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Suppose I am organizing a birthday party for a coworker. This is not an official event. The team as a whole agreed to do it on every coworker's birthday.

Someone needs to get a cake (and some other things) from the shop. I would like one of my coworkers1 to volunteer, because it is not practical for me to go to the shop every time. The volunteer won't pay for the cake.

I want to avoid:

  • Choosing a "volunteer" due to the Got Volunteered issues. (warning: tvtropes)
  • Trickery like "who likes ice cream?"2 because it makes the "chosen one" feel stupid.
  • Draw of lots, Rock Paper Scissors, etc. because it makes a mountain out of a molehill.
  • "Who is getting the cake?" due to Diffusion of responsibility.

How can I get someone to volunteer for such unofficial team building tasks while avoiding creating any negative vibes in the team?


1 I am not the team manager, but the most senior team member, which makes me the "ex officio" organizer for these fun events.

2 Whoever raises their hand or says "me" first is chosen as the volunteer.

  • 2
    Have you tried explicitly asking any of your coworkers to get the cake? – TheRealLester May 30 '18 at 21:38
  • @TheRealLester Yes, that leads to the first bullet in my avoid list. – Masked Man May 30 '18 at 23:38
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    @Joe Stevens I don't know about how it is done in most offices, but in my culture, making the birthday boy/girl arrange for his/her own birthday party is not acceptable. – Masked Man May 31 '18 at 4:04
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    you WANT them to VOLUNTEER? – L.Dutch May 31 '18 at 5:25
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    Does it have to be the juniors? It sounds like you want them to do it because their time is cheaper. If they are trainees, that's a common joke in many countries and volunteering them is probably not considered bad (but still wrong!). I've always just asked the people I mentored if they would like to help me with organising something. Usually they did, and would then either pick their own tasks or simply defer to delegation and happily execute. – simbabque May 31 '18 at 9:45
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I've implemented similar programs in a few organizations with the following approach:

If you want to participate in birthday celebrations, you add your name to a list. The list is sorted by birthday.

When someone's birthday is approaching, the next person on the list is responsible for the arrangements (picking up the cake or other supplies). The birthday person specifies their preference (they like chocolate cake or whatever) and the next-in-line simply executes.

This way, people can "opt in" to participating, which brings with it both the celebration of their own birthday, and some automatic delegation of responsibility. You're also encouraging team communication, since people will be talking to each other about what they like.

Payment can be arranged separately (ie the company foots the bill, or some higher-up) or it can be integrated, if the team is receptive and the company won't pick up the tab.

If there are willing participants who are physically unable to participate (ie ride a bicycle to work, or otherwise can't transport a cake), they could arrange to have someone help them, or they could purchase the cake or other goodies from a service that delivered - even in my small city, there are lots of bakeries and grocers who deliver.

  • 1
    Wow, that was fast. :) Good answer. – Masked Man May 30 '18 at 14:22
  • I've been waiting for the "who likes ice cream" question for days! – dwizum May 30 '18 at 14:25
  • To clarify: the birthday person picks, the next-in-line simply executes. I will edit that in to the answer. Everyone gets what they want, everyone helps, everyone has some (albeit) minor communication with a "random" other person (in order to learn their preferences). I've done this where the staffers pay, and other places where the company (or some upper-level manager) pays. – dwizum May 30 '18 at 14:50
  • This is a bad idea imo. How do you handle people who want to participate but can't because they don't have a car? Or travel to work through means that makes picking up the cake and other items very difficult? Honestly if you are leaving people out because they don't want to be responsible for getting items for the event that sounds like breaking down teamwork. – Joe W May 31 '18 at 0:35
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    Everyone eats cake. People who want cake on their birthdays (versus only eating it on others') volunteer to help get cake for other people. Again, I've been doing this approach for a very long time across multiple employers with well over 100 people having participated, and I've never had even a hint of any negative response from anyone. The beauty of this approach is that people are generally happy to help get each other cake. You seem really stuck on worrying about this upsetting people, which it never has. If you have a better idea I'd suggest you post an answer of your own. – dwizum May 31 '18 at 13:35
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The problem is that fundamentally volunteering has to be their own idea and if they aren't the sort to step up without being prompted then the closest you are likely to get is to have a meeting/email chain/IM chat/whatever about organizing the party and ask the question to the group in a general way. eg:

