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Building a Better Office Culture

I don’t know that this is a blog post so much as it is a hopeful roll call for some of your brightest ideas for creating community in the work place. How do you build morale and camaraderie, particularly when organizational structure still involves silos to some degree? I’m talking beyond the office potluck lunch, here.

Here are some obstacles that in my experience are fairly common:

1 – Busy workloads, no time to network across programs

2 – No communal space for lunch time

3 – Lack of awareness/appreciation for work done in organizational units outside of one’s own

4 – Low morale due to shrinking budgets, hiring freezes, and (see #1) increasing workloads

Please share your thoughts on how great leaders overcome the obstacles above to create a space in which innovation and creativity flourish, resulting in staff that feel appreciated and choose to continually bring their best to the table and bring out the best in each other. The more specific your strategies (i.e. the easier it is to apply them), the better!

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Crystal Leonetti

Here are some tips that a small group of “change agents” as we call ourselves came up with over the past year at our work unit:

1. Listen

2. Ask staff’s opinion

3. Walk around and talk with staff regularly (get out of your office)

4. Openly encourage staff to get involved with activities they are interested in (diversity brown bag lunches, employee associations, etc.)

5. Believe in this: individuals that feel valued have good morale, in turn, they are more productive. Hence, do steps 1-4 above.

These are not my own thoughts, because they came to our group from many employees in many GS levels, programs, and locations. I do think they have a huge impact on the culture, especially during stressful times like right now.

P.S. Hi Sarah! I was glad to see your topic, even more excited when I saw it was YOU! I hope you get more commenters on this topic!

Sarah Gannon-Nagle

Hi, Crystal! I’ve not been around gov loop for a while (my profile is pretty out of date), but I thought I’d give this a try to see if some interesting ideas come up. You’ve probably seen my email to our cohort on this as well. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights! All good stuff. I’ve been thinking about what kinds of activities aligned with #4 in your comment can be potential enthusiasm boosters without taking up too much of people’s time since plates (platters!) are already quite full.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

Good question Sarah! It’s a question that we are all facing – enhancing morale/engagement with zero time or budget. Here are some ideas, but none of them will work without direct leadership involvement and commitment:

  • Create an online or real Social Network to discuss issues, exchange ideas, share news, and collaborate (sort of a mini-GovLoop).
  • Volunteer together on the weekends to build commaradarie, get to know family members, and make an impact on your community.
  • Create fitness challenges and groups, like walking groups, sports teams, etc.
  • Arrange group outings (after hours) such as happy hours, sports events, etc.
  • Share common interests – maybe book clubs, support groups, etc.

Just some fun, free activities that may be able to help. A lot depends on your demographics and location, but I can’t emphasize how important leadership involvement is.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Great list by Crystal. I’d add “6. Have fun. Find ways to get out of the office or hang out in a non-work environment to talk informally about work and life.”

Scott Kearby

1. First thing … somebody has to take charge & be the social leader and bring people together. This has nothing to do with that person’s place in the organization chart, but somebody needs to be the spark. If that’s you, then step up!

2. No communal lunch space … take over a conference room for lunch. If you have video capability, maybe play a TED presentation to generate some conversation, many are short & they are mostly well-done, and entertaining or interesting or thought-provoking.

3. Allow everyone to bring a friend, someone from outside your specific office, and then engage them in the conversation. Find out what they do and ask them about it. Most people like it when others show some interest in their work.

4. If you have connections in another department, set up a “field trip” to visit that work area, share lunch (bring along some pizza or subs) & go see what they do … maybe your connection can get one of the bosses to just give a short presentation (think elevator speech about what they do) and stay for lunch as well.

5. Maybe set up a short after work event at a local place & share an adult beverage. There are any number of reasons — Pi Day, GIS Day, St Patricks Day, Cinco de Mayo, Friday, etc! If you need ideas see http://www.daysoftheyear.com/days/2013/03/

Janina Rey Echols Harrison

Crystal’s suggestions are great and I use them regularly.

I would add Thank You cards and some type of recognition document. NPS used to print (probably still does, but costs $$ to buy them) these half sheet Thank You and Another Job Well Done notes. I recreated them to use. You can jot a quick note about what the person did and pop it into interoffice mail. An email, copied to a higher up, recognizing extra effort is always good.


My gut is you can’t fake it in times where clearly it is tough with the normal stuff you would do an upbeat times (the standard potlucks, etc)

Almost would want to do – let’s roll up our sleeves & all in it together. More like we are the underdog. Or rol up sleeves as a troop (how military does). Perhaps focus even more on mission & delivering value to citizen. So maybe sharing more stories of who you are serving (for example – cause of X, Y is doing great. Show picture).

Karen "Kari" Uhlman

Our department is working on an Employee Health and Wellness program, which we hope will increase stamina, reduce stress, and increase the well-being and self-esteem of employees.

Trish Bachman

I can only really speak to what works for me and my own morale.

Things That Improve My Morale:

1 – Tell me, in no uncertain terms, which projects are on the priority short list. I appreciate being able to make my own decisions about what I’m working on and how I build my day’s schedule, but I need to know what the leadership cares about the most and what the leadership thinks we can push to the backburner.

2 – Instant, on-the-spot, public recognition for a job well done. When I haven’t heard anything like this in a while, I assume that no news is bad news. I’m talking here about a 1-2 sentence email – free, easy, and quick.

3 – Find out what we value and actually follow through on implementing. Whether it’s time to workout, a flexible schedule, access to a quiet place to think, whatever.

Things That Lower My Morale:

1 – Having to bring things to potlucks. A fun run followed by a trip to five guys or something similar is lovely. Having to plan and bring in a mandatory lunch that will feed a large group is a drag. I’m too broke and too tired, and when I take the simple option, like sodas, I feel ashamed.

2 – Pointing out someone’s flaws in a public setting. It’s one thing to pull people aside in private to do a course-correct, it’s another to basically say in front of the team that how someone did something was wrong or inefficient. This hasn’t happened to me in years, but I’ve seen it happen to other people, and it makes everything uncomfortable.

Marian Henderson

Speaking to #4 – a small group of Christians at my agency meet weekly for “Brown Bag Bible Study”. It’s neither promoted nor endorsed by the agency, but rather we are allowed to meet in an empty conference room during the lunch hour.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Clear expectations
Work life balance
Honesty from leadership about areas for improvement
Encouragement from all sources
Open spaces to work and collaborate
Access to coffee and Red Bull