Priya Parker's The Art of Gathering: Lessons for Employee Engagement

Discover the power of intentionality in creating impactful gatherings to improve employee engagement, from Priya Parker's The Art of Gathering book.
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
October 18, 2022
min read

In the comment section of last week's newsletter on how to nudge employees back to the office, Chris Early raised an exciting point about how companies should consider why they get employees together. And while all companies are different, there are some commonalities that we work from when creating personalized employee engagement plans.

This gave me an idea about this week's newsletter topic.

I'll start with a recent HBR article by Heidi Grant and Tal Goldhamer, which discussed certain myths that still hold companies back from adopting either a fully remote or a hybrid work model.

The authors highlighted the importance of "Intention" when they suggested that companies make coming to work a fun and worthwhile experience. This idea echoes back to last week's newsletter, where I mentioned "Radical Intentionality" that the executives at Microsoft are advocating to combat ambiguity among employees.

Priya Parker's The Art of Gathering

As noted by Microsoft's Work Trend Index, more than one-third (38%) of the employees "don't know when or why to come to the office," yet only 28% of organizations "have created team agreements that help answer those fundamental questions."

This notion of "Intentionality" keeps popping up when discussions about bringing people back together in the office occur. It happens to be the core idea of FlexOS' required reading: "The Art of Gathering" by Priya Parker. If you haven't read it yet, I'll use this newsletter to introduce you to this beautiful book. (A great summary of the book can be found here.)

In the book's first part, Parker asserts that we understand gathering is a fundamental human right (freedom to assemble) and that while we do it so frequently, we rarely find joy in attending those occasions. The reason is that we focus too much on their MECHANICS rather than their PURPOSE.

As Priya says: "It's rare to go to a conference, or a drinks party, and find that the event organizers have given serious thought to how guests will connect with each other and get something meaningful from the gathering.

That's perhaps because when we do seek out advice for hosting, we tend to focus on the mechanics. What is fundamentally a human challenge – how to bring people together in a way that is meaningful, interesting or thought-provoking – becomes a logistical one. We focus on Powerpoints, AV equipment, table decorations, and menu choices, more than we think about people and human connection."

WHY Do We Get Together?

Priya argues that too often, we don't think about WHY we are gathering people in a place; we follow rituals set years ago without realizing that those rules were created to address the issues of their time.

To create meaningful gatherings that will add value to the lives of the people attending, the hosts must understand what they want those gatherings to achieve: the "desired outcomes."

Then, they must identify a PRESENT need or a challenge that needs tackling, and design a structure to bring people together around that need. Priya says to always be laser-focused on the primary purpose of each gathering and to try not to make the gatherings achieve many different goals at once.

Gatherings for Hybrid Teams

In the context of hybrid work, companies must identify what "office days" try to accomplish. There needs to be a purpose. And there needs to be intention.

To start with the why, we already know the basics. We know that employees want to come to the office to be social; we also know that they will show up on the same days as their managers and work friends.

Going back to the HBR article, Grant and Goldhamer offer a few concrete suggestions that companies can employ to organize purposeful gatherings for employees:

  • Game playing and creative problem solving: This type of event creates opportunities for cooperation, coordination, and synchronization, which boosts team creativity.
  • Storytelling and perspective sharing: This allows self-expression, discovery of shared experiences, and creates the opportunity for affirmation and empathy among team members.
  • Engaging in rituals: This creates the opportunity to co-experience meaningful shared behaviors that could foster a common identity or group membership.
  • Having fun: Employing different sources of pleasure and delight, such as humor and laughter, music, dance, fantasy, delicious food and drinks, etc.

Could This Have Been an Online Meeting?

In her excellent article "When Do We Actually Need to Meet in Person," Rae Ringel makes a helpful distinction: is the core of the gathering task-based versus relationships based?

As she shares: "Task-based goals might include updating a board, briefing constituents, or planning an event. These goals can often be accomplished in a virtual meeting (if a meeting is deemed necessary at all). Relationship-based goals, which involve strengthening or repairing connections among team members, are usually accomplished most effectively in person."

