Recently, a colleague at one of our LTG sister companies reached out to me directly for advice on providing great cultural and social activities to employees. They had recently been given a dedicated budget to social activities and were struggling to come up with ideas that went beyond luncheons and gift cards but instead made a real impact on their team. The question encouraged me to reflect more broadly on our attitude regarding culture and resulted in the creation of three principles for planning work social activities. Given what an emphasis we place on culture here at Rustici, I thought these were worth sharing.

Do different types of things to avoid a feeling of “mandatory fun”

First, know that I’ve been at Rustici Software for seven years. I’ve moved through various roles including software development, technical sales, leading product and engineering, and now acting as CEO. I’ve seen the way we address social activities from all angles and across many years.

Throughout all this time, our goal is always to avoid a feeling of “Mandatory Fun.” It turns out in practice that forcing, whether explicitly or implicitly, employees to socialize together and participate in activities that they do not enjoy isn’t good for anyone. So we always try to have different types of events throughout the year that appeal to different people.

This manifests as a group paintball outing to a scavenger hunt to viewing magic at House of Cards to hosting a carnival in the office. The point is, we want to make sure that over a period of time we’re offering something for everyone.

Let employees self-organize events

Our employees are creative, they have hobbies, and they enjoy spending time together. This often leads to scenarios where our employees self-organize social events all on their own. Recently, two of our more tenured employees organized a Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) night all on their own. They got 12 people, men and women alike, to spend an evening together outside of work learning and playing Dungeons & Dragons. They held their event at the office, I was more than happy to cover pizza for the get-together. This wasn’t something organized by Management, it was just something they did, all we did was enable it and help make it a bit better.

We want to make sure we leave space for our employees to tell us what types of social events work for them, provide support however we can, and then get out of the way and let them have a good time.

Go beyond the monetary

The other thing I’d mention when it comes to cultural activities is to not focus on things that are just monetary. If possible, use your budget on things that bring value to the team beyond the dollar value. If you’re providing lunch or handing out gift cards it’s often not better (and sometimes it’s worse) than simply moving that money into salaries or bonuses. Instead, look for things that bring joy and value beyond their monetary value. Sometimes, this means having someone on staff who can run errands, whether getting a car washed, running to the grocery store, completing an emissions test, or helping out with another activity that stresses folks out.

Our three principles for planning social events

Overall, I’d say there are three principles for planning social activities.

  1. Do different types of things to avoid a feeling of mandatory fun. Understand that your team is made up of different personalities and that different people will appreciate different types of actions.
  2. Empower and enable team members to identify activities. What does the group already do or want to do? How can you enable that?
  3. Find things that bring more joy and value to employees than just their dollar value. Find things that make employees think, “Oh, I’d really miss that” if they ever consider getting a job at another company. Don’t do things that leave them thinking, “I don’t mind losing XYZ because I’ll make it up in an increased salary at my new job.”

When considering what we do as a company, we often come back to these ideas and it’s lead us to some interesting experiences and great stories. I look forward to many future years with more of that.

TJ is the Chief Technology Officer at PeopleFluent, another Learning Technologies Group company, though he used to be CEO here at Rustici Software. He is passionate, expressive and has the most distinctive laugh you’ll ever hear.