Fun and Games
Smack in the middle of Jamba Juice's San Francisco corporate office stands a structure not typically associated with fast-track businesses: a badminton court. Throughout the workday, employees spontaneously pair up for a quick game--and that's just one social activity provided for the staff at this juice store chain. There are also parties, picnics, and even employee groups that support local charities such as AIDS-related organizations.
Sound a bit distracting? Maybe so, but Jamba Juice execs readily point to the business' strong endorsement of workplace socializing as a fuel that's helped power the company's impressive growth. Starting with a single store in 1990, Jamba Juice has mushroomed from 11 outlets in 1994 to more than 100 today.
"With today's [employees spending] long hours on the job, there's a blurring in their lives between work and social activities," says Chris Baer, Jamba Juice's vice president of human resources. "Because we play here, too, employees think it's OK to spend the long hours here that they do. Our employees are more productive, and there's less turnover and less stress. When you're stressed out, [you can] grab a badminton racket, go to the court, and forget about your problems."
Across the country in Alexandria, Virginia, the 57 employees at digitalNATION, a high-speed Internet data company, are treated to a medley of social activities that include spontaneous Chinese buffets catered in the office, bowling nights, paintball outings, excursions on a 62-foot sailboat--even scuba certification classes. The company's goal: close employee relationships.
"Put two people under water sharing [an air supply], and there's some bonding going on," says company founder and CEO Bruce Waldack. "Employees want good salaries, but today, they also want more. They want to like their co-workers and hang out with them. We create opportunities to let them do that."
To these company leaders, the concept is far from just fun and games. "In the Internet industry, employees change jobs as often as they change underwear," says Waldack. "Not at digitalNATION. I've had five employees quit in the past two years--two came back, and we rehired them." The company's client list is studded with prestige names--The Discovery Channel and Hamilton Beach/Proctor-Silex among them--and its bottom line is strong. "We're growing at 7 to 12 percent monthly, and for the fiscal year that ended last September, we netted $1.4 million," says Waldeck. "We're a financially healthy business, and our social activities only help us."
The Last Laugh
But is the success of these socially-geared businesses only a fluke? Hardly. "There's a national trend toward workplace socializing. It's now seen as priming the pump for greater productivity," says Bob Nelson, president of Nelson Motivation Inc. in San Diego and author of 1001 Ways to Energize Employees (Workman Publishing).
"Companies where employees socialize in the workplace and off the job have a substantial competitive advantage," agrees Andrew DuBrin, a management professor at Rochester Institute of Technology's College of Business in Rochester, New York. "Companies that encourage this can enjoy tremendous benefits."
Skeptics contend that time spent getting to know co-workers is time that could have been spent improving productivity. Advocates for workplace socializing disagree. "Socializing is not a waste of time. When people connect through social activities, there are payoffs on the job," says Nelson. "Socializing lets people connect in new ways; they develop a better ability to communicate, and that can be a big asset."
Supporters believe that when faced with a workplace problem, employees who feel an established sense of camaraderie with their co-workers are more likely to hang tough as they work through it. "Socializing leads to togetherness," says Nelson, "and that's an attitude that can prove critical in today's marketplaces."
Why has workplace socializing taken on such importance lately? For one, today's workers come to the job with different expectations. "It's no longer just about money. Employees want other kinds of rewards, too, and making friends on the job has become especially important," says Nelson.
Larger social issues are at play here, contends Nelson. Since extended families have evaporated from much of the American scene, and highly mobile workers frequently move from city to city, "The role of the workplace as a community has increased dramatically," he says. "Employees want a sense of community at work because they're finding less social structure elsewhere in their lives."
It Pays To Play
Smart companies are responding to this need by helping create a sense of community in the workplace, and in truth, the vehicles for providing it are incidental. At some companies, badminton or pinball machines may be perfect outlets; at others, it might be Friday afternoon pizza parties or weekend philanthropic outings to paint old houses or remove graffiti from walls. Price tags for such efforts can be high, low or in between, but the allotted budget doesn't matter as much as providing something that helps bring workers together in a less formal, more intimate setting. See people laughing, talking freely and having a good time, and you'll know that what you're doing is working.
Be warned, however: Efforts to encourage workplace socializing can backfire. "You've got to do this with integrity. It's very easy to alienate workers with social activities," cautions Blaine Lee, vice president of FranklinCovey Company, a leadership and productivity firm in Salt Lake City. "People want to celebrate and socialize with people they care about. How do your employees feel about you?"
The truth is, a badminton court or scuba class is no replacement for paying people fairly and treating them well. "You can't treat people unfairly, then hold a party and expect everybody to be merry," says Lee. "A lot of employees probably won't even come."
That's not your problem--you treat your workers with respect, right? Fair enough, but before scheduling activities, "Ask your employees what they want to do," counsels Lee. "Just because you want to play golf doesn't mean they do." Some workers also find activities scheduled for nights and weekends to be a burden. One key is to ask your employees for feedback about what activities they want to include on a social agenda and when they want them scheduled.
What about employees who don't want to participate? Offer a variety of activities, and it's rare you'll find a worker who won't join in some of the time. "All our employees don't want to do all our activities, and that's fine," says digitalNATION's Waldeck. "But all our workers do some of our activities, so everybody has a chance to have fun with co-workers."
Setting limits is also important to making socializing work for your business. "The boundaries between work and play can blur," warns DuBrin. "Workers can spend too much time on horseplay, and their work can suffer." The antidote is to establish guidelines that make it clear that although yours is a workplace that embraces social activities, the work has to get out promptly and well.
"You need to manage social activities," says Nelson, and that means it becomes your job to take initiative whenever productivity is threatened. Your employees will understand if you need to put their focus on a high-priority project rather than a game of volleyball--just tell them straight, and more than likely they'll cooperate.
Is managing a slate of workplace social activities worth that extra effort? DigitalNATION's Waldeck has no doubt. "I grew up in Asia, where I learned that employee loyalty is a big factor in a company's success. And nothing creates loyalty like giving employees a workplace where they can have fun with friends," he says. "We compete against much bigger companies, but we're thriving, and that's because digitalNATION has and keeps excellent workers. It really does work."
digitalNATION, (703) 642-2800, http://www.dedicatedserver.com
Franklin Covey Co., (800) 654-1776, http://www.franklincovey.com
Nelson Motivation Inc., (800) 575-5521, http://www.nelson-motivation.com