Like many business owners, we had a terrific game plan for 2020. It lasted about six weeks. Then, nearly overnight, our profitable business, growing and accelerating out of our SoHo New York HQ, was none of those things: Not profitable. Not growing. Not in SoHo. All around us New York and the world struggled with one human tragedy after another. We quickly shut our store. Our team began working from home.
And then something unexpected happened: Business exploded. The calls, emails, and DMs from corporations, universities, real estate firms, and other groups began rolling into me and our business development team. Could we help them keep their teams together? Celebrate wins? Save their product launches COVID had flattened a lot of 2020 plans, but it didn’t change the fact that teams need to stay connected and happy. They want to. (After all, many of us do love our work and those we work with.) And the 4000-year-old technology at the heart of our company was the perfect solution for places like Harvard, Google, and Facebook: The Sewing Circle.
This may sound like a surprising discovery for a world where we hardly make anything anymore, but when I started CraftJam a few years ago — after a decade of starting and running million-member online-only craft businesses — I wanted to get back to what I loved most about making things: Sitting in a small group, chatting, and seeing what we can craft together. This is one of the oldest rituals we know, the idea of a “sewing circle”, where people sit around to make something with their hands but — at the same time — make connections with their hearts and minds.
While the last six months have taught us a lot about corporate life in the age of COVID, they have also reminded us what it takes to glue a group of people together in all those invisible ways that make work fun, rewarding and productive. At CraftJam we’ve spent a lot of time studying how you take a group and use crafting to elevate them. To take them from just being a group and into becoming a team. This feeling of being really connected has been one of the few bright spots for a lot of us in this dark year, so I thought I’d share a few of our best lessons as we head into the season of recruiting, product launches and — groan — holiday parties on video.
I’d also love your ideas too, so please add them in the comments below. I’ll try to answer!
1. Everyone gets a rock
If you look at archeological dig sites from the stone age, you’ll see that they tend to find clusters of stone fragments together around a fire pit. Making arrowheads was a social event. “Hey guys, let’s all chip some arrows tonight!” was the stone-age equivalent of getting together to watch Game of Thrones. Think of it as Game of Stones.
One of the things we’ve learned from our experience is this: Give everyone their own rock. Make it a nice rock. Don’t make this a task for them. We all love getting packages, and it’s worth ordering very high-quality components for a craft party of any sort. Without getting into the research about how what we feel with our hands affects what we feel with our hearts, I’ll just say that the sensation of good-quality paper or paints or fabrics really matters. You’ll want to pick a project — we find learning to paint letters, basic embroidery, and wreath making are good starters — that is fun even if you have two left thumbs. Anything that lets people turn a box of stuff into something neat.
Something else too about giving out rocks: While it’s possible to ask people to hunt around the house for tape, paints, or glues, getting something special for this event marks it. It says it is an occasion. It also means everyone has the same starting point. This sends the quiet message that is essential for any good team: “We’re all in this together.”
2. Re-introduce yourselves
I find our work norms get a bit cast in concrete after a while. Doug from IT and Sue from Advertising can become “Doug from IT” and “Sue from Advertising” in our minds, not fuller versions of themselves. This is one of the reasons we’re missing the COVID-scrambled office outings, parties and conferences we once dreaded. These events let us see each other in new and different ways. That’s important for motivation and efficiency. The better we know each other, the better we work together.
In our CraftJam sessions we have had to break the ice for tens of thousands of people who don’t know each other, or who need to re-know each other. We’ve learned a lot and it turns out that this first moment is one of the most important. It sets the tone for the whole event and lets people see each other differently. So plan to start with a great icebreaking reintroduction: “Let’s go around and everyone says the last thing you made. It’s okay if it was your bed!” or “Everyone introduce yourself with your name and an adjective that describes you with the same first letter. I’m Knitting Nora! (Uh, does that count?)” Anyhow, just plan to start by having everyone go around and say hello in a new way, even if they have worked together for years.
The Ringelmann Effect is the way in which big groups can become less productive because people tend to feel less committed to an outcome as they become less productive. This kills companies. It also kills craft circles. Size really matters here and anything over about 20 people in one group risks petering out pretty quickly. We have done much larger groups, but breaking into smaller teams is a much more intimate experience. One fun idea we’ve seen in moving from IRL to virtual has been more geographic pairing: East and West Coast teams, for example. So you can mix and match people, but don’t get too big. Also: You also want to make sure someone takes the lead in managing time, setting expectations, and having fun. We train our “JamMasters” who run our events to try to put some of their own creative DNA into the hearts of the participants, so if you can find someone who has a crafting passion it helps.
4. Social Heating
The Dutch technologist Tijmen Schep has a really amazing concept I’ve been reading about: Social Cooling. His idea is that a big-data society can chill our personal relationships because we’re being watched all the time. To be successful, a craft event has to be the opposite: People have to feel like they can move at their own pace and slowly warm up and get comfortable as they go. So even though we’re all on video — and it’s important you tell folks they must leave their cameras on (we require it too!) — let people talk and show at their own pace. You’ll find the session warms up better that way.
If you need any ideas for projects, feel free to check out our site or you can find a lot of great resources online. (And post any other ideas for people below!) But mostly just have faith. We’ve done CraftJams for groups from 10 to 10,000 and — they always work out just fine. Even for (maybe especially for) people who say “But I’m not crafty!” Making things is so fundamentally human and empowering it will always be memorable. Maybe not as memorable as doing shots over Zoom in Santa hats, but we’re not so sure anyone wants to remember that.
Anyhow: Good luck!
Yours truly, Nora