A HR Manager’s Approach to Hobbies, Health and Harnessing a Teams’ Potential

A quick note from our team:
In each edition of The Connection, we select our primary article with care. What will deliver value to our readers? What insights do we have to share? What will people want to read? What is happening in our industry, city and world? This edition is no different, and as we considered topics, we felt 2020 heavy on our shoulders. In light of the challenges this year has presented, we feel wellness, mental health, and caring for one another well should be at the forefront. We wanted a topic that was bigger than work or engineering elements or our current project list. We hope that this exploration of hobbies and out-of-office pursuits serves as a fun, encouraging respite, that the insights from George encourage teamwork and support, and that the sharing of our own hobbies may inspire you to take up some of your own!

We hope that you’re all staying healthy and happy. Know that we wish you well at work, home and beyond!

Happy, Healthy, Hobbies

We’ve all experienced it. There’s a problem plaguing us, a solution we can’t put our finger on, a design we can’t get quite right. Then, while we’re on a jog, in the shower, mixing a pot of soup – there it is, our solution! The perfect fix miraculously surfaces! Perhaps it was sitting there all along, we just needed a reset to release it.

In our fast-paced culture, hobbies are often dismissed as luxuries. Who has the time? The energy? Cast as unproductive activities, hobbies are reserved for the sliver of the population who has the time and headspace for leisure. In The New York Times’ article, “The Case for Having a Hobby,” author Brigid Schulte puts it perfectly, “There is this achievement-oriented culture that teaches us that our only purpose is to produce. Why pick up the guitar if you’re not going to become the best at it? Why make something if you can’t sell it? Better spend your time doing something that actually has value.”

But what if hobbies are more essential than we think? What if they are not only the key to releasing those elusive solutions, but to performing better at work? What if we need outlets to clear our minds? To be more patient, more creative, more centered? What if they deserve to be prioritized?

Study after study reveal the benefits of hobbies. Research has shown that people who have hobbies are generally healthier, and have a lower risk of depression and dementia. Hobbies yield increased creativity, help you decompress, build connections, and motivate. They’re even proven to improve job performance and reduce burnout.

George Theo is Coughlin Porter Lundeen’s Human Resources and Business Manager. He leverages a background in higher education, where he managed the Division of Student Affairs, worked with thousands of students, created campus communities and responded to the university’s multifaceted needs. George partners with leadership and staff of all levels to shape the employee experience, cultivates a positive company culture, and ultimately, cares for the Coughlin Porter Lundeen team.

Out-of-Office Time: Insights from a Human Resources and Business Manager

As the firm’s resident Swiss army knife, George tackles many tasks, works with staff of all levels, and summarizes his role as “caring for our people.”

He wholeheartedly agrees with the research. “There’s a notable difference in people who are living a well-balanced life. You can spot those who embrace hobbies and exercise and other activities. It’s visible in their reduced stress and anxiety, their presence and focus, their ability to draw on unique experiences for inspiration.”

It’s why he, along with the leadership team, encourage staff to pursue creative outlets and out-of-office pursuits. But striking the right balance, he says, is crucial.

“We can encourage this, but not push. At the end of the day, we’re an organization and no one wants their personal lives micromanaged by a company, even a company they love! Staff members need autonomy in how they spend their leisure time. Our role is to encourage, support and celebrate.”

According to George, managers and leadership must also be cognizant of their motivation. Do we support employees’ hobbies because it’s good for business and it’s a way to harness a teams’ potential? Or are we genuinely invested in our teams’ well-being?

For George and the rest of the Coughlin Porter Lundeen team, it’s undoubtedly both. “I genuinely care for our team members and consider it a privilege to support them. I’m also not blind to the fact that people living healthy, well-balanced lives are more successful at work.”

“I think this dichotomy is a reality for all human resources managers – balancing the overlap between what’s best for the company and what’s best for the individual. For example, I think it’s enormously important for someone in my role to take the time to get to know staff on a personal level. It establishes trust, and trust allows staff members to come to me, to speak honestly and to use me as a true HR resource. On an individual level, getting to know our team allows me to better understand their needs and support them. Put simply, the more HR efforts serve both the organization and the individual, the better. It’s a good metric for us: is this effort good for business? Good for our people? Or ideally, good for both?”

