Surprise! Fun Activities in the Workplace Build Strategy, Comradery, and Trust

Photo By
Lisa Talarczyk

At Imperial Beverage, company culture is built on care and lots of fun.

Why do special delivery flowers bring more joy than those bought at the corner market? Why are cheers following a walk-off game winning homerun so much louder than those acknowledging an early lead held until the last out is made in the ninth inning of a baseball game? Why is that first date kiss more highly anticipated than an embrace from a long-term partner? Or, audience belly laughs heard when water shoots from a flower on a circus clown’s lapel into an unsuspecting recipient’s eye?

It turns out that humans crave those unexpected pleasures and events more than the status quo in their daily lives. In an April 2001 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine summarized their findings of an exercise where they used a computer-controlled device to squirt water or fruit juice into awaiting participants’ mouths. The squirts came in patterns, both consistent and broken. What they found was that the brain’s pleasure centers subconsciously reacted more favorably to unexpected patterns.

Until this study, “Scientists assumed that the neural reward pathways, which act as high-speed Internet connections to the pleasure centers of the brain, responded to what people like,” explained Read Montague, Ph.D. while doing research on behalf of Baylor College of Medicine. “However, when we tested this idea in brain scanning experiments, we found that reward pathways responded much more strongly to the unexpectedness of stimuli instead of their pleasurable effects.”

Simply put, breaking routines makes people happy and delighted.

Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger, Ph.D., agree. These two researchers regularly help companies learn in surprising ways at LifeLabs New York and design surprise experiences at Surprise Industries. In their book, Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, they say, “Delight shifts our perspective about unpleasant and neutral activities … paving the way for healthy new behaviors. It can also improve productivity. Researchers have found that a positive mood is most conducive for creative problem solving.

“When we trigger delight we create loyalty, catalyze word of mouth, increase productivity, and turn ordinary into extraordinary. Delight also makes people feel good, which is reason enough to take it seriously. To design delight, spot where the most meaningful expectation bars lie and surpass them.”

Surprise or fun in the workplace indeed has its rewards. Mixing up routines can lead to new insights that accelerate business strategy and increased appreciation of an organization and team. Forging greater trust among team members is another added benefit as Luna and Renninger indicate, “Trust is a psychological safety net that allows us to let go. Whether it’s letting go of the trapeze bar to fling your body through the air or letting go of certainty to embrace the unpredictable.”

Understanding the importance of creating a workplace that balances fun with employment is Kalamazoo-based Imperial Beverage, a leader and long-standing member of the Michigan beverage distribution community. The company’s history is impressive: Established in 1933 after the repeal of prohibition and purchased by the Cekola family in 1984, Imperial Beverage has grown from a one county beer distributor to a top 10 statewide beer, wine, and spirits wholesaler. With 330 employees and three locations in Kalamazoo, Livonia, and Traverse City, the distributor provides statewide coverage.

Jackie Anderson, vice president of human resources at Imperial Beverage, confirms the company’s passion for “helping people succeed.” Imperial Beverage works with its customers to “build profit and identity in their restaurants and retail locations through the selection of fine wines, craft beers, ciders, spirits, sodas, and mixers from it diverse portfolio.” Anderson also works to build engagement among employees who provide Imperial Beverage’s customers with top-notch customer service.

What is the motivation behind Imperial Beverage’s engagement practices?

The overall reaching goal of our practices is to make people feel like they are a part of a family. We do that by engaging with our employees, not just one time a year, but throughout the whole entire year. We have constant contact with our employees to find out what motivates them to make them productive and drive our business.

Why focus on fun?

Because we work extremely hard at Imperial Beverage, we feel it’s also important to play hard as well.

Does fun have a place in business?

In this industry, fun definitely does have a place in business. We’re passionate about our people. And we’re passionate about our product. As one of our product lines is alcohol, (we embrace fun) because, most times, people have fun when using it responsibly.

Is it true that Imperial Beverage dedicates a whole week of appreciation to its employees?

Yes, we dedicate a whole week to employee appreciation usually in February or March. The whole week is dedicated to our employees and consists of events like pub crawls, lunch or breakfast cooked by our staff, and gifts of company swag like T-shirts, hats, and bottle openers. Employees send “wine-o-grams or pint-o-grams” to each other; employees write down on pieces of paper what they appreciate about another employee, roll up the notes, and put them into an Imperial Beverage logo wine or pint glass to be hand-delivered by our human resources team. We also make “driver bags” which are bags stuffed with things such as beef jerky, chips, candy, water, and energy drinks and placed on the passenger seat of our trucks; when the driver gets in the truck the next morning at 5:00 a.m., he or she is pleasantly surprised. We also encourage managers to do something special with their team. These special outings have taken the form of a dinner, a golf outing, or even an escape room experience.

Besides your employee appreciation week, what are some other outings that you have found to be successful?

Imperial Beverage dedicates five main events that we carry out throughout the year to our employees. Beyond the appreciation week, we attend a Kalamazoo Civic Theatre event each year. It’s usually during the first week of December. We rent out its balcony for employees and their families. (Before the show), we provide lunch and then they see a play such as Shrek or The Christmas Story.

We hold a softball tournament each year called “The Beer’s on First Tournament.” Our graphic design team designs T-shirts for participating teams. Last year, we had eight teams compete. Afterwards, we do a cookout. We have games for the kids. We drink beer and other beverages. It’s a really good way to bring families together.

Every year, we do an outing and for each employee, plus one. (We’ve gone) to Atwater (Block Brewery in Detroit) and then a Tiger’s game. This year, we went to Short’s (Brewing Company in Bellaire) and then rented a bowling alley out for (the team) after we toured the brewery, along with the arcade including laser tag. We provided a chartered bus and a hotel room (for each employee), plus all the food, beer, and entertainment.

We also do a home brew contest. Teams of four employees brew beer together. We then bring in judges who are customers and suppliers. The winner then gets to brew their beer at a brewery. This year’s winning brew it was featured at Liberty Street Brewing Company.

As you are in an alcohol-related business and do have alcohol at some of your events, what do you do to make sure that your employees stay safe?

We have an Imperial Beverage program through which we promote responsible drinking. As part of it, if an employee ever has too much to drink, he or she can take an Uber or a taxi home and Imperial Beverage will reimburse them. No questions asked.

How have these fun-filled events benefited Imperial Beverage?

Employee morale after doing one of these events is amazing. Employees walk away from our events feeling energized and like they’re part of something special.

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