Recently, I started noticing a sizeable group of Atoms (our term for employees) meeting for lunch every Tuesday at a big table in the front of our Grand Rapids, Michigan office. I was happy to see the group sharing a meal together. I’m a huge believer that sharing a meal together is a wonderful way to strengthen relationships. In fact, we’ve encouraged meal sharing through our pair lunch program for many years.
Something was different about these particular lunches, though. These were not your normal run-of-the-mill team lunches. These were lunches for tasting chicken nuggets, or “nugs.” It’s important to note that nugs are not tendies, short for chicken tenders — that’s a story for a different post.
Back to the nugs. It quickly became apparent that this team of incredibly smart software makers was not only enjoying the nugs, but they had also developed a full-blown system for evaluating the nugs, complete with both a qualitative and quantitative analysis.
As an inquisitive person, I wanted to learn more, so I started asking questions. The group happily shared that, each lunch, they ordered a new type of nug from either a national chain or a local establishment. The nugs were then judged against a control nug based on four criteria: 1.) breading/crispiness, 2.) texture, 3.) sauce, and my personal favorite 4.) self-loathing, which I’m told can only be evaluated a few hours after the meal while the nugs are still digesting.
It was incredible watching the tasting unfold. They shared clever analyses, experimented with various sauce-dunking techniques, and there was lots of laughter and genuine connections being made. To me, the casual nug-tasting watcher, I was experiencing joy in the workplace, and it made me happy to be part of the team.
Corporate culture is commonly defined as the collection of values, beliefs, ethics, and attitudes that characterize an organization and guide its practices. Reflecting on my nug-watching experience had me pondering Atomic’s culture. I found it fascinating that my overall emotional experience was joy, and so I started to think more deeply about what I had witnessed.
Thinking logically about the tasting shone a light on various characteristics of our team we’ve worked hard to encourage over many years:
- Open to new ideas. A group of Atoms self-organized around a seemingly silly idea. That means that someone on the team was brave enough to suggest it, and the team was open enough to explore and enhance it.
- Focused on high quality. The group wasn’t simply eating nugs and sharing their thoughts. They had developed a scoring rubric, control nug, and even appointed a commissioner to ensure fairness.
- Organized. These lunches and the consistent follow-up scoring took planning and effort.
- Inclusive. The group didn’t meet in secret. The tasting happened in the front of the office. All Atoms were welcome to join.
- Joyful. Laughter and fun go a long way. These create an environment that fosters lots of great work getting done.
This highly successful nug-tasting collaboration wouldn’t have happened in a remote work context.
Atomic has a hybrid work model for good reason. We’ve avoided hiring outside of our geographies and do not employ any fully remote Atoms. We made this decision for two primary reasons:
- the collaborative nature of our work
- the sense of belonging that we’re able to create naturally by being together.
When our team was fully remote during the pandemic, our company did very well financially. We saved on facility costs and our billable hours were up. Although great for our immediate bottom line, it wasn’t a sustainable place for Atomic to be long-term.
We really wanted our team to spend time co-located together, not to work harder, but to play a little more. It’s our belief that spending some time enjoying your team and feeling joy and connection leads to better results for our clients and a more sustainable career for our team.
Some people are naturally wired to be together and be social. Being together helps us feel part of a group, increases our bonds with one another, reduces fear and anxiety, and boosts our mood.
On the surface, nug-tasting is nothing more than a silly way for a group to have some fun together. Below the surface, however, it’s an example of how physical proximity can be a strong contributor to a sense of group belonging.