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A party without a cake is just a meeting…

June is my birthday month and inspired by my upcoming celebrations, I thought I’d share some ideas about celebrating occasions like birthdays or milestones at the home office. You may prefer to ignore these all together or not celebrate with work colleagues, and I share some of the reluctance. However, during the pandemic especially, celebrating birthdays became a welcome focus for our virtual team, an excuse to spend an hour or two doing something other than fire fighting. And so, I came to enjoy and value moments of connecting with colleagues and spending time having a few laughs more and more.

Like many people I prefer not to work on my actual birthday, and take a bit of time off. Alongside the time away from work, I make it a point to have some celebration at work, and to share something that I am comfortable to with colleagues as a way to get to know each other a bit better.

In 2020, when I turned 40 having moved to a new city just months before, at the start of lockdown here in the UK, my colleagues organised a surprise birthday party, dropped off by a safely socially distanced colleague who lived close enough to make it both legal and practical to visit me in my garden. We ate cake, with other colleagues joining via video call, and I received lots of small, thoughtful gifts and cards that brought a huge amount of cheer to me during a dark time.

As a manager or a leader it’s especially important I find to spend some time with colleagues informally, and when you are based at home or a hybrid worker, then those opportunities can be few and far between. More often than not, team days or long planned meet ups don’t happen with everyone involved, and although interacting online can feel less connected, it is often more achievable.

So here are some ideas to help make that moment of celebration stand out a little, and create memories:

  • Switch away from your usual platform: switching platforms can be a really powerful way of changing the tone of your interactions with your colleagues, especially if you have a less formal alternative to the usual Teams or Zoom calls;
  • Experiment with backgrounds: if you can’t step away from the habitual online space or even if you can, consider have a bit of fun with different backgrounds. You can pick a theme (Tropical Island, Outer Space) or just encourage people to pick something fun and off beat – it really makes a difference when you are not staring at the same old corporate backdrops for a bit;
  • Play some tunes: play some music as you are all joining, so people coming into the space immediately have a different experience from usual. You can invite suggestions for songs, make a themed playlist, and of course birthday tunes or similar could be fun, too (if not necessarily to sing along to);
  • Have a plan for the session: I’d advise against inviting folk and simply hoping fun will happen as it probably won’t. Have a loose plan for the session, and limit the time from the start. 20-30 min is probably enough, depending on how many people are coming, and have an activity such as sharing a snack, unwrapping gifts, presenting a card or saying a few words, planned for the start and end. If you expect folk to take a picture with everyone waving (I would recommend against it), then warn everyone in advance;
  • Consider going off camera: Lots of fun can still be had on voice only or even text chats when you are celebrating or socialising, and it offers a lot more flexibility. Setting up a dedicated chat space can offer options for everyone to take part from wherever they are and work especially well later in the working day or first thing;
  • Don’t take up breaks: Many home and hybrid workers have strong routines around their breaks that they value. So wherever possible don’t assume that folk will want to give up their lunch hour or meet after work. Connecting socially is an important part of team building, and well worth an hour during your work day;
  • Engage the senses: Seeing and hearing are the senses we use the most in front of our screens all day long, so to make an activity more memorable, consider how you can engage more of your senses: if you can, share a drink or something to eat, either provided by post or brought by everyone themselves, and spend a bit of time focusing on that.

I’m very much looking forward to putting some of this into practice as I celebrate my birthday at my home office, and I’ll be sharing what we got up to in a follow up blog post.

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