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Big Room, Big Fun

Thursday, 3 November 2016

R_150313_N13_mediumIt is the morning of our interview for the Banner University Medical Center Tucson Expansion & Renovation (BUMCT) — a $400 million, almost 1.8 million square foot project in its ultimate buildout. The interview is going well; we have practiced and rehearsed several times. We are confident in our answers and expertise. Our graphics are spot on and we have hit all of the important topics in the allotted time. With minutes remaining Mark Barkenbush, Banner Health’s Senior Project Executive of Development & Construction, throws a curve ball and asks, “How does your team like to have fun?” Crickets. It is not that we are not a fun-loving company; we host weekly Beer Fridays, play in the annual AIA volleyball tournament, and send humorous email chains. What struck us in this moment was the emphasis on the question. It was just as important as, maybe even more important than, any other question our client wanted to ask before selecting a design team.

The burden of the Banner Health interview team was to pull together a cross-functional team they thought would work well together in a co-location setting. It is not always as easy as simply matching compatible teams together. In the months and years to follow, we would experience firsthand the importance of balancing hard work with a little humor and lightheartedness to bond a very diverse group of people with different professional agendas. The ability to have fun, let loose, and embrace humor on a daily basis has helped improve teamwork, increase employee morale, maintain high retention rates, and resolve conflict- all of which benefited the client and the overall success of the project at large.


Banner Health’s Steve Brigham’s watercolor sketch of Brittany Burbes with DPR Construction giving introductions at one of the weekly report out meetings.

Like a growing number of projects nationwide, BUMCT utilizes an IPD “lite” approach to project delivery, in which all players on the project collaborate to best optimize project results, reduce waste, and maximize efficiency through all stages of the design process. The key to developing a collaborative culture essential to IPD is having a physical environment on-site to support cross-communication. Co-location, or a “Big Room” as our team prefers to call it, is a physical vessel that helps break down traditional silos with its open floor plan designed to promote human connections and impromptu interactions. Instead of phone calls and chasing unanswered emails, people can quickly gather in person to solve problems. The result is a highly collaborative environment consisting of approximately 175 key members on the BUMCT team representing the construction manager, architect and major trade partners including MEP and structural totaling 20 different firms.


The Wall of Fame plastered with a display of photoshopped images which help add humor and fun to the workplace.

Get to know everyone on the team
With such an expansive team, it’s critical to start by getting to know one another. We use ice-breaker type activities and humor to build the foundation for personal relationships and friendships across traditional “party lines.” One of our most successful approaches toward this effort started early on in the project when we structured our weekly report out meetings to begin with introductions. All new team members are asked to introduce themselves with an interesting fact or sing a song. A favorite of mine was when John Lewis, a project manager at Sundt Construction, sang “Started from the Bottom” by Drake with dance moves and all. Before this introduction John was just another engineer working on the project, but in that moment I realized we had another commonality – a love for hip hop music. It is easy to see how a small connection like this can lead to better camaraderie. To complement the sense of humor that had already developed in our weekly report out meetings, Banner Health’s Project Manager of Development & Construction, Kristian Watkins, created the Wall of Fame. The Wall of Fame started as a display of images posted in the Big Room to capture project activities and fun moments amongst team members. Fellow colleagues quickly jumped at the opportunity to show-off some Photoshop skills and have a good laugh. Soon additions were made that should have renamed the display the Wall of Shame. All in good fun, the friendly parodies and pokes at other teammates quickly became the highlight at our weekly report out meetings and topic of friendly conversation.

A sense of connection established through humor and fun is essential to uniting a project team of this size. When everyone knows each other, everyone feels more approachable; opening pathways to more communication, creative problem solving, and a better understanding for what others in the design and construction industry do on a daily ba-sis. Conflict typically arises from differing needs, but when there is an understanding for which role each person plays and what they need, there is mutual respect minimizing arguments and miscommunication. Furthermore, when humor is encouraged and integrated into the culture, confrontation can often be avoided in the first place. This can help one move through conflict to help them say things that might otherwise be difficult to express. When humor and play are used to reduce tension and anger, reframe problems, and put the situation into perspective, the conflict can become an opportunity for greater connection and understanding.

