I believe in free pizza.
As a former employee of one of the Big Name Universities in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I spent a lot of time in an environment of highly motivated but highly stressed out people. I can’t say I blame them – had I been anything more than a glorified photocopier maybe I would’ve felt pressure, too.
Oh, who am I kidding? I was only a glorified photocopier, and I still felt the pressure! It pervaded the environment, as omnipresent as the ivy on the brick buildings. Like an invasive plant obstructing windows, the pressure to achieve blinded many to the world beyond the tip of their own nose. Yuck.
This same pressure (and its evil twin, self-importance) was at the root of employee grumbling before the start of a 2-day long staff meeting. People had More Important Things to do. However, the meeting went on as planned, and employees were broken down into teams assigned to specific issues – quality control, communication, etc.
My team was charged with creating initiatives to build a more positive workplace culture. As we discussed this grand and hard-to-quantify topic, we questioned why most employees were so unhappy. We all had at least 3 weeks vacation, competitive pay, endless snob appeal, free gym memberships, and access to speakers and faculty and information over which many outsiders salivated. How could we open up the eyes of Big Name University employees to the benefits of their workplace? Although they had many big benefits, like good healthcare, we realized that staff had few small reminders of their importance to the community. In fact, they had few reminders that they were part of a community at all. In light of that, the committee began a series of silly, free gifts. The first was a bag of Cheez-Its and a packet of hot chocolate – a very simple snack, with a monetary value of about 72 cents. People went wild.
We continued the initiative with a monthly surprise. Each time, it broke the ice and the tension. It made people feel appreciated. As a witness to the goofy smiles and noticeable mood changes brought on by these small gifts, a valuable truth made itself known to me –there is great power in weak gestures.
In my new life working with graduate students, this incentivizing has frequently taken on the form of free pizza. Not only do students appreciate the free meal, but it also seems to act as institutional recognition for their interest and time. While some may consider the free pizza and free Cheez-It method of changing institutional culture a bribe, I see it as a thank you.
Like little Petri dishes, college campuses, and any workplace really, are highly affected by even slight changes. An afternoon of free food in a graduate student lounge can send more than just a tantalizing scent wafting down the hallway. It can also shift the mood, reminding students and employees that there is goodness! There is light! There is extra cheese!
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