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June 01, 2005

Morale Events

We just had a morale event last Friday--an Argosy Cruise around Elliott Bay and Puget Sound. "Morale events" are the general term used at Microsoft for any kind of special thing that your team does which the company pays for. It could be just a small group of people (e.g. the 25 people on the Monad team) or your product unit, or your whole vice president's team, or whatever.

I didn't attend the cruise, because we had won some tickets to see "Madagascar" and it was a day off from school, so we took the kids and various friends. The buses for the cruise started boarding at 10:30 and got back around 4, and I was gone from 10:30 to 3, so it was OK to leave, right? It certainly was good for my own personal morale.

The one reason Microsoft might prefer that I spend a bit more time on the company morale event was that it would have meant interacting with other people on the team, thus helping us bond a bit. This is actually a change from when I first began at Microsoft. Back then you would have ship parties (or trips, sometimes), plus the company picnic in the summer and the giant blowout Holiday Party, but other than that the "morale budget" (which each team had a per capita allocation for) was mostly spent on gifts, in particular t-shirts.

In 1993 Mike Murray, then-VP of Human Resources, sent his (in)famous "shrimp and weenies" email. The email was actually in 3 parts:

  • "Shrimp and weenies", an exhortation not to spend so much money on catered lunches (and by implication on other unnecessary expenses).
  • "T-shirts and Stupid Dog Tricks", an appeal to rein in the number of t-shirts handed out for minor achievements like attending a meeting or completing an office move.
  • "Headcount growth -- and the lack thereof", explaining that Microsoft needed to keep headcount growth down.

Murray was right about the t-shirts. He said that the morale budget back then was about $20/month per employee, which is $240/year (I think it is less now). $240/year could buy a lot of t-shirts--and it did. When I moved to Montreal in 1995, after 5+ years at Microsoft, I was weeding my closet and counted 103 items of Microsoft clothing--mostly t-shirts, but also jackets, sweatshirts, sweatpants, polo shirts, etc. In the LAN Manager team they handed out t-shirts like they were napkins. Literally, the day I started, it was "Here's your computer, and here's your first t-shirt." (Larry Osterman can tell better LAN Manager t-shirt stories than I can).

Now the pendulum has swung too far the other way, if that's possible. In my 1 1/2 years on Monad, I think I've gotten 4 pieces of clothing -- a short-sleeve Monad polo shirt, a long-sleeve AXP polo shirt (AXP being the next org up from the Monad team), an OCP long-sleeve t-shirt (OCP is the parent of AXP), and an astonishingly bright orange-and-blue long-sleeve t-shirt commemorating some community building program (I can't remember what it is, possibly because the shirt is too loud to focus my eyes on so I can read what it says). The only other tchotchke is the "Monad - I'm lovin' it!" buttons that I printed up myself. I don't even have a nice, plain, Monad t-shirt! Mike Murray recognized that (and I quote) "A well designed T-shirt can and should be a great team building device for a group and/or a reward for the achievement of a key goal (ie, shipping a product on time)."

I think the current theory at Microsoft, Mike's statement notwithstanding, is that a t-shirt is just a t-shirt, but a morale "event" can help build a team. So the money is now being spent on events instead of things.

I don't necessarily think a cruise is so great because you sit around talking to the people you already know. But while I have gotten so few articles of clothing in the past 18 months, I have gone to team events at Illusionz, Whirlyball, the Spirit of Washington train, and Tech City Bowl, plus the Star Wars movie and probably a few I've forgotten (someone on the team organizes an annual hike, although that is not an official event and doesn't cost anything). Participating in events that nobody is really good at, like laser tag or bowling, really is a good way to build a team. So although I may pine for my Monad T, overall I'm not complaining.

Posted by AdamBa at June 1, 2005 10:19 PM

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They could kill the picnic and the annual xmas party - do you have any idea how much that would save the company? I'm so glad they killed the company meeting - that was a suggestion I've made many a time in the polls.
Personally, I prefer morale events like the WIMs - remember those? Its fun to have a drink, mingle with people from other groups and just relax during work hours and take a break. In all the years I've worked here I've probably made it to one or two movies (sorry, really not interested in seeing the Blockbuster of the week) and events like bowling and whirlyball just don't appeal to me. Maybe I'm just not a team player eh? :)
I don't necessarily want more tshirts (they can be nice and cool especially to proudly sport outside of seattle) either - bottom line is, what would help my morale would be more free time for myself and less of the thankless 60 hour weeks. And seeing upper management not give a rats ass about that factor (most of the time) hurts morale IMO...

Posted by: anonymous at June 2, 2005 02:36 AM

Ha, you got only 4 pieces of clothing? Try being in Support Services - last T-shirt we got was over a year ago. the only way you can get a t-shirt around here is to do something special and get it from the product group.

Posted by: at June 2, 2005 09:30 AM

We just had a morale event for a milestone exit party (if you guys hadn't been on a cruise you could have come :-), and I designed a tshirt that we gave out at the party that was fairly well received, hopefully a good balance of "amusing enough that I'll smile when I see it" and "not embarrassing if I wear it to the pro club". Hopefully.

I myself hadn't thought tshirts were that important (the stock white tee they're all printed on has never fit the female figure very well so I never wear the ones I have), but our GM pushed for it, and after seeing the reaction, I think he was right... teams need tshirts every once in a while.

The milestone party we had on Friday was pretty tame compared to the ones in my product's history. I spent a lot of time over the day talking to various oldtimers about whether or not this was a bad thing or was it just a sign of the group (or company) maturing and settling down. Most people seemed to think it was just the latter, although we don't walk away from the ship party with as many "stories" to tell later, we had a great time in fantastic weather bonding with coworkers.

Also, across the company it seems that the per-head morale budget is reduced every year, which is very depressing. We still do a few fun things every year, but there's a lot less gifts & trimming on the events than there used to be.

Posted by: KC Lemson at June 3, 2005 10:23 PM