The Little Things

Susan works in a small office with 12-15 other people. One of the long standing traditions of the office is that everybody’s birthday is celebrated with a “surprise” cake, a card signed by everybody, and a rendition of the happy birthday song in the break room. The elements are the same for every birthday with slight variations depending on cake preference and yet everybody acts like it is a huge surprise.

The business manager at Susan’s office proposed recently that they stop this tradition and just give the birthday person a Starbucks gift card with the money that would have been spent on cake. Susan found herself surprisingly saddened by this proposal. Despite not even partaking in the cake part of the tradition due to a gluten allergy, Susan always looked forward to office birthdays.

Susan’s office is generally a fairly high stress place to work. She works in the customer service industry and the combination of demanding clients and very high expectations on the part of management means that the staff is always busy and rarely has time to interact. There is also a good amount of interpersonal tension among the staff that results in somebody in the office always being frustrated or angry with somebody else.

The birthdays gave Susan and her co-workers a break from all of that. They offered an opportunity for the staff to come together to celebrate something. The tradition also gave Susan a window to sit in the break room with a co-worker she didn’t get to talk to often and find out a little about that co-worker’s life outside of the office. The conversations shared during this time almost never strayed into the tasks in front of them instead focusing on topics like gardening and summer vacation plans.

Susan, with her daily coffee habit, would probably value a Starbucks gift card more than a grocery store cake, but she values the birthday tradition more than either of those things. Getting rid of such a tradition may result in less cake ending up in the trash but it will take away a valuable opportunity for people to engage with their co-workers. In the long run this may end up costing more in the way of less happy, less engaged employees.

What are the office traditions that you value?

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