The Waterpark

Part of the Reflections on That Conference 2013 series.

You don’t really know someone until you have seen them helplessly plummeting down a water slide, their shrieking voice a unique mix of sheer invigoration and genuine fear for their life. They splash down in the pool, gasping for air, reassuring themselves that their swimsuit is still firmly attached.

I didn’t know it at the time, but something suddenly changed. The coworkers I had come to the conference with were suddenly friends. We didn’t know each other well, our interactions in the office were friendly but infrequent. We had some shared context within Groupon, but all that gave us were labels and roles, a hierarchical understanding of influence and value.

She recruits people. He makes performance enhancements. I lead a team. At this point, we are all just verbs.

Fast forward to the three of us dripping wet on a wooden staircase, waiting our turn for the next water slide we’re a little too old for. We’re not Groupon employees right now – coworkers seeing me in a swimsuit? I think not. We don’t talk about work, at least not for long. While jabber at the cafeteria lunch table inevitably leans towards talking shop, it feels oddly foreign here.

Instead, this new environment opens the door to fresh insights into the humanity beneath the roles. We learned about where each other grew up, how our careers started, the long and winding roads that landed us here. We had fun together. Our shared experiences are no longer constricted to the scope of work; if one of us left Groupon tomorrow, we’d still have things to talk about.

Historically, I’ve never understood the notion of “off-site meetings” or “leadership retreats”. Isn’t that a lot of money and effort wasted relocating a bunch of people that were already collocated, to have a meeting that could have been held down the hall? I’m sure ROI varies by situation, but I am starting to understand the general appeal.

Our environment affects our thinking. We scope our thinking and entrench our understanding based on our presuppositions about roles and priorities in a physical space. This helps us to understand and contextualize the things that happen to us, but it also makes it hard to think “outside the box”. Perhaps the office itself is “the box” we need to get out of.

I want to discover and create environments where we can see each other as humans first. Not just within a team, but within an entire organization.

Have you found physical places that helped you get past the office roles and build personal contexts between your coworkers?

About Me

Chris Powers

Chris Powers has been leading software development teams for the last twelve years, and he loves sharing his passion for building teams and software with audiences nationwide. As a Clean Coders author, Chris is producing an educational video series entitled "Clean Code in the Browser". Chris is a Director of Engineering at Sprout Social and lives in the northern Chicago suburbs with his wife and two children. In his free time he enjoys drumming and tabletop gaming.

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Twitter: @chrisjpowers