Unlocking team creativity during a pandemic.
About 4 months after the pandemic really impacted our lives (I’ll call this C0 + 4 months) a simple “hi, how’s it going?” from a coworker that I talk to sometimes, but not constantly, turned into a Slack conversation about how the pandemic had changed our lives and what we were doing to counteract it. We both revealed that it had caused us stress and we were worried and we didn’t really know what to do or expect. She seemed a little more distraught than me. Perhaps because I live in rural America where the whole purpose is to be more than 6 feet from people anyway, and the pandemic is *kinda* something that’s mostly happening somewhere else. Perhaps, it was because I had done some things to help myself get through. Either way, I wanted to help, if I could help. I think I did, in the end.
There was one difference between us that emerged. I revealed that I had played the “pandemics are a free pass to have your mid-life crisis a few years early” card and she was still holding her excuse card. Since C0+3 I had purchased a new cappuccino machine (Gaggia Classic Pro) and a sweet, sweet mountain bike (Nukeproof Reactor 290 Factory). At the time I felt the cappuccino machine was a gift for me and my wife, but she quickly told me she thought it just tasted like burnt coffee. Oh well, I love waking up every morning to a mini art project. I still suck at latte art. I even built some old man style bike jumps in the backyard (they’re as safe as jumps get) and have been riding them like a 10 year old kid. Super fun caffeine fueled jump park. I ran completely off the cliff at C0+5 and I bought a couple kids in the neighborhood a good bike. They all ride (roll) the jumps at least twice a week and we go on an “adventure” ride. Our kids didn’t ride often until their friends also had bikes. Now they’re like a pack of masked bandits who’d rather be out riding than watching TV. We have been exploring pump tracks and beginner trail networks too. I just don’t care anymore, it’s about getting through it. That’s the end of bike stuff, I promise.
So, I convinced my coworker that money can buy happiness because these material things worked for me because they supported high quality experiences that let me focus on something other than COVID-19. She revealed to me that she’s really into drinking Tea and that she’s been thinking about getting a milk frother. However, she’d just bought a house at C0 - 2 months and money is tight so she wasn’t ready to pull the trigger on the $120 frother I sent her links to.
Then I had an idea. I could just buy the frother for her. I know she’d love it, experiment with it every day, spend time thinking about it, and how she’s going to use it. I asked my boss if I could just put it on the company card and he said “sure, she’s been working hard and deserves something nice”. Even if he said no I’d probably just have bought it for her as a “congrats on your new house, sorry you’re going to be locked into it for the next 18 months” housewarming gift.
Then I had another moment. She’s probably not the only one in the company that feels this way and could use a boost. “Hey boss, can I just buy all 20 of us a $120 milk frother?” Uhhhhhh.... Kinda?
Then came the realization that if everyone in the company is feeling kinda down because of the pandemic, and we do have the luxury of doing something as a company to help people feel good, then why not turn it into a real team building HR exercise designed to help as much as possible. Low and behold, the COVID-19 gift exchange in July was born.
OK, Tom, but what about the tear gas SNAFU?
We had designed into the exercise a review process where each gift needed to be reviewed by HR to make sure it wasn’t going to be offensive, or hurtful, and that it would serve HRs needs for the whole exercise.
A couple of things happened when HR was engaged as a stakeholder by the teams
- One team decided on a gift they thought was super meaningful but could only be had for $200. Double the budget.
HR was engaged and they said: “We’re fine with spending more money if it serves the purpose, however, don’t go making it about the money.”
The team was able to adjust the choice within budget and not lose the overall thoughtfulness put into their choice.
- One team decided on getting someone a “protest kit”. This was interesting.
HR was engaged and they said: “The company buying and ordering tear gas wasn’t ultimately inappropriate.
The company fully supports the fight for equality including supporting the individual in and around protest efforts, but we couldn’t justify putting the tear gas into their hands.
Here are some side notes about the exercise if you try to do something like it yourself, which we completely recommend as a team building and feel-good exercise for small to medium teams. I’m confident it would scale up to at least 50 people.
It’s not about the money. $100 or $25 or $10. It doesn’t matter. It’s about people paying attention to people and doing something nice.
Teams met for about 2.5 hours on average over the course of the week. A lot of side conversations were spun up as people discovered things. Super fun. I really want to read the Dune series now.
Some people will be super thoughtful and some will spew ideas before others are done processing and some will hold tight lipped until the end, but they will get it out there and it will work.
One person put in the mickey mouse theme song lyrics, text about growing asparagus, and it was a gag because they weren’t sure about the exercise. The team that had this person completely rose to the occasion and twisted the whole gag into a serious and very thoughtful gift. Don’t worry about things like this. Just go with it.
It was unanimous that this was a solid team building exercise. Each person in the company had a team of 3 people assigned to think about them for a week. To understand what that person likes, to appreciate some of their favorite things. Every recipient felt good about it, and ultimately, as an HR function we got a permanent and sustained boost in team morale while building appreciation for the other people we work with. Teams met about something not really work related and people who weren’t normally on teams together had to work together to solve a problem. People new to the team were assimilated seamlessly.
What we did worked amazingly well for a remote exercise and I hope you check out the photos and entire activity where I show, rather than tell of its success. You can fill in the missing components of why it was awesome. We used our own software for this. It helped, but you don’t have to.