Connection, unity, and fun
Related to that sense of flexibility and lack of rigidity, many bars in recent years have worked on building a sense that the staff is one team, made up of people who enjoy each other’s company—and they are now working to maintain that feeling during a time when the staff is physically scattered and working remotely.
That’s been a major focus for Joycelyn Stevenson as she settled into her job as executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association. The staff has frequent get-togethers to socialize and also to celebrate each other’s milestones—including, this past December, an outing to a restaurant and game arcade, to celebrate Stevenson’s first year with the bar.
“Working with people you enjoy being around makes work a lot better,” Stevenson says. “There’s going to be hard days, bad days, stressful days. But I think if you have a good relationship, you can get through those.”
These days, she adds, the staff is getting together via “virtual happy hour”—an optional weekly meetup to discuss anything not related to work. Children and pets are welcome, too, Stevenson notes.
An unusual—but well-known—collaboration in Minnesota provides a case study in unifying people across very different teams, using a bit of humor as an important tool.
In January 2019, in a move that garnered a lot of attention from the rest of the bar world, the staffs of the Minnesota State Bar Association, Hennepin County Bar Association, and Ramsey County Bar Association were officially combined, though the organizations remain separate in all other ways, including membership rosters, governance structures, and missions.
For the MSBA and HCBA, this involved a dramatic physical moment as well: The two bars were already under one roof, so a wall between them was knocked down, and their two different styles of signs, furniture, and other design elements were made more uniform. (The RCBA, meanwhile, remains in a separate building about 15 miles away in St. Paul, so it can continue to serve its members most effectively.)
Even though the combining of staffs meant reorganizing rather than layoffs, anxiety was still high as everyone adjusted to their new roles and new ways of doing things, recalls Jennifer Wallace, art director. But very soon, she began to notice a deliberate culture in which the human resources director and other members of the leadership team were invested in how the staff felt—that “someone has our back, and wants to make sure we’re having fun.”
Both Wallace and Nick Hansen, communications manager, credit Office Manager Sarah Mayer as key to the positive atmosphere—and Mayer, in turn, notes that many great team-building ideas came from the staff of the HCBA and were folded into the routines of the new combined staff.
For example, Hansen has long been a fan of themed food contests and special events, and has been encouraged to continue those with the new, larger staff. Another of his ideas that has continued is to ask a fun question each Friday via all-staff email. Asking people to taste and rate new potato chip flavors or to tell everyone about their favorite movie might sound purely frivolous, but Hansen says there’s serious benefit.
“It gives you something you can chat about with a staff member you probably don’t interact with on a daily basis,” he says. “It’s an easy way to get the staff connecting with each other.”
Wallace, Hansen, and Mayer all note that even if certain ideas bubble up from the staff, it’s important that the leadership team be actively invested in team-building. For one thing, Hansen says, if you see your manager participating in something lighthearted, it gives you permission to enjoy it, too. Before the reorganization, Wallace saw what happened when staff members themselves were expected to organize any special events they wanted to have: Get-togethers were infrequent, and the staff felt burdened.
“It’s important that the leadership take ownership of these events and making sure staff feels cared for,” Mayer says. “It has to come from the top; otherwise, it’s not going to feel real or appreciated.”
Mayer notes that though the RCBA has maintained its separate office, care is taken to ensure that the staff members working there don’t feel left out. If the rest of the staff gets a special treat, she says, the leadership team makes sure that there are also treats in the RCBA office.
And it’s not all fun and games, she adds: When an ergonomics expert came to assess and improve workstations in the Minneapolis office, the combined management team made sure that he also visited the office in St. Paul—something that the RCBA had not previously had the resources to do, as a smaller bar.
As fun as it’s been for the staff to come together and learn more about each other, Wallace appreciates that the management and leadership team knows that this is also important work—and that it takes time.
“Your first year [after combining staff], you’re not going to accomplish a lot of new tasks,” she says. “Our executive director told us that in the first year, we were just going to be ourselves and do our jobs, but not push ourselves to do too many new things yet.”
Now that the staff is working remotely, new tools are helping to maintain the feeling of connection and lightheartedness. “We added a ‘Watercooler Chat’ channel to Microsoft Teams,” Hansen says. “It's a chance to get back some of the daily chatter that's lost due to working from home.”
Hansen also started a Friday "Show and Tell," where there’s a certain prompt and everyone responds with things in their house. Some of the recent prompts: random pop culture items, music-related stuff, and best Craigslist/thrift store finds.