We all remember that sting in grade school when someone says:

“It’s an inside joke.”

It wasn’t always a great feeling when you weren’t “in” on the joke.  But that was then – now, in the workplace, the personal aspect of these private punch-lines can be harnessed as an inclusionary tool to increase engagement at internal company events, while creating lines of communication between those “in the know” and external people (read: great icebreaker!).

Here’s a few key ways I’ve found are successful when hosting highly engaging internal company parties.

Get Others Involved

My company has recently revamped our monthly happy hour to give hosting privileges to different teams throughout the company.  This is a great boost to turnout and engagement, because people in the company have ownership over this event, and they get excited to participate in the planning (and not have to worry about logistics) while rallying people to come.

It’s also a chance for everyone to enjoy a personalized experience from the team while learning more about that department.

Have a Theme

Not only does a theme give the event a backbone to stimulate ideas for food and decor, but it is another way to get creative (and a bit silly).  For example, as you saw in a previous post, the People team created a summer camp-themed happy hour in which the team members were the counselors, since we are typically driving company engagement and making sure things run smoothly within the company.

Recently, our Engineering team threw a construction-themed event, as they build our products.  Everyone wore construction uniforms and we even had a building activity that was reminiscent of science camp days.  It got the point across, and people laughing (especially in front of the photo booth).

One of the engineers, in full construction garb, cheesing for our photo booth.

Don’t Forget the Drinks

Some teams are especially large, and it’s a challenge to get everyone engaged.  The aforementioned Engineering happy hour involved each engineering team – there’s four that work on our different products – in the creation of a cocktail representing that unit.  It was a way to get to know that particular part of the team in a fun way that brought the theme home.  I also sent the ingredients of the remote team’s cocktail to their office in Austin so they could partake as well.

This is a great opportunity to give ownership company-wide, when everyone might not be located in one office.  Our Customer Success team was excited to host a yacht rock-themed event (with Hall & Oates tunes blasting and a limbo contest), but the group spans the globe, stretching from our HQ in San Francisco all the way to London.  For this team, each region created its own cocktail, and the recipe cards at each station displayed the faces of its members.  Their presence was felt, through all time zones.

A sign I made for our Chicago team, who simply chose their city's favorite beer as their signature drink.
A sign I made for our Chicago team, who simply chose their city’s favorite beer as their signature drink.

It’s in the Details

Sometimes, you don’t need themed food and drinks to convey the internal workings of a team’s purpose and duties.  I recently attended a happy hour at Instacart, where my friend’s team was hosting that particular weekly Friday happy hour.  If you haven’t heard of Instacart, it’s an awesome service: shop local grocery stores and markets online, and have it delivered to you at your convenience.  (I use it for most of my in-office events.)

Her team, Catalog, is responsible for creating the inventory you see for each product in the stores so it’s up to date and working properly.  The happy hour was pretty standard, with booze, pizza and chicken wings, but I noticed signs scattered throughout the party, on tables and refrigerators.

One of the signs at the Instacart happy hour referencing what the Catalog team does daily.
One of the signs at the Instacart happy hour referencing what the Catalog team does daily.

She apologetically explained that they were all inside jokes about what her team does (such as when a product is out of stock or doesn’t have an updated picture), but I thought it was fascinating, as someone who didn’t work at the company, to get an inside look at what they do.  It actually inspired me to write this post, because it wasa  great conversation starter at a party where I didn’t know a lot of people.

Use Technology to Tell Your Story

All of these techniques are subtle (some more than others) ways to convey the ins and outs of a group within a company.  But don’t avoid handing over information in the most straightforward way possible – by literally projecting it on a big screen during the party.

I’ve made creating a Keynote presentation a mandatory task of planning one of these team-sponsored happy hours.  The team can decide however they want to put it together – each person can create their own “about me” slide, or the team lead can put together a small deck about the whole group.  No matter how it’s produced, it’s a great way to get the team’s personalities and specific roles across in an unambiguous way.

The presentation plays on loop throughout the event, and the file is shared to the entire company to get to know the team, even if they aren’t in attendance at the party.