A Work Team Is Defined by Its Work

This is going to sound familiar to most of you. Someone in your company has decided that people need to bond. Create a family. And usually the preferred method for doing so is… EVENTS: off-sites, parties, hikes, concerts, talks, games, birthdays… just to name a few.

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In my 2 years (yay!) in Silicon Valley, I’ve seen all kinds of random activities: ice skating, hockey games, silent discos, welcome lunches, team breakfasts, team lunches, team dinners, poll parties (to celebrate completing a survey), compliance parties (to celebrate completing our compliance training), beer clubs, wine clubs, spirit clubs, meditation clubs, ugly sweater contests, karaoke, wooden stick building contests, baby showers with baby food tasting contests (but no babies around)… you name it. And all of these coming from a relatively modest company, I’ve heard of much crazier stuff at other workplaces.

All of these events are designed with the same purpose in mind: bringing people together. Making them talk to each other. Making them love each other.

Well, it looks like they don’t work.

“But how can that be? We’ve purchased the most expensive baby food and made people spend the whole evening competing with each other to identify the flavors! And yet, they keep talking with the same people they always do! What is wrong? Some of them even got a piece of cake and headed back to their desks. Don’t they like having fun?”

No, they actually like working.

Why?

Who knows. Maybe they find their work more meaningful and interesting than tasting baby food. Go figure.

“But we organize the most amazing parties in the industry and still, lots of people keep leaving the team.”

Why?

Because they don’t care about our stupid parties.

Actually, I noticed a pretty common pattern about work parties: people don’t care about them or they do care, but for the wrong reasons.

I’ve seen four different kinds of people:

  1. They would like to engage but they are busy — therefore frustrated because everyone else is apparently having a lot of fun. I remember that feeling. Right after moving to the US, I was super busy trying to deliver my first project while dealing with some remaining immigration paperwork. I needed to go to the Social Security Administration, which can take HOURS, and I just didn’t have enough time, and one day we had THREE parties at work. I was kind of pissed off. “Is this project THAT critical? Do they really need me at all? Am I the only one working here?”
  2. They don’t engage at all and just go home or do something else. “My laundry and my plants definitely need me more than the company.”
  3. They engage but nothing else happens. They attend the event, they do whatever they are supposed to do, and then they leave, with no practical difference.
  4. They engage TOO MUCH: “I don’t have anything to do today and I’m going to leave these suckers in a couple of months, so I’ll spend the rest of the evening just hanging out and drinking as much as I can on company money.”

There is nothing wrong with events. I actually enjoy them and like to be a part of them if I have the time. I like karaoke, having some drinks, talking with people, and free food. Even baby food (no, not really).

We just expect too much from this kind of activity: we think that events create teams. But it’s just the opposite.

When we talk about team bonding at work, we tend to forget the most important thing: what people have in common.

Can you guess what it is?

Work.

Boom.

During my time in Barcelona, I had the honor and immense pleasure of leading the most cohesive, friendly, professional, and hard working team I could ever dream of. Did we have crazy parties, expensive off-sites, events with dedicated bartenders…?

This is what we had:

  1. A tiny room with five tables, one for each of us, shitty $30 screens and $8 keyboards (hell, I still don’t know if their layout was even standard).
  2. Two hours every Friday afternoon, blocked off to do coding katas and present our work to the rest of the team.
  3. A fridge full of beer (sometimes paid for out of my own pocket, something nobody here could possibly believe).
  4. Nerf guns.
  5. A lot (A LOT) of work to be done.

I worked between 10 and 12 hours a day for almost one year. So did my team. No equipment, no resources, no events.

Can you guess what happened?

Obviously, we became friends.

That was the craziest and yet most fun year in my working life. I only remember one event (that my team actually missed because they were fixing a production outage).

So no fancy equipment, no resources, no company events. No stand-up desks, no pricey laptops, no free snacks, no free mouthwash or dental floss, no laundry, no gym, no massages.

What were we giving them?

  1. A mission. One for the team and for each of them.
  2. A challenging project with challenging conditions. A project where almost everybody could fail.
  3. Endless learning.
  4. Pride and love for our work.

The culture of that team was pretty clear and I often summarize it in just one sentence: do epic shit. But such culture was deeply engaged with our work, with our way of doing it, and even with our limitations. It wasn’t built on top of any artificial constructs, like t-shirts, parties, music, technologies, or whatever. Just good old-fashioned work.

And you know what happened? Then, as a team, we created the events and made the t-shirts. We went out for dinner, for coffee, for drinks, you name it. We had an amazing time together. That doesn’t mean everything was perfect, sometimes that kind of culture just doesn’t work for everyone or every company.

But if you are trying to build a team, don’t forget about the most important thing: what defines a work team is its work. When the work isn’t interesting, no amount of jello shots or karaoke can make up for it.

Give people a mission, a challenge, something or someone to learn from, and a project to be proud of, and they’ll build a team around it. Events don’t create teams, teams create events.

Written by

I’ve been into software engineering for the most part of my life so I have thought long and hard about it. Now I‘m just writing it down.

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