On Work Celebrations

I’ve been thinking about work celebrations lately. At my current place of employ, KQED, they do work parties well. Which is a non-trivial job perk, the more that I think about it.

As an undergrad, I volunteered at an employment agency for recently homeless individuals in downtown Los Angeles. It was a really valuable experience that taught me so much about community service, the multivariat challenges of homelessness, and what makes effective organizations run well. 

One aspect of the job I noticed was how often the staff threw parties for each other. It seemed rarely a week went by without some kind of staff gathering to celebrate someone’s birthday, a new baby on the way, a new staff person being hired, someone leaving, or a more official holiday. Sometimes more than one during the same week.

At the time, it seemed like a lot of effort and time went into planning and putting on these parties. I wondered if it had to do with the stressful circumstances we all were working under. When you are dealing with a challenging population, seeing your clients get rejected for jobs again and again, lapse back into drug use, or even come in inebriated or high, it takes a toll on you. Perhaps all the parties were ways for us to have at least some small part of the work week be joyful and fun.

When I was applying for my first job at the California Academy of Sciences, my future manager asked me during the interview a curious question. She asked, “How do you like to be celebrated?” I found it an odd line of inquiry, but I answered that I love cake and going out to eat with my colleagues to celebrate some win at work.

For my manager, this was a telling bit of information that helped her assess if I would be a good fit for the work culture of the department. Perhaps if I had answered, “I don’t like work parties. I prefer to just do my job and not have meaningful interactions with my colleagues,” I wouldn’t have gotten the job.

At my current position in the KQED education department, we just finished a process of re-evaluating and confirming our work norms and processes together. Several of these were typical of most work departments — meeting protocols, digital file naming conventions, inter-office communications. But we actually spent a good amount of time establishing norms for work celebrations.

Here’s what we came up with for birthdays:

Practice: Celebrate Birthdays

Rationale: Individuals have different desires about how they want to celebrate their birthday. 

Standardized options for celebrating birthdays (can choose as many of these as you want):
1) Nothing at all
2) Lunch out of the office 
3) Happy hour 
4) In-office treats: monthly, not on the actual day, cumulative with other people 

We maintain a digital birthday calendar. Add your birthday and indicate which options you prefer. 

Establish a standing social committee of at least three people for implementation of all milestone honoring activities.  One year term, no term limits. Committee will organize birthday celebration (if desired).

No department birthday card.

Some might read this as overly prescriptive and micro-managing. But I think it establishes some important things about our work culture:

  • We want to celebrate each other.
  • People have different wishes for how or if they wish to be celebrated.
  • The work to organize celebrations is non-trivial and should be shared.
  • We should be fair in how we recognize people.

As someone who recently had a big birthday, seeing this put into practice was so lovely. I was asked how I wished to be celebrated, and a birthday lunch at my favorite local sandwich spot was organized as a result. I felt appreciated and closer to all of my colleagues.

Sometimes I get envious of all of the perks that my friends at big tech companies enjoy — catered meals, an on-site masseuse, a barista on every floor, open bar happy hours. But then I remember what I appreciate about my chosen work — feeling valued, being connected to my coworkers, knowing that my work is making a difference in the world, being inspired by what my organization does. That’s worth more than all the catered meals in the world.

So yeah, let’s celebrate each other. Because each of us is worthy of being recognized and feted. And that’s part of what makes it so easy to come into work each day.

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