So where do hobbies fall? We believe squarely in the “good for both” category.

We also believe that, if there was ever a time, 2020 is the year to prioritize hobbies. Now more than ever, we need these out-of-office pursuits and outlets that recharge and refresh us.

Get to Know Our Hobbyists!

What constitutes a hobby? Dr. Michael Brickey, author of “Defy Aging,” defines an ideal hobby as one that serves three purposes: a diversion (escape from daily life), a passion (engage in something you love), and a creation of a sense of purpose.

There’s strength in our uniqueness. It’s these diverse interests, personalities and skillsets that make up the fabric that is Coughlin Porter Lundeen.

Sam White, Structural Staff Engineer
Hobby: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
I train through the Gracie Barra organization.

How does this activity influence your life?
My favorite part has been learning how to stay calm in very uncomfortable situations. Because of my practice I’m more disciplined. And it keeps you humble.

Your work? Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu requires you be able to solve problems quickly to get yourself into a safe position. That quick thinking and problem solving required really does translate to work. It’s sharpened my ability to solve engineering problems with precision and efficiency.

Katya Finegold, Structural Technician
Hobby: Gardening
I grew up helping my parents in their garden at our country house outside of Moscow. It’s nostalgic and wonderful to grow your own food. Last year I got a plot at the Community Garden in North Seattle.

How does this activity influence your life?
I love every aspect of having a p-patch plot. The process, the community, the harvest, the opportunity to share. Plus, without gardening, how would I have discovered that the zoo has a Fecal Fest and that “zoo doo” is a thing!? (I was the lucky winner who got to purchase 100 gallons of compost.)

Your work?
Gardening can be hard work, but it’s always rewarding. It teaches me lots of things – proper planning and scheduling, patience and persistence. It’s also taught me to not be afraid of experimentation and failure. Lose a tomato plant? There are three more. Something goes wrong? Adjust the next season.

Jim Coughlin, Founding Principal
Hobby: Woodworking
After graduating college, I began to collect tools and taught myself woodworking

How does this activity influence your life?
There was a learning curve in those early, post-college days, but today I like to design and build my own furniture and fixtures.

Your work?
There are many parallels from woodworking to building, design, and construction. Even when you are the one building, you need to do enough drawing and dimensioning to ensure you don’t make a construction error. You learn how important sequencing is, not only for efficiency, but for safety. Like building construction, if you do high quality work, your projects will live into future generations.

David Aguilera, Structural Project Engineer
Hobby: Salsa and bachata dancing
I took my first salsa class at Century Ballroom four years ago. Since then, I’ve made classes and social dancing a part of my weekly routine. You can catch me tearing up the dance floor at Salsa Con Todo in Fremont! (Pre/post-pandemic, of course.)

How does this activity influence your life?
It makes me happy, energetic, and nostalgic. The music reminds me of my childhood days when my parents would play Latin music all the time. I love the feeling of learning a new move and successfully pulling it off on the dance floor.

Your work?
It helps me to think on my feet. (Sorry, had to!) When I’m dancing, I tend to forget all my worries, which allows me to come back to whatever I’m working on refreshed.

Naomi Medley, Civil Project Engineer
Hobby: Sailing
I love both competitive racing and cruising Puget Sound with my family. I’ve been sailing my whole life and am an active part of Corinthian and Seattle Yacht Clubs in Seattle.

How does this activity influence your life?
I grew up in Seattle and am a lifelong sailor. Almost every weekend and summer weeknight you can find me coaching, racing or cruising on the water with family and friends.

Your work?
Sailing has made me a better teammate. You cannot successfully run a racing program if you don’t have a team that works together. Everyone has different strengths and talents, and you simply can’t race safely and competitively if you don’t honor those strengths, communicate well and work together. We also learn to have a lot of respect for the other teams out there. I think bringing those lessons to the office helps me out a lot, because you certainly can’t complete a project without a good team atmosphere, and a desire to work well with other consultants and clients.

Caleb Slater, Civil Engineer
Hobby: Wooden Boat Building
My friend and I have been working on building a new wooden boat. He recently graduated from boat building school and he’s teaching me the methods and techniques.

