Let's start off with the hard part. The most important factor in maintaining staff morale is a safe and fair work environment where employees are valued and justly compensated. I wish that putting on a Hawaiian shirt twice a year would make all my work hassles disappear, but it just isn't going to happen. So why bother even trying to build staff morale if the big things that determine it are pretty much out of our control? The answer is simple. Few of us work at the extremes of the library work environment spectrum. My guess is that no one reading this article is doing so at work while the library masseuse works on his or her lower back,or that any one else is thinking, "I'd read this article in the bathroom, if only this library had indoor plumbing." The fact of the matter is that most of us work somewhere in the middle.Intentionally trying to build staff morale can do two things: it can make a bad situation a little better, and it can help make a good situation great.

Some general guidelines to follow when you plan morale building events are:

  • Take the time to do thorough planning. The more work you do up front, the more successful your project will be.
  • Have fun planning the event. If you are miserable trying to put this together, you're probably missing the point.
  • Don't be afraid to poke fun at yourself.
  • Check with the boss. What seems like fun to you and your friends might be touching a nerve that you are totally unaware existed.

In Arlington County we've done some things, both officially and unofficially, to help build staff morale. One of the unique things we have done is to create a Cheap Stunts Committee. Originally, Cheap Stunts was a group of anonymous merry pranksters who had pizza, candy, and the occasional flower arrangement delivered to help liven things up. Funds came from our very supportive Friends of the Library and cost was kept to a minimum.Eventually, Cheap Stunts became established as an official library committee and its anonymous nature lapsed. Cheap Stunts still has the occasional pizza delivered (don't underestimate the power of free food), but it also plays a role in our annual Staff Day and system-wide events.

On Staff Day (our annual in-house system-wide training day), staff members dress in costumes ranging from Frog and Toad to "Little Yellow Boy." (The man at the costume shop is not happy when we ask for the Bart Simpson head."Bart Simpson" is copyrighted, "Little Yellow Boy" is not.Therefore, if anyone from Fox Broadcasting asks, we have the "Little Yellow Boy" head.) Surveys have been given out on Staff Day to find out who is most and who is least like the rest of the staff.Staff were asked to identify their favorite pet, food, and color, as well as "If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" Door prizes are given and a general sense of fun lightens any tension staff might feel about mandatory training.

Cheap Stunts oversaw one of our most successful morale building contests. As part of a county-wide initiative, the Department of Libraries participated in "Clean Your files Week." The basic idea was for the county government to rid itself of clutter that was serving no purpose. Now,we all know the stereotype that the general public holds of library workers, "Everything in its place and a place for everything." Yeah,right. We're far more likely to hear, "We could use that for scrap," "I might find a bunch of pens that need all these caps," and "If it's not in this pile, it might be in one of those piles, or I might have thrown it away…nah, I know I didn't throw it away. It'll turn up, eventually." Cheap Stunts spread the word that the unit that was able to recycle the most paper, percapita, would win a free lunch. Prizes, in this case gift certificates,were also given to a random participant and the individuals who got rid of the most useless material or the oldest piece of trash. (I probably should have said the following first and saved the four archivists whose heads just exploded over the phrase "oldest piece of trash.") We worked with our archivist before the contest began. She identified what kinds of things weren't trash and should be sent to her and we included those guidelines in the contest announcement. Total cost: $100 from our Friends. Results: sixteen 200-gallon containers of paper were recycled, material that belonged in our archives found its way there, we cleared a lot of clutter, and we had fun doing it. (By the way, it was a tie for most useless piece of trash between a thirteen year old computer tip sheet and a napkin that had phone numbers on it. The napkin had sat around for years in a staff breakroom. No one had any idea whose numbers they were or who had written them down.)

While morale building events can't make everything sunshine and lollipops, they can help make bad times a little bit better. Several years ago our Central Library was about to undergo a major renovation. It was a bit of race between the building falling apart on its own and the planned demolition.Many of the floor tiles on the first floor began to pop up on their own,right as the renovation was starting. We collected the tiles as they came loose and stacked them in a staff area. Staff began to ask what should be done with them since they were not going to be reapplied to the floor. It wasn't long before someone decorated one and then another. Pretty soon it evolved into a tile decorating contest, with ribbons awarded for the best tiles. Staff actually got excited if a whole undamaged tile popped loose in the same way a woodworker is excited when he or she finds a perfect board. We could have dwelled on the negative aspects of the building's state, but we knew this was a temporary situation that we would just have to bear, so why not have some fun doing it?

We recently launched are design of our staff intra net. Our intra net is named "Squirrel."SQUIRREL stands for Something Quite Unique I Really Really um, um,…alright fine, it doesn't stand for anything. Our computer system is called ACORN and Squirrel was the winning staff name suggestion. As part of our redesign we included a "Fun" section designed to be a permanent part of Squirrel. The Fun section includes links to sites about library cats, Conan the Librarian, the Lipstick Librarian, library humor pages, animated gifs of dancing squirrels, and our Contest-a-Rama page. (This month's Contest-a-Rama is name the next Sue Grafton novel. Entries have included "P is for Profit," "P is for Please Buy this Book, don't get it for free from a library" and "P is for Patrons will check out anything on the new book shelf.")

Recently I had the opportunity to share some of these experiences and others during around table discussion at the VLA Paraprofessional Forum in Richmond. There were a lot of great examples of what other libraries are doing to have some fun and help build staff morale. Some of the ideas shared included:

  • A staff birthday fund. Everyone who wants to participate kicks in a few dollars each month to share in celebrating their colleagues' birthdays as well as their own.
  • The Shrine to Forgotten Food with its centerpiece, a twenty year old doughnut!
  • Bookcart drill teams for local parades.
  • New employee welcome wagons.
  • Battle of the Books where staff select and purchase single copies of book sand then wait to see whose choices circulate most often.
  • Guess staff members' names from pictures of their pets, baby pictures of themselves, or from a list of their father's occupations.

"You must be happy in your work" is a great line in a great movie, Bridge on the River Kwai. What makes it such a great line is that it is spoken by the camp commander to British prisoners of war forced to do slave labor. It is important to keep the irony of the above statement in mind when you plan morale building events. You can't make people have fun. You can't force them to be happy. Still, while we can't always be happy in our work, it sure doesn't hurt to try.