It’s just another day at the office.
A dinosaur drops by the desk of a Star Trek fleet member. Fellow costumed coworkers range from cowgirls to cavemen. They chat at their cubicles, check email and wait to begin the work day. Today’s job assignment will be directly evaluated by their bosses, who are outfitted as the duo from “Dumb and Dumber.” The task might be a fashion show, a muffin-eating contest or musical chairs.
It’s the ninth annual Office Olympics at Bellevue-based Guidant Financial. For one week each year, all 85 employees spend one hour each morning competing as teams to win hilariously wacky events.
“We both had previous corporate experience that wasn’t fun, where you just literally punched a clock and passed the time,” says David Nilssen, Guidant’s cofounder and CEO along with partner Jeremy Ames. “We wanted to create a destination where people enjoyed coming to work and felt connected to the mission, vision and values.”
Guidant Financial helps clients start or buy businesses using their own retirement funds. Nilssen and Ames founded the company in 2003 and, within a year, launched their Office Olympics. The inspiration came from watching the Winter Olympics as well as “The Office” television series. The purpose is to help the employees bond — and have fun.
“It’s great because the entire company is invested in this event. People come out of the woodwork. I feel that the biggest value is drawing people out in a fun, great way,” says Dayo Anderson, planning committee chairperson for the 2013 Guidant Olympics.
Planning begins up to four months in advance. This year’s theme was “Time After Time” and individual teams were assigned eras, such as prehistoric times, Greco-Roman and Old West. A $50 costume budget allows for props, but encourages creativity in the form of construction paper hats and bed sheet togas.
“We intentionally make sure people are teamed with others they don’t normally work with — mixing operations, sales, marketing, IT — roles that don’t always connect and interact,” says Ames. “It’s a chance to build trust and relationships. You don’t feel awkward walking over and asking IT a question because maybe you got to know them when they were wearing a tutu.”
Events are judged by Nilssen and Ames. Grand finale winners receive online gift cards and — more importantly — bragging rights.
Scott Hopper-Webb, part of Guidant’s sales team, served as captain of the “Future” team. His group won a third place in the “Peep Show” competition, where players made sculptures from marshmallow Peeps. He also made his catwalk debut for “Project Funway,” where teams were provided office supplies to design haute couture outfits.
As the music blared and the disco ball spun, Hopper-Webb danced down the runway in his cardboard and paper costume. The crowd cheered, but it was tough competition. A disco duck breezed by on roller skates and “Naughty Nick-olina” — normally a modest IT staffer — strutted his stuff in a paper dress and cone bra.
“We don’t play favorites. It takes away from the fun if people feel it’s being manipulated in any way, shape or form. They really do compete and they compete hard,” said Nilssen, laughing.
Morale is not a small investment. Nilssen estimates that more than 600 company hours are dedicated to Guidant’s Olympics. That might cost the company about $30,000 to $50,000. However, the return is immeasurable.
“What’s interesting is that in the months when we do Office Olympics, our productivity is at or near its highest for the entire year,” says Nilssen. “It injects new energy into the organization and productivity ends up skyrocketing.”
Other businesses are taking note. A visiting business partner attended this year’s event along with his family. More than a dozen organizations contacted Nilssen last year.
“I think especially on the Eastside, it’s such a great environment where there is a combination of highly skilled, highly educated workers, but also a laid back, West Coast atmosphere,” says Ames, who grew up in Kirkland. “I think it’s a really good fit for how David and I like to roll.”
A knock on the door summons Ames for judging duties. He grabs the wig and adjusts his red tracksuit. He’s dressed as a “Dumb and Dumber” character, but the Office Olympics is nothing short of brilliant.