Ain’t No Party Like an Office Party, ‘cuz an Office Party is…Mandatory

The Designing Leaders crew is a fun group. We may be spread all over Asia, but when we get together we have a good time. Having said that, though, we do not always need to be having fun together.

There are things I like to do, things that keep me relaxed and help to recharge my batteries so that when I come back to work I am better for it. I can do a better job and be happier about my work if I have something to help me take a break and take my mind off of it.

But what’s fun for me is not necessarily fun for you. And that is where “mandatory fun” can become a problem.

When you are in a leadership position you might feel like you have to come up with fun things for your employees to do. Maybe you want to help people relax, or perhaps you are encouraging team building, or maybe you want to bring everyone’s families and significant others together. You might have picnics, dragon boat, parties in the office, “rope courses,” fun runs, rock climbing, golf tournaments, or something else that you think would be a good time. But just because YOU think it is fun doesn’t mean anyone else does. And when you make this sort of thing mandatory you can lose a lot of the benefits you are hoping for.

Consider the goal of trying to help people relax and forget about work for a while. How easy is that to do when they are surrounded by other people from work? Even if you are out of the office, all of the office relationships still apply. What happens to that employee who has never picked up a golf club…will he be penalized when his bosses see his skills are more suited to video games than to the back nine? Probably not, but he cannot know that for sure, so instead of helping him relax you are putting extra pressure on him. An office function still has the word “office” in there, so it is hard for people to really relax…even if you pick an event they would normally enjoy, which is hard to do anyway. A group of employees will have very diverse interests, so finding something everyone finds enjoyable is going to be tricky.

How about team building? That seems like a good objective, particularly in creative fields like advertising or software development or other places where group work is necessary. But is an out-of-office event the best way to do that? I have always felt that the best way to build teams is to do it where it matters: in the workplace. If you need people to work well together then let them do that through work rather than through some artificial “team building” event. A lot of people resent the suggestion that they are not professional enough to do what the job requires, so be careful about using some fun event to try to accomplish what you should be accomplishing in the workplace.

One of the favorite reasons for mandatory fun that I’ve heard in my career is that it provides a chance to get our families involved in our work environment. Well, so what? Is that necessarily a good thing? Is there some reason my kids need to play with my co-workers’ kids rather than with the other kids in our neighborhood? If your employees want to bring their families together and do things together, do they really need you to be the matchmaker? Of course, the single employees without a current significant other, the gay employees who are not yet “out” to everyone and do not feel they can bring their partner, and that employee who is in the middle of an ugly custody battle in an even uglier divorce, are all going to feel excluded, and that is not helpful at all.

None of this is to say that socializing within the workplace is a bad idea, but what IS a bad idea is forcing people to do it. Plenty of the people who work for you will want to spend time socially together, but they can do that on their own without your oversight. Lots of people will want to organize office outings and parties, but it is best to let them do that on their own so that your involvement as the boss does not make people feel pressured to participate. Office environments develop their own social culture, and trying to purposely create that culture through required events will advance that development…but possibly in a direction you will not like.