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Are You a Community Organizer or Community Builder? 5 Tips for Community in the Workplace

There’s a lot of buzz these days surrounding the words “community organizer.”

We’ll leave it to the MSNBC and Fox News talking heads to argue over the political merits of the term. But from the marketplace perspective, if you want to build the best place for your employees to work, there’s a better label available.

No, it’s not Mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.

It’s community builder.

The difference between the two can be boiled down to asking yourself a simple question: Are you building community in your organization, or are you just organizing the communities within your building?

The former is something that involves intentionally investing in relationships, while the latter is simply a matter of managing processes and bureaucracies.

Part of making a job enjoyable is creating a sense of belonging among employees. Many businesses and organizations consider themselves to be nothing more than a collection of individuals and departments, each with their own set of skills, talents, and responsibilities, organized from the top down. But the best places to work build beyond that perception, creating within the organization a sense of community, which is defined as “a group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.”

I’m not talking about a “We are the World” mentality, or building campfires and singing “Kumbaya” (both of which would be a major code violation in any office building). But if employees typically spend more waking hours with co-workers then with family members, an effort should be made to encourage a working environment that facilitates acceptance, fosters good lines of communication and strengthens working relationships.  It doesn’t take much effort, but following these tips will help build the best place to work together:

Build the Team
Team-building exercises can drive the cynics in your office crazy. So rather than creating faux rah-rah sessions, focus on ones that teach co-workers about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to best leverage them in order to work better together toward a common goal. Incorporate opportunities that help develop an “us” mentality, and consider maximizing the effort with overnight retreats. You don’t want to over-do it at the risk of making them tedious, but have enough to keep the concept fresh and effective. And by all means, please don’t do the “falling backwards/trust us” thing.

Establish Traditions
Traditions create a sense of familiarity of which people like to be a part. Though most are identified with families or holidays, the best places to work incorporate fun or significant traditions to make employees feel more deeply rooted to the organization. Pharmaceutical company Genzyme Corp. has employees strike an authentic Asian gong to celebrate patients receiving treatment for the first time. And telecommunications stalwart Comcast Corp. hosts an annual cross-country Jeopardy game where employees compete against one another over questions related to their jobs. Not only does the tradition provide a brief getaway for the most proficient employees, but it also encourages industry expertise.

Serve Together
A company that encourages, supports and provides volunteer efforts illustrates a philosophy extending beyond its walls and bottom line. EOG Resources, an oil and gas company, matches employee contributions to charities dollar-for-dollar up to a set amount. Microsoft’s Northeast office recently took part in a “build-a-bike” program, incorporating team-building exercises that ultimately benefited the Big Brother/Big Sister Foundation. And MITRE, a technology-based non-profit organization, offers employees up to 40 hours of paid time off per year to work on volunteer projects. Many organizations take advantage of the opportunity to serve together corporately through various Habitat for Humanity projects.

Party on, Wayne…
All work and no play can make the office a very dull place. The mentality of most Gen X and Y employees is work hard, play hard, so reinforce that philosophy. It could be as simple as cutting Fridays short at 4:00 p.m. and heading to the local hole-in-the-wall. Or go all out like Vlingo, a wireless technology developer that hosts a monthly virtual bowling tournament via a Nintendo Wii (complete with bowling shirts). Whatever the effort–be it movie screenings, whitewater rafting, or group karaoke renditions of your favorite New Kids on the Block songs (Author’s note: I have never done this. Seriously. I swear. Though I can’t deny having never “performed” this one). It helps unwind the work week and keeps the team united.

Form Family Ties
The best places to work understand that what goes on at the office impacts the lives of employees’ family members. Extending community to spouses and children by recognizing this facet shows an understanding and appreciation for the ones who provide support on the home front. It creates loyalty to an organization from those same individuals as well. Advantage Capital Partners, a St. Louis private funding investment firm, sends notes or small tokens of appreciation to husbands or wives whose spouses are traveling for work. It also gets involved in every other family event, such as celebrating births and participating in school bake sales.

Community cannot be forced, but given time, genuine efforts to create it will take root and help you build the best place to work.

Are you a builder or an organizer? What are your thoughts on the significance of building community in the workplace? What have you done to foster it? What gets in the way of developing it?

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