It’s 2 p.m. on a Friday in May, and the desks in the main room of CultureIQ’s Manhattan office sit empty. From the front door, the bright, open space looks deserted, as if the spring weather has lured everyone out to an early happy hour at a rooftop bar somewhere.
An eruption of shouts and cheers makes it clear that’s not the case. The entire staff has gathered in the back room, where they huddle in color coded groups—yellow, pink, black, etc.–denoted by terrycloth headbands, T-shirts with team slogans, and various glittery and feathery accessories. One member from each team sits in a row in the front of the room, joined by the vocal stylings of Ariana Grande, Notorious BIG, Old Crow Medicine Show and various other artists. Team members cheer and “awwwww” in supportive woe as they spin through a complex game of “Name That Tune.”
Welcome to CultureIQ’s fifth annual Culture Games.
A workplace research and consulting firm with a high-tech software platform, CultureIQ’s mission is to improve company culture and enhance revenue for its clients, which include 33 percent of the Fortune 500.
The firm also practices what it preaches. It uses its own analytics to gauge and ensure that employees feel supported, empowered and connected to the company’s purpose. The normal workday vibe at CultureIQ is busy, but friendly and open—an atmosphere that earned it a “Best Company Culture” award, among others. The benefits include working from home and unlimited vacation.
A method behind the games’ mirth
And events like the Culture Games create opportunities for everyone to come together and have fun in a way that’s both casual and intentional.
All of the firm’s offices—in Manhattan, Chicago, London, Washington, D.C., and Rochester (the latter two’s staff commute to the NYC headquarters for the occasion)—participate in the games.
Events at the 2019 games include “ice dancing” with rolling office chairs, a soda can shootout, and cutthroat rounds of rock-paper-scissors.
In a deliberate move, departmental siloes are busted to create each team – mixing members from various divisions so employees can bond with their less-familiar colleagues in the games’ glittery, silly yet surprisingly competitive, setting.
“It’s important to create events where people interact across teams,” says Account Director Brady Loeck, who thought up the Culture Games after he joined the company in 2014. “If you have a happy hour, everyone usually just ends up talking with their own team.”
That doesn’t mean the Games don’t involve beer. CultureIQ has a diverse staff, but they all appreciate a frosty beverage: After the office-based half of the Games, everyone heads down to a local bar for ping pong, pool and shuffleboard competitions.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s so much fun,” says Carlos Santana, a Business Development Representative who joined the company in June 2018, which makes this year’s Games his first.
Santana, who shares a name with his father, not the famous guitarist, pointed to the fact that the company brought in the Rochester and D.C. teams to Manhattan. “It’s really great to be able to connect with them,” he says.
Growing and merging cultures
This year marks the largest Culture Games so far. When Loeck joined, the company had a mere seven employees. Now, following several years of steady growth and a 2018 merger with research and consulting company CEB, more than 100 people have joined the ranks.
Employee-centric events like the Games helped avoid post-merger culture clashes, says Sheridan Orr, Vice President of Marketing. “It brings everybody to the center and creates a new culture,” says Orr, who joined the company in August, a few months after the CEB merger.
The games also help relieve some natural growing pains that can spark friction between departments–sales and marketing, for example. Orr adds. “Having these times of people being together and laughing together, they sustain you when things are hard,” she says.
Beyond the makeup of the teams, the games are intentional in other ways as well. There are a small number of rigid rules, but they are structured to help participants to be open and maintain flexibility, Loeck explains. Teammates have to gauge strengths to choose players for a game while letting everyone play a role. And each team is assigned a poet laureate, who can introduce the team with just about any manner of verse—this year’s intros quoted bards from William Carlos Williams to the Village People.
Team building, without demolishing the budget
One of the hard and fast rules is the three elements each team is required to have: a motto, a catchphrase, a poem and a team bird. “Research and science have proven that the soul of any team is composed of those three parts,” Loeck deadpans.
What the Culture Games doesn’t require is huge budget. Even at its largest, this year’s games cost the company about $30 per employee, excluding travel.
“Culture doesn’t have to be about spending money,” says Greg Besner, CultureIQ’s founder and CEO. “It’s about tradition and norms, and the best traditions don’t cost anything.”
And the company is on sound footing to keep the tradition going, Besner says. “We’ve completed the merger phase of CultureIQ, and now we’re in growth mode,” he says. “We expect that by the next Culture Games, we’ll see significant growth in the number of our participants—as well as CultureIQ’s global client base.”
The winning team (Odin’s Ravens) from the New York office will go on to compete in 2020’s Global Games against the team from Chicago (The Whoo) and London’s yet-to-be-named victor. Winners will ride a companywide wave of glory, besides getting to don their ceremonial, beads, boas and terrycloth headbands once more.