How does this activity influence your life?
I enjoy learning new skills – and woodworking is new to me. It helps keep my creative juices flowing. The whole process is rewarding, and it’s really neat to help the boat take shape. Plus, it’s a great way to spend time with friends.

Your work?
Boat building requires exceptional patience. It’s not an instant-gratification project, it’s a multi-month endeavor. The issues that surface require patience too, and creativity as we respond to the unexpected.

Katlyn Christenson, Civil Engineer
Hobby: Open Water Swimming
I bought myself a wetsuit and a swim buoy and I have taken to the water! Between that and mountaineering, (another new venture!) I feel like I’m taking full advantage of the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

How does this activity influence your life?
Deep water actually freaks me out! But I love being able to master my thoughts, focus, and stay calm. There are incredible views from the water and I love meeting paddleboard and boat friends! Its proven to be a great social distancing activity.

Your work?
If a situation or problem feels overwhelming, I’m better able to tackle it, thinking more  mindfully about what I can and cannot do in that moment. Tactically, the route planning required for both swims and summits has helped develop the more strategic and creative parts of my mind.

Ken Wiersema, Civil Project Manager
Hobby: Photography
I’ve been interested in photography since high school. It’s a bit of a legacy – the family is full of photographers.

How does this activity influence your life?
Capturing a scene as you see it is harder than it looks. It takes skill to get the colors and light to record like your eye sees. Birds are my subject of choice. I enjoy watching them and the challenge of capturing their behaviors and character.

Your work?
Photography definitely uses different brain cells than engineering. I think it’s good to exercise all the parts of your mind – even the parts that may house some cobwebs!

Seven Simple Ideas to Implement at your Office

For those looking to move their own corporate culture toward one of authentic connection, encouragement and positivity, George has assembled seven easy-to-implement ideas.

Before tackling these though, it’s essential to set a foundation. Ask yourself: have we articulated our organizational goals, mission and vision? And have these been clearly communicated to our full team? If not, start there! These cornerstones extend to all you do and serve as checkpoints as you embrace new tactics.

1. Conduct a Culture Check
Take a temperature check of your office culture. How is your team feeling? Fried? Energized? Connected? Disengaged? Motivated? Listen to staff of all levels, as entry-level team members and leadership often have different needs. The goal is to understand your baseline, then work from there.

A part of this check should be to identify emerging leaders. There are surely team members in your organization who are longing for more responsibility. Use this energy! These team members will be important as leaders of task teams, and drivers of employee engagement and connection.

2. Establish an Employee Engagement Committee
As managers or HR leaders, it’s our job to plant seeds, and encourage and support staff, then let it grow organically. Staff should be empowered to truly own the program. Leadership micromanagement or over-involvement can be smothering. Instead, establish a partnership where management helps shape and guide the task group’s work, and the task group has autonomy and knows their ideas will be honored.

Not sure where to start? Task your group with a review of onboarding process. (How do we go beyond a welcome packet and benefits package review?) Discuss diversity and inclusion. Consider the option of an internal peer or professional mentorship program. Brainstorm employee engagement activities (and challenge them to think beyond the standard lunch or happy hour).

3. Celebrate Your Staff
It’s so important to acknowledge and celebrate employee successes and differences. Externally, this can take the form of promotion announcements, team highlights, or staff recognition. (Or, in Coughlin Porter Lundeen’s case, a blog series showcasing employee adventures!)

Internally, there are even more ways to make staff feel welcome, excited and appreciated. Internal communication pieces like company newsletters should absolutely include human interest elements. (Ours includes birthdays, travel highlights, even baby and kiddo photos!) If your company has regularly scheduled all-company meetings (which we think they undoubtedly should), recognizing your team should be a recurring agenda item. Make cheerleading for one another and encouraging one another an expected piece of your corporate culture.

4. Maintain Connection, Even from a Distance
With more remote work and virtual meetings than ever, maintaining team camaraderie and connection is a challenge. Nothing can replace in-person collaboration, but little things can go a long way in making staff feel connected. For example, when participating in virtual calls, encourage staff to use video, as seeing faces matters! Take five minutes to reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to recently. Check in. Say hello! Set up options like virtual happy hours for your staff to “gather.” And finally, explore options within your tech platforms.

