.
Note: Not all teams are the same. Make sure you’re following basic guidelines for planning inclusive events and Project Include’s best practices for building culture. Come up with a plan that works best for your team and the team you want to build.
50 Ideas for Building Team Culture that Don’t Include Happy Hours
The Goal: Team Cohesion
The Problem Statement
As a member of a team, I want to feel comfortable with my coworkers in order to be productive, enjoy my work life, and do my best work.
The Normal Default
Common ideas include overnight retreats, dinners outside of work hours, and happy hours or other events that center around alcohol. Another common misstep includes events that push personal boundaries, such as anything that requires people to be partially clothed (saunas, hot tubs, etc).
- Retreats. A day-long structured retreat outside of the office. Extra points for scoping it to work hours.
- Volunteer activities. Some interesting ideas include holiday gift wrapping, cleaning up a park, or talking about programming at a local school.
- Make something in a class. Ceramics, glass blowing, screen printing, painting, or cooking.
- Outdoor activities. These could include ferry trips to sightseeing destinations, zoos, or a daytime baseball game.
- Low-key indoor sports. Bowling or mini golf are always easy.
- Intentional lunches. Specialty team or cross-functional lunches, or structured lunch discussions about engaging topics.
- Team breakfast. Consider hiring a caterer so team members don’t have to do extra work, and make sure the caterer takes dietary restrictions into account.
- Group brainstorming activities. This can include structured discussions, design sprints, and whiteboarding sessions. These can be especially effective when you include cross-functional partners.
- Project retros. Regular and well-organized retros allow team members to voice concerns, brainstorm solutions, and feel empowered to iterate on team dynamics. It’s also a chance for managers and process-people to identify repetitive issues and systematize solutions.
- Access and support for ERGs. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) allow people from non-traditional backgrounds to connect with coworkers who share similar concerns and gain access to useful resources. Project Include provides some guidelines for ERGs.
The Goal: Motivation and Direction
A @NewYorker throwback that is, alas, tailor-made for today.
The Problem Statement
As an employee, I want to understand the impact of my work to be able to feel motivated and properly prioritize my time.
The Normal Default
Start-ups often lean on platitudes like the importance of “hustle” or how everyone should feel “empowered”, without addressing underlying blockers. Talking about shareholder value or needing to be accountable to the business isn’t motivating when you’re past that early stage when everyone stands to make a lot of IPO money. Making decisions using metrics that aren’t capturing or moving towards a larger mission, or that are devoid of human needs, can make it nearly impossible to feel connected to your work.
- Tie your mission to your metrics. Employees often want to have a positive impact on the world, and become demoralized when the day-to-day decisions don’t roll up into these larger goals. This is an interesting thought-piece on the importance of aligning your goals with your metrics: “If organizations don’t properly specify goals, their metrics can’t compensate. If their metrics don’t support their goals, goals will get lost in the organizational shuffle. …The behaviors of bureaucracies emerge because of this mismatch, and it can’t be overridden — even when it’s clear to everyone involved that the behavior is maladaptive, or even insane.”
- Treat process like a secret super power. Startups often over-emphasize the value of “hustle” as a reaction to red tape and bureaucracy, without understanding how process can unlock productivity and happiness. Google spent 2 years studying what makes teams successful, and one of the core qualities of these teams was structure and clarity.
- Stop using “hustle” as a value statement. Hustle is short-sided and leads to burn out and bad outcomes. Here’s some reading to jumpstart this line of thought.
- Build a learning culture (don’t just talk about it). Start-ups often like the idea of learning, but have contradictory shared values around decision making. To improve, make sure you don’t vilify people who change their mind, and cut down on hyperbole as the dominant communication style. Instituting retros and other learning mechanisms are tangible strategies to help teams learn from mistakes.
- Be data informed, not data driven. No matter how much we want it to be, data is not objective. Having a nuanced view of data allows us to incorporate holistic feedback that results in more successful outcomes and solutions. Here’s a list of common myths about data, and some case studies that show how to be data informed.
- Make sure qualitative research is included in your definition of data. Companies often rely too heavily on quantitative data to make decisions, and treat qualitative research like anecdotal evidence. Qualitative data is a crucial part of the equation; it’s often the most powerful tool in understanding why a problem is happening and identifying strategies for moving forward. One way to do that is to hire more user researchers and make sure they’re incorporated into the decision-making process.
