If you want to create a consistently, stellar employee experience at your organization (and why wouldn’t you?), then finding ways to foster personal and professional development should be an integral part of your plan. Implementing an optional office book club is a fantastic way to encourage employees to try something new, improve themselves and connect with one another.
We recently hosted our inaugural book club session at ExactHire and read Radical Candor by Kim Scott. I had wanted to start a book club internally for quite awhile, but the timing just hadn’t been right until now. However, one chance conversation with a co-worker about interesting books ignited a spark of interest and our subsequent plan to meet 1-on-1 to discuss our first book. Naturally, I advertised the opportunity to the rest of our small organization and…voila! Traction. Before I knew it, six of us were signed up and ready to read!
This plan fit in perfectly with my own new year’s resolution to read twenty-six books in 2019; however, I was more excited to connect intentionally with co-workers in other departments and share different perspectives on something new and something more universally safe. What do I mean by “safe?” When you can look at other companies’ experiences, successes and tribulations, then it’s easier to challenge convention and have a strong opinion because it’s someone else’s situation.
However, the great thing about a book club in which people organically contribute is that you naturally start applying the concepts from the books to your own work environment. With internal trust, you can reflect on what has worked well (and what hasn’t), as well as use the book to reference a common foundation for handling scenarios in the future. For example, it will be easier to be more “radically candid” with each other at ExactHire moving forward–as many of us have studied the approach for doing so together.
Why we started an office book club at ExactHire
There are so many benefits to reading, such as gaining new perspective and improving your vocabulary; however, these basic benefits are multiplied when you also have the opportunity to discuss books within a comfortable group setting. Even though we’ve only had one discussion so far, I’m already seeing internal advantages such as
- climbing out of a creative rut that can strike during the post-holiday gloom that often characterizes mid-winter,
- breaking down communication silos by inviting members from all departments to participate,
- feeling more connected with each other considering we have a very remote-friendly workforce,
- better relating to the perspectives of co-workers at different position levels,
- higher participation rates in development because it is opt-in-oriented with low barriers to entry,
- giving more people the chance to have a voice, and
- providing the perfect opportunity to practice listening more effectively.
How to start your own employee book club
When planning your office book club, think about how your culture will impact the level of formality in your discussions, and whether you use consistent discussion questions or switch it up every time. Additionally, the size of your organization may determine whether it makes sense to have many cross-departmental groups or champion department-specific groups. ExactHire is a smaller company and so I will share the steps we took to launch our book club.
Generate interest and make it optional
The catalyst for our own ExactHire book club started with a conversation; however, yours may begin with a group email, a post to your company Slack channel or an agenda item in a company meeting.
Don’t write a novel of expectations for how it will operate at the onset (though some of you might think my invitation is quite lengthy below), but do emphasize to employees that the club is optional and should be educational and fun.
Stick with appropriate book genres
Give people a framework of what types of books should be expected and which genres would work best for a company book club. For example, titles about leadership, business, entrepreneurship, professional development and even some self-help books are all great options.
I recommend that the founder(s) of the book club select the very first book. Then, have all members vote on future sessions’ selections. Remember to keep book topics diverse and push yourself to read things that you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on your own–that’s a significant driver for many to participate in a club so that they are accountable to expanding outside the box of their typical reading preferences.
Make it easy for people to participate
The company should buy the books (or digital titles) for participants. It’s fine to encourage people to use any existing unlimited e-book/audiobook subscriptions they may have or to check their local library first, but ultimately the organization’s investment in a few books is a small price to pay for the employee development return on investment it stands to gain.
We pay for copies of our book club books, and we offer an optional employee benefit that pays for a portion of employees’ subscriptions to an unlimited online book service in exchange for their commitment to write a book-inspired blog quarterly.
And, remember that the book club itself is an employee benefit. Don’t forget to list it as such on your employment offers and the benefits list on your career website.
