So it’s your birthday again, and you expect your office to buy the same rectangular cake, on the same cardboard platter, from the same bakery or grocery store, and then sing a cheerful rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” Then everyone digs into the fluffy goodness with your name in gel frosting before going back to work.

Sure, this is a nice break from work, but what if it was better? What if it was for you, but really included everyone and built camaraderie? What if it was more interactive? And what if it was a surprise at some point during your birthday month?

The team gathering around the scrumptious surprise.

Our September ice cream bar birthday surprise —including sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free ice cream to make sure everyone could indulge.

Today I’ll walk you through how we came up with and continue our birthday surprises. With background research and through testing out different ideas in our office, we crafted a better way to give people a fun, motivating way to celebrate (like thwacking a Darth Vader pinata or enjoying a chair massage). We hope our ideas will motivate you to step up your bday game, too, and in a way that fits your unique company culture.

The Research

If you do this, then you get that.” As I researched motivational factors to improve our office’s birthday celebrations, I ran across Dan Pink’s TED Talk (which has racked up nearly 10 million views). He discusses how expected rewards narrow our perspective, our recognition of possibilities, and even makes the results worse than when no reward is promised. Pink’s ideas propelled my redesign of dt birthday celebrations, and it resulted in our Birthday Surprises.

Additionally, I found that the traditional cake-and-singing birthday cake for each person makes it so similar that it’s an event ripe for comparison, which usually ends up with people feeling bad if anything diverges (“Why was my birthday celebrated late? Why was his cake better than mine? Why didn’t people want to sing? Am I special?”). What’s more, no one seems to walk away from a routine celebration thinking, “Wow, that was awesome!”, which is the reaction we strive for here at dt.  After all, why not make each experience as memorable as we can?

The Results

Research on motivation led to an eclectic (and surprising!) series of celebratory events. My first workplace experiment with motivation was when I got help from one of our developers to fix an issue on my personal blog. After he was kind enough to help me, I surprised him with a gift card to his favorite salad lunch spot. Not only was he surprised, he was elated by the thoughtfulness of the unexpected, unique gift. Confirmed by my experiment, the surprise rewards that Dan Pink spoke about had elicited a much more positive response than if we had agreed on a dollar amount beforehand.

Last June, we started Birthday Surprises with our now-legendary Darth Vader piñata. This was no ordinary Party City piñata; it was purchased straight from a true Mexican piñata store and was nearly 4 feet tall! I secretly stuffed Darth full of candy in our back storage closet, and on that random afternoon, unveiled the paper mache masterpiece that our team couldn’t wait to lay into! It was a surprise that everyone equally enjoyed and was able to participate in. To be honest, it was all our team talked about for the whole rest of the week! My first birthday surprise had been a success.

Piñata time!

Cody gets ready to destroy Darth Vader, once and for all.

After that, we branched out, trying a variety of new activities, from afternoon margaritas to an ice cream bar after our twice-weekly team lunch. A few more things we’ve done are on-site chair massages, homemade candy apples, and a donut bar. Our most recent event was dt bingo (which I’ll discuss in a moment!).

From each event to the next, the response from the team has been overwhelmingly positive. No matter the month or activity, the whole team’s morale felt boosted — the resulting chatter about the event has testified to it. So far our Birthday Surprises have worked out great, so it’ll be exciting to see what the rest of 2014 (& onwards) has in store.

An example of the lovely ice cream creations.

Our ice cream bar was a surprising, unique, and inclusive way to celebrate September birthdays.

Here are the critical motivational factors I’ve discovered while planning these activities:

Surprise. Once the event’s expected, the hype can die off, be misleading, or make it sound like another to-do. While our celebrations are monthly, I don’t reveal the date or activity. All the team knows is that there’s monthly imminent goodness 🙂

Involvement. Everyone can partake in the fun, so the celebration is more than just a heavy (and sometimes awkward or unwelcome) focus on the birthday boy or girl. We figure out activities everyone can enjoy (including the provision of special dietary options for the entire team, as we did for our September ice cream bar).

Uniqueness. If Birthday Surprises were just unexpected and involved everyone, doing the same activity (or set of activities) each month would take out that incentivizing edge. However, when certain events (like chair massages) are such a hit (and often requested for a repeat), then it may be a great idea to bring back an old favorite (and add a new twist!).