Within our Microsoft Teams, we’ve set up a “Social” channel that allows staff to chat and share around specified topics. Topics range from the fun (music, pets, gardening, foodies, binge worthy shows, and recipes) to the serious (working parents support group, working-from-home tips, and gratitude).

5. Reimbursement programs
While most organizations have a reimbursement program, many are underutilized. Wellness and tech credits, donation matching, and the coverage of professional development programs are great benefits! And clear, tangible ways to support staff. Make sure the team knows what’s available, and encourage their use!

Additionally, in the light of hobbies and their benefits, look for ways to blur the line. We believe that out-of-industry conferences, classes and experiences can yield just as much benefit as industry events. Is your bike-to-work crew participating in a group ride? Support them. Is your resident VR pro winning Hackathons? Invite him to present to the office. Did your new employee get invited to Indonesia with Build Change? Help him get there.

Even if financial support isn’t realistic, encouragement and genuine interest go a long way!

6. Prioritize Transparency
We think this should be a part of every manager’s training. We want staff to trust us, and we want to trust them. In a culture of true transparency, the principle applies to everything from being honest about workload and stress to staff being comfortable talking about their hobbies and out-of-office activities.

Another important facet of transparency: roles and promotions. Potential career tracks and growth opportunities should be clear, and staff members should have a manager or mentor with whom they’re comfortable speaking about their role.

7. Think Beyond the Happy Hour
We believe that any opportunity to get to know your teammates is a worthwhile one. And we don’t need the excuse of an all-company event to do so. We invest in getting to know one another every day, believing that more we understand one another, the better we motivate one another, challenge one another, and work as a team. More importantly, our work experience will be more rewarding as we connect with our teammates beyond shared projects!

That said, it seems the default for networking and teambuilding events is happy hour. And while we’re not knocking a five-o’clock cheers (we love a good happy hour!), we are suggesting that thinking creatively about when and how your team gathers can pay big dividends.

An all-company event should encourage staff of different levels to connect, provide a positive, common experience, and be welcoming to all. The goal is to find events that resonate with your culture, which means you need to find out what people are interested in. Consider options like a show, a visit to an art gallery or pop-up event, live music, karaoke, a picnic, or a day of volunteering.

Have questions about how to implement these ideas, encourage hobbies or better support your staff? We’re always happy to chat!

Smarter Living, The Case for Hobbies, The New York Times
“There is this achievement-oriented culture that teaches us that our only purpose is to produce. Why pick up the guitar if you’re not going to become the best at it? Why make something if you can’t sell it? Better spend your time doing something that actually has value.”  – Brigid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/10/smarter-living/the-case-for-hobbies-ideas.html
Creative activities outside work can improve job performance (STUDY)
Conducted by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman and colleagues, the study examined whether creative activity might have an indirect impact on employees’ performance by providing them with a way to recover from the demands of their job, by restoring them through relaxation, increasing their sense of control, or challenging them to lean to new skills that can be transferable to one’s job. But the findings reported in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology suggest that creative activity seems to also improve job performance outside of its effect on these traditional types of recovery.
8 Ways a Hobby Makes You Better at Your Day Job, Entrepreneur
Hobbies make you more interesting, increase your creativity, help you decompress, allow you to reset, build connections and more. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/301015
Career Coach: The value of hobbies, The Washington Post
Michael Brickey, author of “Defy Aging,” says that an ideal hobby would be one that serves three purposes: a diversion (escape from daily life), a passion (engage in something you love) and a creation of a sense of purpose.
3 science-backed reasons having a hobby will help your career
Career coaches cite it as a top recommendation, and CEOs site it as a key to success. Mark Zuckerberg has weighed in on hobbies, stating that takes on a “personal challenge” each year and ensures that asking about out-of-work activities is a part of Facebook’s hiring process.
Benefiting from creative activity: The positive relationships between creative activity, recovery experiences, and performance related outcomes (STUDY)
Creative activity was found to have both indirect effects and direct effects on performance
related outcomes, but the effects varied by the type of performancerelated outcome. The results indicate that organizations may benefit from encouraging employees to consider creative activities in their efforts to recover from work.