Reinventing an Atomic Tradition for Pandemic Conditions

people sitting in a backyard wearing masks and observing social distancing

As I write this, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to loom large in almost every aspect of life. Atomic Object is open and thriving as a company, but our offices remain closed, and our employees are working remotely. Returning to our physical offices in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Chicago still remains an important part of our vision as a company, but we are taking a conservative approach in order to protect our employees’ health and well-being.

During this time when so many are hurting or out of work, we are fortunate to be able to work productively and largely uninterrupted, almost indefinitely. I’ve been amazed at the creativity and engagement of our team in figuring out how to remotely re-create the experience of working as a co-located team, how to have productive and entertaining office-wide standups, and how to repurpose existing equipment for making the remote experience better for themselves and their teammates. But, as a company, we’ve had many important cultural rituals interrupted.

We’re big on celebrations at Atomic. In the before-COVID times, we had quarterly office-wide parties in conjunction with our quarterly results meetings (a feature of our open-books-management structure). We also had monthly Spindown parties, where a bartender would visit our office on a Friday afternoon so we could share tasty beverages and snacks with our colleagues, families, clients, and invited guests.

We hadn’t had an in-person social event since March. As the summer wore on, one constant theme emerged in my colleagues’ feedback: people were doing okay with the remote work, but they missed seeing one another in real life.

I made it my personal mission to address this problem. I wanted to find a way for Atoms to get together and renew social connections in person.

Guiding Principles

In addressing this problem, it was important to keep in mind the following:

  • We wanted it to be safe and legal. This necessitated that groups be small (fewer than ten people) and venues be outdoors.
  • We wanted Atoms of varying pandemic risk tolerances to be comfortable attending.
  • We wanted Atoms to mix with people outside of their existing project team or Atomic social circle. One of the key features that Atoms love about Spindown and our other events is the chance to get to know people they have less interaction with otherwise; you never know who will join the conversation.

This is how Atomic Spindown: Backyard Edition was born. Backyard Spindown consists of several simultaneous gatherings hosted in Atoms’ backyards and capped at a reasonable number of attendees per location.

Implementation

We used a simple Google Form to solicit hosts and sign up attendees from each office. We made hosting requirements simple; any Atom could host if they could provide:

  • An outdoor space where 4+ attendees could stay 6 feet apart.
  • Access to a bathroom.

We provided hand sanitizer, soap, and paper towels to each host site. We had everyone bring their own collapsible chair, snacks, and beverages to minimize both the hassle for hosts and the potential for spreading the coronavirus. And we requested that attendees wear masks.

Managing Partners in each office took point on curating groups at each host site, optimizing for a mix of experience levels, tenures, roles, personalities, and projects. We kept the groups secret until the day of the event. On the morning of the event, we shared guest lists with each host and destination information with attendees via e-mail. Attendees didn’t even know who would be at their Spindown until they showed up.

The Result

Thanks to some careful planning and engagement from our hosts, Backyard Spindown went off without a hitch and received rave reviews from all attendees. The “who will show up?” mystery added to the fun.

After the event, we had fun comparing notes about the different experiences at each host site — Phil’s group had fun spotting frogs at his backyard pond, Joe’s group got a tour of the horse barn, and Rachael’s group made s’mores over a fire. New Atoms who joined the company during the pandemic got to meet people who they’d only interacted with virtually. Everyone who attended said, “Let’s do this again in October.”

So I guess I have some planning to do…