Building Office Community

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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.

Action Inventory

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.

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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.

Mutual Ownership

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?

Second Round Students

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Does your office look like this? A wall of credentials filled with certifications and different types of recognition from years of service to participation and completion of a workshop or training.

After reading this and other articles that state that the workforce isn’t just new graduates anymore but people reinventing themselves or revisiting old pastimes in hopes of finding a new career, I couldn’t help but think, “Orientation will look very different in a few years, if it exists at all.”

Soon enough (perhaps it is already happening at some institutions) the incoming classes will no longer be the “traditional” student coming fresh out of high school, they will be adult learners looking to get a new credential to open up new doors in new industries. They will be second round students. These incoming students will typically already have a degree of some sort, whether it be an associate degree or a doctorate, that won’t apply to the new industry. Instead, they will need to learn a new field of study with proof that they are competent a la a new credential. This is where your institution, if it hasn’t already, can find a new revenue stream through the creation of a school for professional studies.

Find some subject matter experts who understand how to teach adult learners, hire them, and market your program to this growing market segment of employed job seekers. I recently completed a program like this and my cohort was made up of people seeking a number of different things; from a retired K-12 teacher seeking to move into the college field, to college administrators looking to broaden their skills, to folks looking to take their current experience and couple it with this new certificate in hopes of creating a side hustle of consulting and training. These are the future incoming class of students you need to prepare for. They’ve been students already and now they want to develop further. They don’t need your standard orientation program, they need a welcome program to get their paperwork processed and to understand the services available to them.

With the start of a new semester if your institution offers free tuition or free credits you need to seriously consider utilizing the benefit. Depending on the credits or package, that could be thousands of dollars (literally thousands!) that are there for you that you are letting go to waste.

I don’t know about you but if someone handed me a check for $5,000 and said, “Here, go earn a certificate. We will pay for it.” I’m not going to rip of the check and say, “Sorry, I just don’t have the time.”

The “Near” Win in Education

I’m very familiar with the “near” win. Whether it was almost beating M. Bison in Street Fighter 2 after playing for an hour, or the “near” win of coming within seconds of a PR during a race. The “near” win is extremely frustrating as noted by the teeth marks I apparently left in my SNES controllers 20 years ago but also satisfying as you are able to say “Ugh. I can’t believe I just missed it. Let me prepare so next year (or next turn) I can finally beat it.

I think this concept of coming so close to accomplishment and falling short is directly related to the concept of grit. Grit, in simple terms, is deep resilience and motivation through tough circumstances. How does this relate? You need grit if you want to get more than one “near” win because some people would give up after landing in 2nd or 3rd place for the first time.

How does the “near” win relate to higher education or education in general? Grades. Involvement. Sports.

You will earn your grade, I will not give it to you.

When I had the pleasure of teaching a few courses that required reflective essays, no one in my class earned lower than a C. This is not because I had outstanding students or because I was an “easy” grader, this was because I simply didn’t accept the paper if it was less than average. If you handed in a paper that was less than average you earned a “NY” grade meaning “Not Yet.” This meant that your paper was filled probing questions to get you to dig deeper and write more to get to the core of your point. You will keep getting the NY until I am satisfied with your effort. Some students took advantage of this and thanked me for showing the personalized care and attention, others were annoyed that them “trying” the first time wasn’t good enough to get a grade. It was an interesting experiment that I’d like to try again more formally and track to see the long/short-term impact of that grading practice.

We can’t offer you a position but we hope you stay involved.

I’m guilty of putting something like this in a letter informing a student that they didn’t get hired for a position they applied for. Can you guess what typically happens? The student gets angry, disappointed, disengaged and perhaps doesn’t come back to your office for anything else. I’m not arguing for an increase in “alternative” positions because I’ve heard that solution. I’m saying that we need to not only teach students how to accept not being picked BUT we do need to provide something after the grieving period ends. This is a “near” win. You’ve applied. You’ve interviewed. You feel good about it but then you don’t get it. What’s the solution? One idea is to keep all candidates on a mailing list that is categorized by strengths and interests so you can do targeted outreach to get them engaged. (Talk about an easy retention strategy to increase engagement and awareness of opportunities!)


We see “near” wins all the time in sports. Our student athletes, our student club athletes, our athletic students that are engaged in the rec center all have experienced the pain or exhilaration of a “near” win. Nearing that personal record, or almost hitting the game winning shot, or almost beating your friend in racquetball. These students, perhaps more than most, know what a “near” win is. So what do we do about it? Nothing. The most recent example of what needs to be done for these athletes is what Coach Belisle did for his little league team. I’m not saying we have to coddle these students but we do need to support them in ways that ensure their confidence, well-being, and resilience to succeed stays intact. How? The answer isn’t to hand out participation ribbons. We need to teach students how to reflect and how to think critically about their performance, their effort, and their impact. This isn’t easy but it is one of the most powerful and under utilized practices for most people and we do not do a good enough job of instilling this in students at an early age.

Take a critical look at your program, your office or your courses this year and see what “near” wins you can push to wins. You may find it takes less effort than you realized.