Building a community out of your office, department, or division is a goal that many folks in leadership positions have but few accomplish. How can making a community out of your office be a priority with meetings, budgets, staffing, and daily crisis management take over your to-do list? Simple, if your office feels like a community those meetings become more productive, staffing isn’t an issue because people won’t want to leave, crisis management is diluted to all parties, and that budget…well you still have to worry about the budget but maybe not as much as before.
Let’s define the word community here as there can be many levels to what an office community can be. There is the gated community, the development community, the neighborhood, and the wrong side of the tracks.
Gated Community – Exactly as it sounds. Those on the inside of the gates are tolerant of each other. They protect the way the community looks and feels as a way of individual preservation, not community preservation. Everyone is within the gates but everyone is within their own fortress/silo.
Pros: Stable office identity that the staff likes to uphold collectively. Individual staff have goals not aligned with community goals.
Cons: Each staff member keeps to their “yard” and does not go beyond what is necessary to keep the Gated Community persona.
Development Community – This is a gated community without a gate meaning the feeling of it being a closed circle clique doesn’t exist. Everyone is collegial but only in a manner that keeps the workplace tolerable. People don’t love living there but they are comfortable and happy enough that they don’t hate it. Unlike the Gated Community, people are not as guarded with each other but they are not running over to ask for a cup of sugar willingly either.
Pros: Stable office identity that the staff likes to uphold collectively and individually. Personal goals can be aligned with community goals and are sometimes designed with that intention in mind.Willing to help out other community members, only if sought out or asked to do so.
Cons: Each staff member maintains the upkeep to keep the community looking good. They are open to helping out other community members but they are not actively seeking opportunities to do so.
The Neighborhood – The gold standard for a community is a true neighborhood where cups of sugar are openly asked for, lawnmowers are shared without hesitation, and hellos shouted from porches are an everyday occurrence. Everyone is friendly. Everyone has a genuine interest in each other’s lives. Your colleagues know your spouses and your kid’s name. They may even know what your kids do after school or what is happening with family. They know your birthday and celebrate it. People come to work excited and enjoy the environment.
Pros: Team. Everyone knows the mission, helps each other complete the mission, and supports each other personally and professionally. This is the type of office that throws going away parties when you leave and gives each other birthday cards.
Cons: People who leave this environment are often disappointed in their new roles because it is hard to replicate and isn’t found everywhere.
The Wrong Side of the Tracks: Have you ever drove through a neighborhood that was totally quiet and everyone looked scared or stressed out? That’s the wrong side of the tracks. There is no sharing. There is no communication outside of official e-mail business. Relationships form as needed and only for the period of time needed to complete the task. People come to work to get paid.
Pros: The work will get done.
Cons: Survival of the fittest. Every staff member is an island. There is no goal other than to not get fired, keep collecting paychecks, and find a way out.
5 Strategies to Build, Foster, and Maintain Community
Here are a few tips that can help you get on the road to building, fostering, and maintaining the community with your office, department, division. These tips apply to those in senior positions that have the power to directly influence the daily activity within the office.
Get your staff together and do an action inventory. What are they working on? What do they wish they were working on? What are their short term goals? Long term goals? Set up a practice of sharing monthly goals during a staff gathering, post those goals for each staff and openly discuss how one another can help each other reach those goals. This will start conversations, hopefully build mutual respect for one another, and get people working together. Be mindful that an action inventory could be interpreted as an act of authority and accountability rather than sharing information and goals, be clear about the intention and purpose of this activity.
Create Small Wins
Now that you have an inventory of what your staff is working on, create small wins for them. With monthly goals in mind, have the staff break down the steps necessary to get to that goal. When a step is complete, say hosting a successful meeting, getting a new partner to help out, or launching a marketing campaign – celebrate. Not with balloons and banners but with small gestures of appreciation. A handwritten note, a small trinket for their desk, get creative with it. Sometimes a pop-in the doorway “Nice job on XYZ” will have an impact that you would never expect.
Random Acts of Community
What is the one thing that is always guaranteed to attract people to a room? Food. Show up with bagels, donuts, muffins randomly one morning when know your staff will be in the office. Write questions or quotes on napkins to start conversation. Everyone working late? Order pizzas and encourage staff to hang out together before they head out back home. Food brings people together, don’t waste the opportunity.
If you laugh together, you create stories together.
The strongest teams, families, groups are those that share good times and laughter together. These good times and laughter create opportunities for unique inside jokes that only your team can relate to. This is important and what creates that shared identity. If the memories your staff are creating of your unit are overwhelmingly positive with inside jokes and laughter, that comes in handy in times of stress or when levity is needed. Without any stories, your staff has no attachment and with no attachment they have no sense of ownership or belonging. Arrange staff retreats, have impromptu gatherings or lunches out of the office, stories need an environment that allows for them to be made which requires people to be in the same place at the same time doing something together.
While I believe that setting this tone and building a community relies on the director/supervisor to initiate, it doesn’t require them to maintain it. Once the ball gets rolling and the community is coming together, the goal is for your staff to feel ownership over the team, the community, the office family. When that ownership is felt your staff may start brainstorming ideas and proposing ways to enhance it. Take the chance and let them run with these ideas! This is the neighborhood – you can’t go to a neighbor and ask for their lawnmower but when they ask for a cup of sugar you say you can’t spare any! Your staff member took a risk in proposing a new idea, celebrate that risk and let them explore it.
From my experience, these five strategies are effective, efficient, and work extremely well when practice however, the actions are not the only ingredient in this stew of success. You can do all five of these things and still fail to build a community, a family, an office environment of happiness and belonging. The problem in that scenario is the staff. You can hire for talent but you’d be far better off hiring for attitude. Talent can be obtained and trained fairly easily while attitude is much harder to break and remold in your vision.
What ideas do you have for building community in your office, department, division?