Twice each summer, the employees of Robert Smith & Associates PR, a public relations agency in Rockton, Illinois, attend an event so important that no one may schedule a doctor’s appointment on that day or skip it except in true emergencies. The big occasion is the company picnic, held at a nearby park. “I just bring hot dogs, chips, salad and pop–nothing extravagant,” says Robert Smith, the firm’s president, who started the tradition three years ago and estimates that each picnic sets him back about $1,000. “We play music, dance and have games.”
The New Jersey law firm McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, takes its annual barbecue even more seriously. The firm flies in attorneys and their spouses from as far away as Denver for the event, held for the past 17 years at the home of managing partner Edward Deutsch. Last year, 400 people attended the picnic, which included a 22-foot inflatable slide, pony rides, face painters, a Ferris wheel, miniature golf, volleyball, magicians, clowns, a petting zoo, goody bags for kids and a fully stocked Good Humor ice cream truck. Attorneys staffed the 6-foot grill, and the firm’s partners supplied salads and desserts. Price tag: up to $30,000. “It’s part of our firm’s culture to treat people well, maintain a positive working environment and provide an opportunity for employees to introduce their families to coworkers,” Deutsch says. “This is a reward in and of itself. Not everything we do must have a business reason behind it.”
These are just two examples of a scene repeated at companies of all sizes nationwide. While many feel-good perks have been dropped in recent years, company picnics have survived and thrived, free of the intense bottom-line scrutiny applied to other employee rewards. In many cases, companies have instituted their first picnics in the last couple of years, and none of the workplace experts consulted for this story knew of any companies that have stopped having them, nor would they dismiss them as passé. Companies seem determined to not let the tradition fall by the wayside, arguing that their value, while not measurable, is real.
“There’s no way I’d ever cancel a company picnic,” Smith says. “My biggest business advantage is my people, and the more I build a great environment, the better job they will do. If my workers are happy, it carries over when they deal with clients, prospects and each other–and I make more money.”
The picnic is a way to support workplace morale, relationship-building and retention, says Mallary Tytel, president of Healthy Workplaces, a human resources consulting firm based in Bolton, Connecticut. “In times of uncertainty, it is particularly important to maintain corporate routines and rituals whenever possible,” she says. “That’s why more and more companies recognize that the company picnic is part and parcel of the organizational fabric, and that the return on investment is less tangible but more critical than a line item in the budget.”
Albert A. Vicere, professor of strategic leadership at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business Administration, believes that the main value of picnics lies in the connection-building opportunities they provide. “In today’s business environment, we work far more in ad hoc teams than in formal structures. We rely on colleagues for help, information and support,” he says. “Picnics facilitate the development of such social networks. Effective teamwork is much easier when you have met and gotten to know the person you’ll be working with.”
“People come alive in the sunshine, with the smell of barbecue and the sounds of summer playing from the speakers…. This picnic lets them know their hard work and dedication are greatly appreciated.”
That’s how it works at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, says Barbara Breivik, director of client relations and the event’s main organizer. “Our picnic boosts employee morale and reinforces the feeling of ‘family’ within the firm,” she says. “It’s a great way for employees to meet each other in a casual setting instead of a conference room. And the fact that the managing partner opens his home to all staff and their extended families goes a long way toward making everyone feel they are important to the firm, which in turn creates a great sense of loyalty.”
Vicere agrees with both Deutsch and Breivik. “Will a company picnic have immediate, measurable financial payback? No, it won’t,” he says. “Can it help shape a high-performance culture? Yes, it can. Company picnics help build morale, demonstrate commitment and fuel loyalty. The fact is, we work harder and do better work when we like our job, respect our organization and get to know our colleagues.”
Health Central, a 1,400-employee hospital in Ocoee, Florida, holds picnics every May and November, with a combined budget of about $24,000. Gina Schwiegerath, director of human resources, believes the events are well worth the cost. “These picnics positively impact employee satisfaction, which we survey and measure. The amount we spend on the picnics is less costly than employee turnover,” she says.
Stratus Technologies, a company in Maynard, Massachusetts, that supplies computer servers, holds two summer picnics–an on-site barbecue for the company’s 920 employees, which costs about $7,500, and another event for families at an amusement park, water park or zoo, which may run up to $20,000. Judy Reed, vice president of human resources, says the events play a major role in boosting employee retention. “I have no idea of their ROI and we don’t measure the results, but I can tell you that our employee-retention rate is among the highest in the industry,” she says. “We retain 95 percent of our employees each year, and we get almost half of our new hires from employee referrals. We have learned that employees who are friends are more likely to remain with the company, and the barbecue is one more way to encourage people to socialize with each other. People are more likely to try to work together on team issues if they have personal connections.”
Saying thank you and providing an opportunity to socialize with coworkers are among the reasons for Ohio Northern University’s annual Employee Appreciation Picnic, held since 1998 at the close of the academic year. “With a 285-acre campus, some employees don’t often see staff from the other side of the property. The picnic allows employees to interact with their counterparts,” says former director of personnel services Mindi L. Wells, who coordinates the on-campus event, which includes big tents and music from the campus radio station.
All 520 university employees and faculty members are invited, and the president, vice presidents, deans, supervisors and other campus bigwigs serve on the buffet line. “We anticipate that more than 300 will attend this year,” Wells says. “People come alive in the sunshine, with the smell of barbecue and the sounds of summer playing from the speakers. Our employees work hard all year long, especially in the days and weeks leading up to commencement. Many staff members put in extra time during May. This picnic lets them know their hard work and dedication are greatly appreciated.”
Wells adds, “Like the commercial says: cost of barbecue chicken and bratwurst, $1,700; fee for volunteers, $0; contribution to employee morale, priceless.”
Workforce Management, July 2004, pp. 70-73 — Subscribe Now!