In addition to our monthly team birthday celebrations and whatever bizarre holidays I choose to celebrate (*cough* Battle of Hogwarts *cough*), we also plan a team fun event once a quarter. I enjoy helping with these for the same reason I love to bake for the office – to boost morale and make the office a fun place to be. Yes, the sugar is yummy, but I really like to watch our little community come together and celebrate the victories and milestones in each others’ lives. Work is better when you work with your friends, and not just coworkers.
This quarterly event is a way to get our entire group together, socialize, get to know coworkers that we don’t otherwise spend time with, and just relax and having a good time. It’s also a chance for our competitive sides to come out as we attempt to trample each other in the assorted games and activities we come up with. In a friendly way.
Around Halloween I helped plan our most detailed activity to date: Lego building with their Mixels sets of monsters. The idea came from Captain America here, who saw something similar at a conference he attended. He’s really into Legos and put together a great plan for us, and you don’t say no to the Captain.
Here’s how it worked:
First, as people came in we invited them to have some snacks and chat while we waited for everyone to arrive. I made some adorable and delicious green apple flavored Lego men to put on Caramel Apple cupcakes, with the bonus being that they looked like an army of little Frankenstein’s monsters when you lined them up.
I was really hesitant to buy that mold a couple of years ago, but I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it. (And I just saw that Amazon now has a set of three Lego molds for under $12. I may need that.) There’s really no occasion that isn’t suitable for candy Lego men.
Once everyone was in the room and lulled into a sense of calm and enjoyment, we had them count off (there were 30 people so we had them count 1-15 twice) and then their first task was to find their partner (the person who had the same number) and introduce themselves if they didn’t already know each other.
Next we had everyone sit down across from their partner at the tables we’d lined up. We put manila folders up so that they could see each others’ faces but not their hands. Then we passed out the Lego Mixels. One partner was the builder and got the bowl of parts (the bowls were handy for keeping little bits from flying around when we were separating out the instructions and passing things out) and the other was the instructor and got…you guessed it… the instructions.
- The instructor can explain how to build the little monsters but isn’t allowed to see what’s being built
- The builder can ask questions, but can’t look at any of the instructions or pictures
To help our teams out a bit, Captain America, expert Lego builder, gave a brief lesson in Lego lingo for the beginners (flat piece vs. brick vs. slant, 3×2 vs 2×2, etc.). Because it helps if everyone has a common vocabulary to work from.
We used Mixels because they made for great Halloween monsters, but you could do this with any Legos, Duplo blocks, Lincoln Logs, or whatever you want. You just need to have instructions to go with it.
Now, depending on what kind of office you work in and the kind of work you do, you might start to realize that while this sounds like a fun game, it’s also not so different from the challenges you face everyday, working with remote teams, talking to people who don’t quite understand what you want, and having to figure out how to communicate difficult concepts on the fly, with few resources.
So this is sort of like tricking people into having fun, but accidentally learning something from it, too. Sorry about that. I did say this idea came from a conference, so you should have expected there’d be a businessy angle to it. But it’s still super fun!
The fun part of this was watching and listening to the different ways teams worked.You could immediately tell who the Lego fans were because they began by sorting their pieces out by shape and color to see what they had, whereas the noobs just left them all in the bowl or scattered them out.
Some instructors were really good about using their hands to describe the positions of pieces, while other people just tried to talk it out. The teams using motions, and especially the ones where both partners used their hands to explain and confirm things seemed to work the fastest.
The room got very loud very fast, and some people seemed a little stressed out. One coworker even told me she felt her blood pressure going up, but I assured her this was supposed to be fun, and nobody’s hands would get cut off for losing.
Want to make it even more challenging? Around the 20 minute mark the Captain and I decided that teams were making good progress and many had found a way to communicate that worked for them. They had a process and a good working rapport with each other. So we messed it up.
We announced that there had just been a team re-org, and everyone sitting on the inside of the circle needed to get up and move one seat to the left. Surprise! Someone else would have to finish your hard work, and now you have to meet your new teammate, figure out where this new project is in the process, and maybe even take on a new role. (We hadn’t planned this, but when we handed out the Legos we didn’t make all one side of the table the same role, so when people moved, some went from being an instructor to a builder, and vice versa. You may want to divide your tables so that everyone on the right is one thing and everyone on the left is the other, just to keep it simpler.)
If you want to do this as a straight-up fun event, then let everyone just build and have fun. If you need to justify the time and expense to your boss, then here are some of the things you can say you’ll do to get the most out of this “communication exercise”:
1. Depending on the kinds of roles your team normally plays, you could assign teams and positions ahead of time to force people to take on tasks they don’t normally do. So make your engineers do the explaining and the product and project managers do the building. Or if your management team is up for it, let them build and let others tell them what to do. And don’t let them talk or ask questions. They just have to follow orders.
2. Define a more rigorous building process. Maybe there’s a QA period, where every so often teams have to stop building and show their work to a moderator who lets them continue, if they’re on the right track, or makes them start over if they aren’t.
3. If you really want to focus on the communication aspect of this, add a third person to the team. Put the instructor on one side of the room and the builder on the other, then make the third person be the go-between. How does this affect the process when the person with the information and the person with the tools never talk to each other directly?
4. When the activity is over and people are snacking again, have a team roundup and let people share how they felt about the process. What did they find most challenging? Did they start by giving their partner an overview of the big picture for the project, or dive right into the details, without explaining the end goal? Was that helpful or lead to confusion? What tips and tricks did they use to communicate with each other? Was there anything they learned from this that could be applied to their regular work?
Make sure you let everyone go around and see other teams’ work, because sharing is part of the fun, especially if two teams working on the same project came up with very different results.
And most of all, have (team) fun!