Team Not Getting Along? Try a Holiday Decorating War

A request landed in my inbox for a story on holiday decorating at the office, and I found myself remembering one historic event at my old company.

So I wrote this post* for bizme.biz, a site dedicated to getting the  business-minded woman through her career and professional lifestyle with style, savvy and aplomb. I had a lot of fun with it. Enjoy!

Team Not Getting Along? Try a Holiday Decorating War

Paper snowflakes hanging on dental floss swung perilously low from the ceiling. Gold and silver tinsel burst out of file cabinets and stuck unaided to fabric walls and passersby. Friendly battles were waged over whose cube would be the Village Inn and whose would be the Toy Shoppe.

Yet just two weeks before, the scene was anything but cheerful.

In a surprise move, HR had decreed a company-wide holiday decorating contest: Team captains, themes, spending cap, the works. The first prize was an unprecedented catered lunch and a whole week of wearing jeans!*

Now, there’s not much that gets the camaraderie flowing like setting departments against each other when there’s free food involved.

But what happens if your own department is already set—against one another?

My department had around 30 people. Some were housed in a cluster of cubes around a large open space. Some were in cubes that surrounded this cluster. Others were in an alcove across a wide hallway. The boss was in an office down the hall.

Exercise was no problem. The problem was that even though our jobs all depended on one another, we really weren’t united as a team. Each section of our cube farm behaved more like a cube clique. When crossing from one section to the next, it felt more like crossing territories than just rounding a corner.

The false start

The same boneheaded idea seemed to occur to everyone at the same time: Each cube clique would have their own special theme and emerge victorious over all!

And for the first few days, that’s exactly what we did. The cluster of cubes with the open space began laboriously turning itself into a Christmas Village. All the outlying cubes intended to grow an Enchanted Forest. (The boss wasn’t interested.)

The result

The supply room was raided for push-pins, packing tape, and staples. There was a sudden cardboard shortage as peaked roofs and archways rose above our cubes. Glitter was, alas, everywhere.

Also everywhere? A lot of suspicion, spying, and subterfuge. Now we were deliberately working against each other within an already divisive atmosphere. And communication was as greatly reduced as our grasp of the obvious.

The turning point

Things might have continued this way had there not been this sudden exchange that cut into a squabble over one side copying the other side’s arches:

“Why didn’t you ask us to join your team?” one side asked.

“Why didn’t YOU ask us to join YOUR team?” the other side countered.

“You mean you wanted to be part of our team?” both sides asked, and as suddenly as the exchange had happened, we saw what we had to do.

“Do you need help with your steeple?”

HR wearily allowed us to combine our teams, but the dynamic had already changed: Now, we pooled our supplies instead of hoarding them. Spies were dispatched to scout out other departments instead of our own.

And even though we were still all working on different sections, we were now working together. Instead of a “my side” and “your side” mentality, we had “Do you need help with your steeple?” and “Here’s a reindeer for your forest.” For two weeks, people arrived early and stayed late to hang lights and commiserate over fallen arches.

Long before the deadline, the Toy Shoppe was looking like a child’s dream. The Jail posted Wanted pictures of the inhabitants—all of us, taken on the sly. The Candy Store did a brisk business with gumballs and chocolate kisses. The boss turned his office into the Grinch’s lair with a Keep Out sign (which didn’t work).

As for the Enchanted Forest, it grew into an avenue of paper evergreens, white cotton batting, and big-eyed animals.

And everyone quickly learned not to sneeze near the fake powdery snow.

The verdict

Whether it was our matching Santa hats, the holiday tunes from a cheery little battery-operated train, or the painstaking detail on the stained glass in the Village Church, the other departments didn’t stand a chance. We won first prize.

The benefits (beyond the food)

Looking back, we learned a lot more about each other than during our day-to-day jobs. Those jobs went on, of course; production didn’t suffer, which isn’t easy in an uncertain atmosphere, even without the added holiday pressure.

But we also had to work together in different ways, from problem-solving to people-solving, smoothing over the inevitable tussles that happen in any office, especially when everybody wants their ideas to be not just heard, but accepted.

This new-found understanding extended back toward those day-to-day jobs. Having a common goal of something fun, like this chance to be big winners, helped strengthen our purpose toward reaching our other goals, such as closing out the year “big” as well.

I’d like to think that the judges also saw some of this happening on the inside when they saw our efforts on the outside.

The tasty conclusion

As to the lunch, it was left to us to pick the restaurant. Our location was somewhat limited in options, but one place we all agreed on was the Olive Garden. We had a veritable feast!

*Originally called “This Way to the Enchanted Office.”
**Those of you in business casual or business professional jobs may understand the hallowed importance of jeans days.

Pic from here.

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