The Most Recent Surprise

This month, an entire divergence from our previous celebrations, we played a game of Bingo (accompanied by plenty of laughter & cheering). But, of course, there was a creative twist: Winners got fun surprises (aromatherapeutic massage, dinner & a cruise for two, etc.), and the words on the bingo boards were gleaned from the team via an epic all-staff email thread (blam-o, arete, shooooooots!).

Dave's bingo board

A sampling of words that describe our lives at dt.

Jamie won a great prize: a bottle of wine and a local cruise around San Diego!

Jamie's prize and bingo board

Jamie won a great prize: a bottle of wine and a local cruise around San Diego!

The Replies (from you!)

What are your thoughts on creating a better office environment through unexpected treats? We think Birthday Surprises are a good way to start following Dan Pink’s advice (corroborated by many a study) and get out of the less effective rut of predictable rewards. When it comes down to it, an office is (hopefully) aiming to build camaraderie among its members. It’s about fun, but it’s more about having fun with people you enjoy. Regardless of your budget, it’s possible to craft meaningful experience for your team to bond over. How about a kickball game, a scavenger hunt, or, like we tried out, a piñata?

Like what you see? Check out our culture blog for snapshots and articles about our ongoing events, from a sushi lunch to a visit to our CSA share’s farm.

The piñata explosion!

Our piñata finale! (You could even customize your piñata’s contents to surprise and delight your team.)

  • Mina McGee

    Hi Melissa 🙂
    These are great ideas you posted! I truly believe that the bond you form with the people you work with and the experiences you have are what make the job, not just the job itself! You want the work place to be somewhere people are proud to work at and can have fun with the people you see every single day.

    Since starting at my company back in June, I started openly celebrating everyone’s birthday here to just help make their day, but I was just really baking for them, decorating their cube and sending an email letting the team know it was their birthday. People appreciate it, but it would definitely take it to the next level to have a unique activity for that person!

    My question for you is, what suggestions do you have for a larger company or a larger team where there may be multiple birthdays on one day or it may be difficult to get full participation in the celebration?


    • Mina McGee

      Also, does your company find these activities or does your team pool together for birthday funds!

      Thank you !

    • Melissa Grothues

      Great question, Mina! It sounds like you’re doing some really awesome stuff around your office space to celebrate birthdays – that’s great! One of my suggestions for a larger company would be to celebrate all the birthdays for a particular month at once, with an overall birthday surprise. Even though dt is a small company, nearly 30% of our birthdays are in October (what are the odds?!), so this past October, instead of celebrating eight separate Birthday Surprises, I decided to have a fall themed series of smaller Birthday surprises that everyone enjoyed. We indulged in candy apples, spiced cider, donuts, and pie, all on different days throughout the month. None of the events were linked to any one person’s particular birthday, but instead each activity was in honor of all eight. It’d be really easy to have a “Birthday Surprise” once a month in honor of all birthdays being celebrated on that particular month! 🙂

      As for your second question, dt has a budget for Birthday Surprises (a certain amount to be spent per each person’s birthday), but it was a budget we created after coming up with the idea. If it’s something you’re interested in starting at your own company, it would be a great topic to discuss with your manager! Each surprise usually isn’t too expensive, and if there are multiple birthdays in one month, you can always combine the funds allotted per individual for a more extravagant celebration!

  • Dan Pink says (and writes!) so much great stuff. Way to put it into action, Melissa!

    • Melissa Grothues

      Thanks, Damien! I totally agree, Dan Pink is the man and chock full of valuable insights!

  • Mariette

    Hi Melissa, I really enjoyed reading your article. I would like to implement the same in my office, but I’m actually “no where”. Would you mind giving me more details, if you have time, on how you first implemented the new way of birthday celebrations and did you still buy a gift for the people’s birthday’s or just have the event for the whole office. I’d really like to try this out. Thank you once again for all the idea’s. Maybe if you have a list, that would help as well… I also would like to do a nice surprize for valentine’s. Take care.

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  • Great post! We are ramping up on this same idea right now. Good food for thought 🙂