Getting to Know People at Work

Or, why I wanted to start a random lunch program at a large company.

katie orenstein
Jan 19, 2017 · 6 min read

When I joined IBM Design 3 years ago, the design studio was a little different than it is today. I think one of the biggest differences was that we were a lot smaller then. The studio was only about 120 people, on one floor, in one building in Austin, TX. That may seem like a large number of people, but it was actually pretty easy to know just about everyone after a month or two.

Today we are much bigger. We have about 360 people (and counting!) in Austin, across multiple floors and buildings. Not to mention, Austin is just one of our many studios across the globe.

While this growth is a welcomed sign of our success, one thing that has become harder (if not impossible) is getting to know everyone. Especially for me, an extroverted-introvert by nature; I had a hard time with this. I found myself turning in more to my own team than I had before. There was a level of safety and security in engaging with the people I already knew rather than trying to meet new people. How do you meet new people anyway — go up to them, introduce yourself, and be awkward? Ugh this gives me anxiety.

But there are so many creative, amazing people here in our studio that this felt like a wasted opportunity. After all, these are the people I’ll spend an estimated 2,000 hours with each year.

So I had been thinking about this for a while. And then, totally unrelated, a few of us on my team decided to read Creativity, Inc. together. Near the end of the book, Ed Catmull talks about Notes Day at Pixar and the things that came out of this day of workshopping and ideation. One of them was a lunch program to meet other people that work at Pixar. I loved this idea; it was exactly what I was looking for. I mean, what an easy way to meet people outside of your team at work — bonding over food at lunch!

I wanted to bring this to IBM Design but I had no idea how to implement it. Other folks in our studio have started programs or initiatives where they’ve seen opportunity (like our creative space, the IBM Make Lab, or Grass Boots, the eco-group responsible for bringing/maintaining composting in the studio), and I wanted to do something too.

So I googled it. I figured someone else must’ve done something like this before. A few word combinations later, I came across this blog post from a few years ago. It described a solution that was a great fit for our studio. And there was even a Github repo link in the post. Internet success!

I launched IBM Meet n’ Eat for our design studio in mid-October 2016 by announcing it in Slack and our weekly internal email newsletter. I pitched it as a lottery system: twice a month, groups of 3–4 people will be randomly matched up to have lunch (random = people who aren’t on your same team and people who you haven’t had lunch with recently).

Initially I thought I might get a few signups, enough to get going, but the results were overwhelming. To date, we’ve had 138 signups across 25 teams in Austin alone. That’s a little over 1/3 of the studio here!

Overall I feel it has been a success. There have been 4 scheduled lunches so far, and after the second lunch I sent out a survey for feedback. About 50% of participants who opted into the program responded to the survey. Here are some of the key findings and thoughts about how to improve Meet n’ Eat in the future.

What do you hope to get out of this?

I was impressed with some of the responses to this freeform question. Naturally, most people wrote they wanted to “meet new people” but there were also some other things I hadn’t thought about. Here are the top responses, in order:

  1. Meet new people/friends/future groomsmen
  2. Learn more about other IBM products and teams
  3. New skills, inspiration, collaboration on side projects
  4. Food/encounter more cuisines
  5. Networking

Personally, I think the best response was, “I want to talk to strangers about the weather, their kids, or the economy together.” 😂 Well played…

Everything’s a prototype

There was a lot of general feedback that is worth taking into account as Meet n’ Eat evolves over time.

In regards to frequency, I scheduled the first two lunches bi-weekly, meaning there was only one off week in between them. But survey feedback showed that 51.5% of people preferred to meet once a month (versus 45.5% at bi-weekly and 3% at weekly). So we shifted and now I schedule lunches once a month. This also works well in the event the group decides to reschedule because it prevents those people from having back-to-back lunch weeks.

There are still some kinks to work out though. Each month I run a script to send out calendar invites to a random group of 4 people for a certain day. Everyone gets the invite for the same day, and I try to accommodate with enough lead time (48.5% of people said 5 days was enough). But, if folks want to reschedule they have to do it manually, on their own, by creating a new calendar invite since they can’t reschedule mine.

In general timing is hard due to how many people travel in the studio. Groups of 4 have worked out well because there’s always at least 2 people that can attend.

Another pain point seems to be going from calendar invite to conversation. I struggle with counting this as an issue due to the fact that this program is supposed to connect people, so you will have to talk at some point. Someone will have to reach out to their group on Slack and say “Where do y’all want to go to lunch?” but I know this has been uncomfortable for some. From what I’ve heard, it seems that those that take the initiative and reach out are consistently the ones that have to reach out in their group. I’m hoping someone can help me come up with a better way to bridge the gap between the calendar and Slack in the future.

Future ideas

Some great suggestions about how to further enhance the program:

  1. Create a more advanced scheduling system that allows people to reschedule invites and/or pick the dates they are available.
  2. Generate a Slack DM with the invitees from the calendar invite.
  3. Allow for automatic unsubscribes (this comes more from me since I have to manually maintain the list of participants).
  4. Hold a Meet n’ Eat where everyone participating would be in the same space. The person that suggested this also wrote, “I think the shared energy of the room would be really fun.” Me too!
  5. Roll it out to other IBM Design studio locations.

What people are saying

“It’s been super fun! A nice break from normal lunch.”

“It’s been great! I love getting to meet all of the ‘coworkers’ I otherwise probably wouldn’t have met.”

“I think everyone can make time to do this. We all think we are so busy but we really aren’t. We should spend more time focusing on building meaningful relationships with co-workers. It makes the community stronger as we grow bigger.”

And my personal favorite, “Just waiting to get Ginny [Rometty].”

Do you work at another company that has a program like this? What’s it like? Feel free to comment and share below.

Hungrily yours,
Katie aka The Queen of Lunch aka The Lunch Lady

IBM Design

Stories from the practice of design at IBM