Balance sacrifice with reward

Sundt DPR Construction, Shepley Bulfinch, AEI, UMEC, GLHN, Stark Sturgeon Electric, and Banner Health all coming together for a game of bowling.

Sundt DPR Construction, Shepley Bulfinch, AEI, UMEC, GLHN, Stark Sturgeon Electric, and Banner Health all coming together for a game of bowling.

At the end of the day, a remote Big Room location requires team members to make many personal sacrifices. The success relies on everyone being physically present working together in a single location. Most of the team lives in Phoenix, so every week team members spend approximately four hours in the car commuting to and from Tucson and three days away from their families and personal routines. Given these types of sacrifices, one might expect members to get burnt out or the Big Room to disband after a few months. Conversely, only 13% of the team members have turned over; this equates to 152 of the original 175-person team still working hard and enjoying the project. It could be inferred that this low turnover rate is in part due to the culture and strong bonds formed over the past year of working together. Pleasure is a deceptively powerful resource. The entire team has worked some occasional late nights together and many have celebrated our successes together. During our travels to Tucson we have spent some of the evenings hiking, bowling, attending happy hours, or eating out at all the Tucson restaurants. We have even created our very own informal culinary tour called the “Taste of Tucson,” where as a group, we explore local eateries and gastropubs. In turn, team members have become more like friends than professional acquaintances and the sacrifices or difficulties that arise are easier to overcome when we continue to enjoy ourselves and have events to look forward to moving the project along.

Make fun a priority

The team got a little goofy for "Dress Like Your Coworker Day" at the weekly report out meeting.

The team got a little goofy for “Dress Like Your Coworker Day” at the weekly report out meeting.

Aside from after-hour activities, fun is also built into our work plan and prioritized at a leadership level. Monthly surveys strive to track the success of the Big Room, question areas for improvement, and ensure the team is gratified. One question that remains on the ballot from month to month is, “Are you having fun?” While the results always shed light on areas for improvement, 100% of the returned surveys state the individual is having fun. If by chance someone felt like he/she could not be honest on the anonymous survey, new events are always being scheduled in the effort to engage more people. Halfway through the project, an entire day was dedicated to what we called the “Half-Time Show.” It was a day of reflection to discuss lessons learned, memorialize project successes and milestones, and most importantly, engage in team-building activities. Later in the afternoon, the Owner hosted a barbeque following a team-wide talent show. At the talent show we shared in people’s passions outside of the project. Nic Chavez with Sundt DPR Construction wowed us with his aerial acrobatics, Steve Brigham, Banner Health’s Project Executive of Development & Construction shared his beautiful watercolors and blog, and Ibson Periera with Sturgeon Electric Company set the soundtrack with his one-man band. Everyone had a great time and the event was a success.

Nic Chavez with Sundt DPR Construction preparing for his aerial acrobatics routine at the Half Time Talent Show.

Nic Chavez with Sundt DPR Construction preparing for his aerial acrobatics routine at the Half Time Talent Show.

The concept that there is value in levity at the workplace is not an earth shattering revelation. In fact Dale Carnegie might have said it best, “people rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing.” That is not to say conflict never arises. Overcoming challenges and obstacles is always part of the design process. The difference in the big room as opposed to a more traditional process is when conflict inevitably arises, blame is not shifted. The issue is dealt with rationally and effectively as a group through dialogue, education, knowledge, and benevolence. It is not as easy to take things personally or become defensive when the group has grown together as a single supportive unit sharing in the same purpose, values, and identity. Detrimental personal agendas are pushed to the wayside, because everyone understands if one sector of the team is not functioning well, the team fails. The take away is the importance of actually investing and promoting joyous, playful, break-the-tension cheer into our work plans– especially those projects with a Big Room that depend on social interaction, personal experiences, and teambuilding. So if an owner were to ask you, “How does your team like to have fun?” what will your answer be?

- Michelle Mantegna, AIA

Michelle Mantegna, AIA, is Shepley Bulfinch’s Job Captain for Banner University Medical Center – Tucson

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