I'll sort out the cookies, who can go to the bakery and get the cake?

and hope that someone volunteers at this point. If no-one does then it's either nominate someone (slightly tricky as you aren't a manager, you'd still need to ask if they mind doing it really) or do it yourself.

Since this is a recurring situation if you repeat the above often enough then people will likely get the cue and start doing it without being prompted - unless the task is particularly onerous of course.

3

Suppose I am organizing a birthday party for a coworker. This is not an official event. The team as a whole agreed to do it on every coworker's birthday. [...] How can I get someone to volunteer for such unofficial team building tasks while avoiding creating any negative vibes in the team?

If this is an unofficial even, plus the whole team agreed on it, and you are the unofficial organizer I think you are in a position to just delegate tasks to the others. Sometimes having too many cooks can make organizing these things more difficult.

Take the tasks to be done, divide them as equally as possible, and assign them to some coworkers. Don't forget to assign yourself some tasks as well, so they don't think you might be taking advantage.

Everybody agreed on it, so if they are complaining now (which they shouldn't) then they are free to refrain from participating on the event. Sometimes, to avoid those possible pitfalls you mention, it is better to just take the lead and assertively phrase your request, something like this perhaps:

Ok, guys. I worked on a list of things we need for Mike's B-day party, so I'm going to need everybody's cooperation to carry this out. Joe, please go buy a cake from the store, one you think we would all like. Sarah, I need you to please go and grab some beers, a few six-pack would suffice. [...] while you are at it, I'll go look for a cool piñata and some snacks to eat. Here is the money guys (*gives money*), see you later.

This will spare you all the hassle of getting people to volunteer (harder than true volunteering spirit), and will be polite enough for anybody that is not a party-popper or lazy to agree on doing.

2

because it is not practical for me to go to the shop every time

Ask who has a shop or bakery on his route or who can do that with the least detour. Rotating through everybody is an obvious idea but depending on how you all get to work there is a good chance to find one or more people who CAN do that with minimal effort and - very important - who WANT to do that. So asking is better than selecting.

For example you can hardly bring a cake by bike, it's possible by public transport and really easy by car.
Perhaps somebody goes to the bakery in the morning anyway and doesn't feel having a problem to pick up a cake by the way. Or he/she only needs to stop or drive a short way extra, whild the other one who would be "next" has much more trouble with a shop in the morning.
Then another possibility is to take the cake home from the usual shopping and bring it to the office on the next day.

I would like one of my junior1 coworkers to volunteer

Since WANTING to do that is important to keep everybody happy, you shouldn't select those people by rank.

  • Incidentally: You can most certainly bring a cake by bike (I've done it). You either pick a robust cake (such as fruit cake or pound cake), or you get a handy cake container box to transport it safely on your luggage carrier :-). – sleske Jun 1 '18 at 8:09
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Instead of inconveniencing people, buy all the stuff online and ask for delivery at your place. You will arrange for it to be delivered around early morning time, so you can manage a backup plan on the possibility of something going wrong.

The small extra added cost is well worth having a store doing the delivery.

Eventually if the firm is big enough, a local family store may be even more than happy than receiving an automated email asking for such stuff.

PS. I used such services in 2016 xmas, around a time of a surgery, and bought in a big super market chain pretty much all the food, cakes, drinks for xmas, 200 Euros of goods that were delivered at my door at an arranged day and hour. The extra cost of delivery was between 4 and 6 Euros, depending on the time of day.

1

IF it is a recurring event, build rotating schedule consisting of ALL people in the team, that way no one would feel "special". The volunteer could also get some money for "fuel" getting the cake

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