Make it convenient and accessible
Plan your book club discussion for a day when there are already a lot of people in the office. For example, at ExactHire we plan our book club to immediately follow the “Monthly Nom Nom” during which we all gather to share a catered (or potluck) meal together. Since many of us frequently work remotely, this is usually the day of the month with the most people in the office (serve them food, they will come)! Be mindful that the day you schedule your event isn’t already too packed with other meetings, and consider serving a light refreshment…or caffeine boost if it is immediately following a meal.
At ExactHire, we can never have everyone available to meet in person because we have teammates from Utah to Indiana to Germany! Therefore, we use Google Meet to video conference with our truly remote employees so they can participate, too. If you need to accommodate different time zones, be as inclusive as possible when scheduling the time of day for your book club session.
Finally, be intentional about the frequency for your discussions. Does it make sense to meet for shorter discussions bi-weekly to discuss a few chapters, or longer discussions that encompass the entire book on a monthly or quarterly basis? Within our book club, we’re starting with a quarterly cadence and discussing the entire book each time.
Do basic discussion preparation
The club founder(s) should lead the first discussion and should create an editable, shared document with ideas for discussion questions. This document should be visible to participants in advance of the meeting. Invite participants to throw question ideas on the document as inspiration strikes them, too. Also, remind people about the event about a week in advance in case anyone needs an extra nudge to finish the entire book on time.
Include questions about concepts within the book, but also list questions that will cause the group to take time to apply the concepts to real life examples from your organization, too. If you struggle to come up with questions on your own, do an internet search for notes and summaries on the book you are reading, and look for discussion guides that already exist online so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. This approach is particularly helpful if you are designated to lead a discussion after you listened to an audiobook while driving or working out (without the ability to take notes).
Here are some question ideas to get you started.
- What did you encounter in this book that you weren’t expecting when you first took interest in it?
- Which parts of this book did you dislike?
- What is one thing you are going to implement or do differently now that you’ve read this book?
- Pick your favorite passage/story, read it out loud to the group and explain why it’s important to you.
- What was your “aha” moment while reading this book?
- What was missing from the book in your opinion?
- Thinking about the concepts within the book, how have we already applied them well within our own organization. Give examples.
- Which book concepts do we need to better incorporate within our workplace? What are the appropriate next steps for doing so?
After the first book club event, ask for volunteers to take turns leading different future sessions. Don’t force participation, but let people rise to the occasion. When people vote on future books on a survey, consider asking them to indicate if they’d also like to lead that discussion if their suggested book is chosen.
“Don’t force participation, but let people rise to the occasion.”
Encourage active participation
Fortunately, it isn’t too difficult to get a variety of people to join the discussion at ExactHire. Our first book club included comments from all participants and there was a healthy banter during a variety of questions. Of course, perhaps this was because our first book was all about candor.
If all your attendees aren’t as willing to speak up, be patient and keep discussion questions focused on the book concepts initially rather than how they specifically apply to your workplace. As confidence grows among the group, you may find that discussion naturally moves to how the concepts can be applied to your workplace. As trust grows within the group, you’ll see that more inclusive, engaging conversation emerges.
Include everyone in future book planning
At the close of your first meeting, invite everyone to send suggestions for future books to one person who will compile them into a survey so that people may vote on a winner. This person may be the designated leader of the next discussion, or a consistent point person within your organization.
I’ve already received a number of intriguing book suggestions for our next discussion in April, and I’ll be using a survey to allow employees to rank their favorites. Be sure and share your survey with the entire company for each future session in case different employees prefer to participate at different times of year. Attendance will vary based on schedules and interest in the chosen book.
There are a variety of digital tools you may use to collectively keep tabs on books of interest for future discussions as well. I enjoy gathering ideas from posts on Pinterest and podcasts and blogs. Then, I keep track of books on my “to-read” list using Goodreads–an online community of book lovers.
While these steps have worked well so far for my company, don’t be afraid to experiment with different formats for your own organizational book club. Your company culture, core values and current business challenges will guide you in a direction that resonates with your own employees.
Just remember to keep it fun and leverage the events as an opportunity to foster employee development and maximize the employee experience!