Dos and Don'ts of Employee Events

The director of Pandora's internal events shares tips for creating memorable and meaningful experiences for employees.

Pandora employees volunteered with the Ally Coalition last month at the Los Angeles L.G.B.T. Center.
Pandora employees volunteered with the Ally Coalition last month at the Los Angeles L.G.B.T. Center.
Photo: Courtesy of Pandora

At the music-streaming service Pandora, Marta Riggins plans more than 100 employee events annually as director of employee experience and marketing. Her five-person team is responsible for everything from summer and holiday parties to cultural celebrations and volunteer opportunities. “We call internal events 'social connections,'” she says. “The idea and intent behind it is to have employees connect with their colleagues.” Here are her dos and don’ts for creating successful employee events.

Do have employee events.
It’s a basic point, but not everyone has caught on. Some companies make do with a holiday party and the occasional happy hour. Riggins sees that mindset as a missed opportunity to encourage employee connections and recognize their good work. “We can recruit people all we want, but if it’s not a fun work environment, people won’t stay. So we made a case for employee events because we believe it helps people connect with each other. It’s important for employees to socialize and know each other and celebrate your wins. That pays off in spades as far as retention goes. They know the company is investing in them, creating something fun, and acknowledging their work.”

Do ask employees for their event ideas.

Employees are encouraged to create their own groups based on shared interests such as yoga, cold-brew coffee, drone flying, running, or a love of Disney. If five employees can come together in what’s known as a Pandora Employee Resource Group, Pandora will offer funding. There are about 400 groups globally, and they can inspire company events. A salsa group, for instance, will teach a dance lesson this month in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month. “When you get employees involved in planning, it feels more authentic to that environment, and then employees feel like they own it,” Riggins says. “It’s not our event; it’s their event.”

Don’t forget about remote employees.
Just because an employee works from home or in a small office, it doesn’t mean they can’t participate in events. For the company’s upcoming 10-year anniversary, everyone will receive the same company swag delivered to their desks, whether it's located at headquarters in Oakland, California, or inside their home. “It’s challenging, but if we are going to do something company-wide, we think, how can we hit the remote employees as well?” she says. “It’s about extending a piece of the event to them.”

Do offer a mix of big-budget and low-budget events.
Pandora's “tentpole” events like the annual post-holiday party obviously require a bigger budget, but they are supplemented by a number of smaller-budget events. Based on the headcount of each office, so-called “social connection” money is distributed quarterly for smaller events such as a March Madness viewing party. “We let those offices drive how that money is spent,” Riggins says. “We set up a scalable model. When an office reaches a certain size, we offer more budget and more support from our team.”

Don’t assume that every office will want the same event.
An event that works in Chicago may not work in Los Angeles or New York, Riggins says. Getting to know the employee culture and interests at different offices will lead to better events. “We help them plan an event based on their interest,” she says. “It’s letting go of your ego and having to know what’s cool and hot and hip. I may not know what the biggest thing is in Detroit, Oakland, [California], or Atlanta. Inform me.”

Do share successful event concepts with other offices.
Some event concepts do translate to other markets or can be adapted to fit specific cultures. One example is the company's Bring Your Kids to Work Day, which originated in the Oakland office and now involves more than 300 children nationally. It started as an afternoon of ice cream and a performance by a children’s band, but has grown into a full day with an educational component for older children to understand more about their parents’ jobs. The engineering team helped kids create structures from spaghetti and marshmallows, a music analyst helped kids break down songs, and the sales team coached kids on writing and recording ads for their favorite animal or artist. “It was so valuable we rolled it out to our largest offices,” Riggins says. “Most parents say that’s their favorite employee event.”

Do bring experiential marketing tactics to internal events.
Recruiting events also fall under Riggins’s responsibility, and she designs them using skills she learned when planning external events. At South by Southwest Interactive, Pandora hosted a “Recovery Discovery Brunch” for engineers, developers, and designers to meet with the Pandora team in a casual environment where they could “recover” from the rigors of the conference with massage chairs, coffee, mimosas, beer, Advil, phone chargers, and other comforts. “It’s the same way you would treat a brand activation at South by Southwest: How do you serve a need for people that are there to attract them to want to come?” Riggins says.

Don't just plan happy hours. Think about using events to give back to the community.
Pandora helps employees plan team volunteer events, from taking more than 100 people to a local food bank to organizing a group to clean out animal habitats at the zoo. “That’s been incredibly successful and engaging for us,” she says. “It’s using events as a tactic to unite people around a cause.”

Do personalize events to the audience you're trying to connect with.
For another giving-back event, Pandora worked with the L.G.B.T.Q. nonprofit the Ally Coalition, co-founded by the band Fun, for events to help homeless youth. Volunteers assembled 500 toiletry bags for homeless youth and personalized them with handwritten notes. Then they hosted a party for the kids, complete with a step-and-repeat, music performances, and a food truck. “We asked how could we provide a really incredible experience,” she says. “You feel like Pandora is doing something just for you.”

Do think about how guests may need different environments.
Pandora is a mix of extroverts (generally speaking, the sales team) and more introverted personalities on the engineering side. They both enjoy social events but socialize in different ways. To meet each group’s needs at a recent '90s-theme event at Oakland’s Fox Theater, Riggins took a V.I.P. space called the Telegraph Room and turned it into a game room. The vibe was quieter but still fun—the room had its own bar and music, and guests could relax without the high energy of the main space.

Do plan events to celebrate diversity and inclusion.
Internal events are a positive way to celebrate employee diversity. For Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, Pandora hired a band to perform and talk about how its culture influenced its music. During Black History Month, the company went to the movies for a screening of Selma. The company hosted an after-party at a TEDWomen conference as well as Pride events.

Do use events to support your local community.
Pandora tries to host its biggest events in Oakland—and support local event vendors such as caterers—rather than ship them to a different city or region. “We try to invest it into our community whenever possible,” she says. “For companies that host their holiday party in another city, think about what it does to the economy of your city when you do that.”

Do get feedback.
After each event, the event team solicits feedback through an employee survey, and the results help shape future events. “If you don’t hear from your own people, it’s a huge miss,” Riggins says. “You’re not going to improve your event or engagement. You might be spending all this money on something people didn’t enjoy.” Because Riggins’s team has built trust with employees that their suggestions matter, the participation rate in the surveys is high—about 75 percent for the most recent big employee event. “It’s a balance of acknowledging we can’t make 1,000 people happy, but you can give us your voice and we’ll try to accommodate what you want. Because we act on their feedback, they feel like their voice is being heard.”

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