Recognition shines at Carleton Summer Fest

University’s festive picnic barbecue a fun, inexpensive way to say thanks to employees
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/01/2010

For about a decade, Carleton University in Ottawa held an employee recognition day. Awards were handed out to exemplary employees and the day was very structured, with people signing up for mini professor-taught sessions on topics such as forensic medicine or novel-writing. There were also activities such as scavenger hunts and golf cart races in the underground tunnels.

But four years ago, the university decided to reconfigure the day, not only to better recognize employees and celebrate the end of the school year but to provide more networking opportunities for everyone.

“It’s a fun event to organize and it’s fun event to be at and I think it really has become part of our Carleton culture and really does help us recognize our successes and realize we are one big team, even though we’re spread out over acres,” says BJ Miskelly, assistant director of HR (employee services) at Carleton.

The event is held outdoors, weather-permitting, and includes a lunch served by senior administration wearing Carleton-branded chef hats and aprons. It’s a festive picnic barbecue, says Cindy Robinson, healthy workplace and communications co-ordinator at Carleton. Activities include temporary henna tattoos, a book bonanza tent (with money raised going to a student food bank), volleyball, a photo booth, jump rope, hula hoops and fishing for plastic eggs, with prizes that include iPods, iPads and hot-air balloon rides.

The recognition day also features a mini healthy workplace expo, with chair massages, free healthy snacks and Carleton’s health service insurance provider, Great-West Life, on hand to provide information. A service excellence kiosk was also set up for Summer Fest 2010, so people could send kudos to colleagues through “service-o-grams.” Three-hundred handwritten notes were sent out by interoffice mail the next week.

“Lots of people were really thrilled by that,” says Robinson.

The day has proven very popular, judging by the feedback. For 2010, the percentage of participants who gave the event a high rating was: 93.5 per cent for volunteer support; 89.5 per cent for the venue; 77 per cent for the event inspiring a feeling of belonging to the Carleton community; 76 per cent for overall enjoyment; and 74.5 per cent for the event making participants feel appreciated by the school.

“We’re scoring 75 per cent and up into the 90s for the feedback we’re seeking, so we’ve found that this format we have, this Summer Fest picnic barbecue, seems to be a big hit,” says Robinson. “We’ve done it now for four years and I think we’ve found the recipe we need to host this event each year.”

Planning committees, volunteers needed

The year-end event is scheduled close to convocation, so many people are still on campus, and while faculty often have other commitments, the school saw about 1,600 attendees at the barbecue in 2010 (out of 2,200 employees).

A planning committee and an activity committee are responsible for organizing the day. These include captains for each area, such as volunteers, music and safety. Volunteers are critical, with 58 people helping out at this year’s event, says Gardner. Wearing Summer Fest T-shirts, they’re scheduled in 30-minute shifts at various activities. They later attend a lunch as thanks for their efforts.

A scavenger hunt led up to the 2010 event. Teams from different departments were given a daily riddle and had to submit an answer to qualify for the prize, which was a lunch for the team at one of the campus eateries.

“The neat thing about the riddles was that it was actually about one of our own people on campus, so something about a professor who’d done something really noteworthy or someone who was known for something specific on campus,” says Miskelly.

A small token of appreciation is also given to all the employees at the recognition event, such as Carleton-branded hats, coffee mugs, lunch buckets, T-shirts or sports bags.

“Typically, it’s something they can use at the day, show off at the day, so it makes for a fun display as well,” she says.

In the early years, the organizers used sponsorships to help fund the event but, eventually, decided to abandon that approach. Instead, there is a steady budget of about $10 per person and some departments donate towards gifts.

“We decided that it was the university that wanted to recognize people and we didn’t know that it was appropriate to bring in sponsors for that,” says Miskelly. “We try and make it not about the prizes; it is more about the day and the socializing and the recognition of each other and the jobs we do.”

Carleton University has also gone green so organizers of the the employee recognition event tried to make a very small footprint in 2010 while, at the same time, raising awareness of the school’s greening effort and sustainability, says Miskelly. For the whole event, there were only two bags of garbage, with everything else compostable or recyclable, “which was a huge feat,” she says.

The green initiatives also extended into communication around the event. Fewer posters were used, made from 100-per-cent recycled paper, and flyers only went out to parts of the campus where employees might not have regular access to a computer. Summer Fest was also promoted through daily emails and the school’s newsletter. There was also a website dedicated to the event to keep people updated about the menu for the day, activities and what to expect.

“We heavily relied on electronic communications and the Web and our on-campus staff and faculty newspaper as well,” says Robinson. “We haven’t explored (social media) just yet but it’s definitely something to look to for next year. We could consider doing a blog or the university has a Twitter account.”

After the event, photos of the people involved in the day are immediately posted online, along with other HR events. These are also used for publicity in campus community brochures and correspondence, says Miskelly.

Recognition year-round

At the summer event, the school’s president gives a speech while the vice-president of HR announces the winners of the recognition awards.

“We try and keep it minimal, it’s in a (campus) park and it’s difficult to hear,” says Miskelly. “And people get tired, the music is nice, they like it relaxed and a little less structured, so we keep it short.”

Originally, the recognition awards were also given out at Summer Fest but the organizers found the program went too long so now there is a separate gathering, such as a wine and cheese or luncheon. While Summer Fest is Carleton’s biggest event when it comes to recognition, the school also gives out service excellence awards and hosts an all-staff Christmas luncheon, along with a retirees’ reception.

The organizers try to change the event a bit each year but too much change is not needed, says Miskelly. “There is a comfort to knowing what to expect as well.”

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