Additionally, the complexity of the job to be done is another way to answer the question of whether this is enough of a reason to meet in person. "Sometimes complexity is a more helpful framework for determining what form a meeting should take. This includes emotional complexity and the level of interdependence that certain decisions or outcomes may require." Ringel puts it in a helpful chart:

WHO Do We Get Together: The Art of Exclusion

Back to Priya's book. Once we've established the why of getting together, we need to consider the crucial WHO.

As she shares, the idea of "the more, the merrier" is deeply ingrained in society. Most of us have heard these words since childhood. So when we think about guest lists, we usually focus on inclusivity. But sometimes, excluding people is just as important, even if it feels uncomfortable.

A great example in the book is when Priya speaks about an exercise group with six friends who met with a paid fitness coach two times every week. When one of the friends couldn't make it one day, he recommended that a buddy of his would have his spot so he wouldn't lose the money he'd paid for the coach that week.

The others required a long time to figure out why they felt awkward thinking about this. Ultimately, one of them realized that the group's genuine, implicit central role was not to take a paid-for practice class but to chit-chat and catch up while working out.

Since the proposed substitute was an unknown individual to them, his participation would have undermined the meetup's genuine reason, having a loose and informal climate to get up to speed as friends.

Excluding is as important, if not more important, as including.

The idea of exclusion comes to life in our daily work as we create opportunities for groups of people in a company to get together. Bringing the right people together immediately increases the likelihood that the event is enjoyable for those who attend.

For example, a workshop about time management would be meaningless if attendees don't feel like there is a safe space to share their troubles. For instance, because their immediate line manager is present. A mental well-being workshop often doesn't work if it's in English when most attendees don't speak it well enough to understand the nuances of each word.

HOW Do We Get Together: Rituals That Matter

One thing that stood out to me when I read the book for the first time was the amount of time and attention that goes into a gathering. Not during the gathering itself but before. In fact, for great gatherings, most of the time spent on them is way before the gathering takes place.

As Priya says: "you need to prime your audience with the right expectations." In the workplace, this means that from the very first announcement of a gathering, we need to convey clearly why this gathering would matter to the invitee and what to expect. After all, we have included them (and excluded others) for a reason!

Then, we need to get them excited. Excitement turns interest into registration, and registration into attendance. Carefully planning out the messaging for this is key. In our experience, escalating the tone and urgency of the messaging leading up to a gathering is crucial. We typically plan at least 3 targeted messages for each event, alongside general communications like posters in the office, table cards, and general newsletters.

Social proof can play a big role here. You may have been somewhat interested in an event or activity, but once you hear that 5 of your work besties are joining, you're much more inclined to attend. Similarly, other behavioral science concepts like scarcity and urgency can help get people to sign up and attend.

Then, when the gathering is about to happen, how do we build anticipation?

Sending a thoughtful question to ponder the night before an event can get people into the right mood and further enhance their desire to be a part of it. Priya recounts the story of Michel Laprise, a Cirque du Soleil director who wanted to host a pre-Christmas gathering for colleagues after a long tour.

The day before, he sent a message to his guests asking them to send photographs of two happy moments from the tour. Searching through their photos led his guests to expect a celebratory evening. And when they arrived to find a Christmas tree decorated with their photos, the mood was set perfectly for a festive evening.

Similarly, on the day of the event, how are people welcomed?

We all know what it's like to walk into a room where an event is supposed to occur, only to feel lost in space, looking around for what to do and where to go. Thoughtful hosts ensure that there is someone to welcome every guest and take the guesswork out of the first minutes of that gathering. "Let me walk you to your table and introduce you to some of the people who have already arrived."

Finally, further 'directing' the experience is key during the gathering itself.

As Priya states, being a "chill" host is "an abdication of your responsibility to your gathering and guests," as well as a guarantee that the experience is sub-par. In a gathering with a clear why, the host needs to play a very active role in meeting the objective.

Sometimes, this means moderating actively, ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to participate, and reminding them about the rules of the gathering – for example, that we don't use our phones in this workshop.

To conclude

In a world where we all work in different places at different times, gathering has become more important than ever. This new way of working means that managers, leaders, and HR teams need to master "The Art of Gathering."

They can be supported by desk booking software and room scheduling software like Tactic, which have built-in event listings and integrate this with reserving workspace.

Have an intention-focused week!


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Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.