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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Event You Should Plan for Your Team—ASAP

You’ve probably heard tales of hack days at startups and major tech companies—time set aside for the engineers to spend working on whatever they want, with the goal being they build something new by the end of the day. And they probably sounded pretty fun: There was music, maybe food, everyone got to devote time to a cool project. Maybe you were a little jealous, felt a little left out.

Well, I’ve got news—hack days aren’t just for engineers anymore. A few months ago, our team started a tradition of having an all-team hack day. From editorial to sales to engineering, we all have to set aside our normal work and spend the whole day creating something new from start to finish.

It’s quickly become one of my favorite team traditions, and it’s one that I think any office could benefit from. Read on to learn why all-team hack days are so valuable to the development of your team and company, and how to have one of your very own.

Why Take the Time for a Hack Day?

The reasons I love this tradition are numerous, but perhaps the biggest is that it affords your team members time to devote to things they otherwise wouldn’t have time to work on. Moreover, it gives them time to work on projects that don’t even have to get done. Think pet projects, ideas they’ve been mulling on, processes that they think would help the company but haven’t had time to implement, skills they’ve been meaning to develop. Supporting your employees in this sort of development is a fantastic morale booster, so carving out some time for it is just smart.

Hack days are also a great opportunity to encourage teamwork and give members of your team a chance to get to know each other better. We always allow people to work in pairs or teams if they think multiple skill sets will help their projects along (think: someone from marketing or editorial partnering with an engineer), giving them a chance to work with colleagues they don’t get to on a day-to-day basis.

Finally, hack days really encourage creative, out-of-the-box thinking—something that can be really important to the growth of your company but that can easily get lost in the day-to-day. For example, out of our hack days we’ve seen new sections of the site be born, new product ideas be brought to the table, and better processes be created. And, of course, fun stuff that makes us smile.

Planning Your Own Hack Day

Ready to get started? The process of having an all-team hack day is pretty simple. Start by choosing a day that tends to be pretty devoid of meetings or urgent work (we like Fridays), and let your team know a few weeks ahead of time to block it off on their calendars (and start thinking about their projects!).

It’s good to prompt people at this point with some parameters: Generally, the projects don’t have to be connected to their jobs or be necessary for the team’s day-to-day operations, but they should relate to the company in some way. And whatever they decide to do, it has to be something that could feasibly be completed in one day. If your team members are stumped for ideas, you can suggest they think about a problem they want to solve or a skill they’ve been looking to sharpen or develop.

The day before your hack day, send an email around asking people to let everyone know what they’ll be working on—that way, they’re accountable for actually getting it done. Then the next day, get ready to get cranking. While everybody’s going to be working hard, we like to make hack days fun affairs. Often, we’ll have somebody in charge of music, and we’ll have food delivered to the office so everyone can keep powering through the lunch hour.

The Projects

You might be wondering what non-engineers could build in a day. And true, having an all team hack day definitely requires a more creative interpretation of “build.” But here are a couple examples of my favorite projects to come out of hack day so far to give you a sense of what’s possible:

  • While we had been creating Muse University email classes for a few months, our COO decided to try a new format, creating our first hard-skill class focused on Excel models.
  • Our director of marketing, who wanted to learn a little more about coding, created a random excuse generator that people could use when they don’t feel like going to work.
  • Our editor in chief spent one hack day creating a full guide to using our content management system—something that has made it much easier to onboard new employees.
  • I wanted to develop some of my design skills, and we needed a page that explained how people could write for The Daily Muse, so I spent a hack day conceptualizing and designing the page. (I later went back on my own time to figure out how to code it: Check it out here!)

We’ve even talked about having someone do something physical for the office, like decorating a wall or building a bar with a $0 budget. With an open mind, the possibilities are endless.

The Results

The last step of a hack day: Make sure you have an hour or so set up before the end of the day for everyone to show off what they did to the rest of the team. In fact, this is where the real magic happens: It’s when your employees get to learn more about each other and experience everyone’s abilities. While people are presenting, their co-workers get a chance to see their passions, learn a little more about their side of the business, and generally be reaffirmed at how awesome they are.

Even if people “failed”—meaning they didn’t get their project to the point they thought they would—if they can come to the table explaining the road blocks they hit and what they learned, then it’s still a win. And thanks to hack day, it’s a win that gets celebrated by everybody.

With so many benefits, you can’t afford not to set aside some time for an all-team hack day. So pick a date, get your team brainstorming projects, and get excited to get hacking.

Photo of team working courtesy of Shutterstock.