- Shift from being feature-driven to problem-driven. Users don’t use only individual features, and employees often want to fix real problems and understand the larger system they’re contributing to. Here are some ideas for creating a problem-centric roadmap.
- Don’t be deadline driven. In basically all product building processes, there will be unforeseen complications and new information that will inform the solution. You often can’t adhere to hard deadlines and still build innovative products, and requiring employees to do so leads to burn out and bad outcomes. One way to start improving this is to change the way you do quarterly planning and remember that deadlines should be soft and responsive to changes.
- Don’t use platitudes to motivate. In response to frustrations or repetitive complaints, a common start-up tactic is to double down on the importance of “hustle” and “having an impact”. This puts the onus of fixing a systemic problem on individuals who have very little power. When issues are systemic, it’s more empowering to create actionable steps to improve the situation at a higher level.
- Learn how to prioritize. Teams move dramatically slower when everything is described as high priority. Prioritization is important for clarifying focus and helping teams align on where to put their energy, and is most effective when everyone can give input and agree on a solution.
- Get away from growth hacking. At least, the kind of growth hacking that leads to a series of silver bullet ideas and shortsighted A/B tests. In practice, growth hacking often seems to encourage dark patterns, manipulation, and general anti-human behaviors. Identifying and building real value works better in the long run, and doesn’t make employees regret coming in to work every day. (Even unicorn-level startup SnapChat doesn’t think growth hacking is an effective strategy.)
- Make sure you aren’t encouraging an argument culture. Using an argumentative model of decision making is often unproductive, leads to bad decisions, and is not meritocratic. Learn more about what this looks like in practice.
The Goal: Professional Development
The Problem Statement
As an employee, I want to feel supported in developing new skills in order to increase my confidence, impact, and motivation at work.
The Normal Default
Companies often offer low-value opportunities, like after-hours networking events where alcohol is the primary component. Another potential issue is any pressure to do time-intensive professional development outside of work hours.
- Conferences. Put aside budget for conferences, and make it clear how employees can request to use it.
- Workshops. These can be onsite or offsite, but extra points if it’s during a work day and funding for attendance is provided.
- Talks. Helping curate lists of interesting upcoming talks and helping employees attend is a great way to support career engagement and skills development.
- Museums. Exhibits related to your team’s work could include computer history museums, digital print exhibits, or anything loosely related to the problem space your company deals with.
- Brown bags. Encourage employees to give casual brown bag talks on subjects they’re passionate about. This allows individuals to shine and helps everyone broaden their areas of expertise.
- Hackathons. Hackathons are a low-stakes way for teams to push for ideas that may be important but lower priority to the company. They can also provide a structured team bonding mechanism that is rooted in skills and professionalism. Make sure these events are scoped to work hours.
- Access to professional development. Employees are more likely to take advantage of opportunities when it’s clear how they can get funding and time off. Bring some of the learnings back to the team by asking employees to do a brown bag after the event or opportunity is completed.
- Trainings. Help employees level up and provide more impact by offering trainings around new software, facilitation techniques, or soft skills like speaking and communication.
- Sponsorship programs. As opposed to mentorships, many experts are starting to highlight the enhanced benefits of well-organized sponsorship programs. Read through Project Include’s guide to sponsorships for resources to get started, no matter what stage your team is at.
The Goal: General Employee Wellness
Hahahahaha, welcome to Programmer Hell Apple's new Jony Ives interior features desks with no visual/audio blocking, next to meeting tables
The Problem Statement
As an employee, I want to have energy in order to focus on doing my best work and live my best life.
The Normal Default
When teams are struggling, many companies opt to pressure employees into spending unstructured time with coworkers in high risk situations. This can manifest as overnight retreats, events outside of work hours, and events that center around alcohol.
- Give everyone time off. Studies have shown that work-life balance increases employee productivity and retention. This could manifest as sabbaticals (this article gives a great overview of the tradeoffs), making sure employees actually take advantage of their vacation time, and not pressuring people into attending “fun” events outside of work hours. Basecamp actively focuses its benefits away from the workplace.
- Don’t have events outside of work hours. And if you have to, make sure everyone takes commensurate time off and consider providing childcare options.
