Cultivating a sense of community in the workplace

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Last night I went to a holiday party with a bunch of ex-coworkers from one of my prior lives.   As we caught up with each other and shared memories about funny people we knew and funny things we did, I had an incredible sense of community.  Here we were, many years later, fondly remembering the time we worked together as a team, and thinking of ourselves as a group even though our career paths have dispersed us far and wide.

Why did this team feel such lasting loyalty to each other?  While many of us are the same age, some are more than 10 years north or south of the median.  Some of us worked together during the so-called golden years when we took our technology to market for the first time (before we realized what can’t be done), but others joined well after that time.   There is no discernable pattern in our backgrounds – some are engineers, some are in sales and marketing, and we are ethnically all over the map.

I finally realized that we were the product of a company culture where people were expected to work hard AND play hard.  The playing seems to make all the difference.  I remember the time when my entire engineering team went AWOL in the middle of the day.  One of my software managers had spontaneously organized everybody to go see “Star Wars: Episode II”.  This happened only once in the 7 or 8 years I was there.  It would have resulted in an inquiry in any other company I worked for.  Here, everybody knew the engineers would make up the lost time, we didn’t slip any deliverables, and it was a vastly better bonding experience than any other organized company outing they attended.

This team was well socialized and it showed. They worked together well, they helped each other out, information and knowledge was shared freely and spontaneously.  This team was one of the highest performing teams I’ve worked with.

Of course, this only works if the coworkers genuinely like each other.  This starts with recruiting for cultural fit as well as technical skills, and is fostered by a work environment where there are occasions for people to hang out socially while at work (by providing free lunch or free beer on a recurring basis).

Team building is an art and a science, but when done right it can elevate the workplace into a community that people are proud to be a part of.  I am proud to be an alumna of this team and will always use it as a template for team building in the future.

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