- Cut down on alcohol. Not everyone drinks, and any alcohol-centered situation increases the risk of problematic and counterproductive outcomes. Alcohol should never be used as the incentive for an event (“Tipsy Tuesday”, “Happy Hour”, “wine tasting”), and alternatives shouldn’t seem secondary. Having alcohol-centric events puts women at a disadvantage and increases the likelihood of exposing private medical conditions or otherwise making individuals feel alienated. Here’s a toolkit for making events welcoming to non-drinkers.
- Institute Volunteer Time Off. Giving employees time off to volunteer increases workplace satisfaction, and has also been shown to help companies succeed in other ways.
- Provide healthy lunch and snack options. Long hours and commutes are always easier when you have easy access to food that provides sustainable energy.
- Create quiet and productive work spaces. Open office plans wreak havoc on productivity, and are even worse when there aren’t clear guidelines laid out for workplace interactions. Paul Graham has thoughts on a maker’s schedule vs. a manager’s schedule, and 90% of the research shows that open office plans make it harder to work. Provide more flexible work-from-home options, spaces to work quietly, better process so interruptions aren’t so common, and expectations around headphone use and discussion etiquette. I feel so strongly about this one that I wrote an entire research round-up about it.
- No meeting days. Blocking off days for deep work provides employees with necessary time to be productive.
- …and work from home days. (Although maybe not Fridays.) Many companies, like Khan Academy, are offering weekly work from home days (which can coincide with no meeting days!). Make these regular, expected days so individual employees don’t have to request special permission or feel left out when everyone else is still in the office.
- 4-day summer weeks. Many companies have instituted year-round 4-day/40 hour weeks, and some companies are opting into summers-only 32 hour weeks. This practice has helped Basecamp retain employees for much longer average tenures than most tech companies, allowing for better productivity.
- Ergonomic equipment and practices. Sitting in an awkward position long term can be just as debilitating as straining your back lifting a heavy object. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are often cheap to prevent, and failing to do so costs workplaces “more than $15 billion to $20 billion in workers’ compensation costs” each year. Read this paper by OSHA to learn more.
- Write a code of conduct. A code of conduct is an intentional way to specify expectations for work process and interactions at a given company. Since systems are inherently biased and subject to human emotions, it’s imperative that companies spell out the process and work against this bias. Clarity also allows for easier critiques and improvements to the system. Project Include offers extensive resources and examples for crafting a Code of Conduct.
- Don’t pretend that you’re a family, or encourage similar rhetoric. It’s a disingenuous manipulation tactic that pressures people into neglecting their own well-being and their actual families.
The Goal: Welcoming a New Teammate
The Problem Statement
As a new employee, I want to feel comfortable in my new environment so I can ramp up and quickly start providing value.
The Normal Default
A team dinner outside of work hours, followed by bar hopping.
- Welcome photo. Take a team welcome photo when a new employee joins or is deciding to accept an offer. Bonus points if there’s something unique to tie it to the individual.
- Welcoming desk area. Provide a welcome gift and note at the new hire’s desk. This may include company swag and helpful ergonomic equipment.
- Team lunch. Instead of requiring everyone to attend an after-hours dinner or happy hour, a good alternative is a welcome lunch with the new employee’s pod or project team.
- Coffee Walks. Encouraging new hires to take coffee walks with team members is a great way to provide some quality ramp up opportunities in a low stress environment.
- A welcome announcement at a team meeting. It’s nice to be acknowledged! Keep the pressure low by making sure that new hires don’t have to make a speech or move too far outside their comfort zone.
- Institute a buddy system. Assign a buddy to new hires for their first 6 months. Project Include recommends making sure buddies are well trained, and can be paired with new hires in the final stages of accepting an offer. Buddies will help new hires connect to other team members and leadership, as well as provide guidance to the organization’s work structure.
- Strategic new hire plan. Does your new hire know what to expect in the first few months? How do you support new hires in ramping up, providing value, and growing in their role? Instituting a strategy helps employees achieve higher engagement, productivity, and retention. For an example, see PlanGrid’s “New Hire Blueprint”.
Final tip: A minimum culture is often the best culture
If these event ideas ever start to feel overwhelming, remember that sometimes the best culture is a minimum culture. Most employees want to be able to provide value and be motivated. Very few adults need their workplace to (poorly) facilitate their social life.
Focus on supporting employees in their work and everything else will take care of itself.
Are you currently working on improving your company’s culture and want more guidance? I recommend using my favorite wiki about inclusive offsites, here, and Project Include’s extensive resources for building effective culture and practices, here.