19 June 2018

"SnackChat" builds community at the MagLab

Staffers from opposite ends of the building (Jonathan Billings, left, and Steve Rowland) meet at SnackChat. Staffers from opposite ends of the building (Jonathan Billings, left, and Steve Rowland) meet at SnackChat. Stephen Bilenky

Monthly gatherings prepare employees for the dreaded awkward elevator ride.

Story by ABIGAIL ENGLEMAN. Photos by STEPHEN BILENKY.

The elevator doors open: You crack a smile, bashfully whisper "hello," to the unfamiliar face inside. The 15-second, painfully silent ride feels like an eternity. When the doors finally open, you blurt out, "Have a good day!" then hightail it to your office.

Web developer Sarita Finn meets a colleague. Web developer Sarita Finn meets a colleague. We've all been there — those awkward office moments in break rooms, elevators or hallways with co-workers we don't really know. It happens at the National MagLab, too, which boasts hundreds of employees from over 50 countries, split among numerous departments. So in early 2017, the MagLab's Diversity Committee launched SnackChat, an initiative to combat awkward elevator rides and foster connection among employees throughout the lab.

SnackChat is a cross between speed dating and a company picnic. Once a month, eight MagLab employees from different parts of the lab are invited to attend a 30-minute get-together, where they participate in one-on-one conversations with other attendees. And yes, there are snacks!

"People are more likely to engage with one another if they know something about them," said Roxanne Hughes, director of the Center for Integrating Research and Learning and of the lab's Diversity Committee. "SnackChat's framework introduces participants to seven people they didn’t know before, fostering a more collegial and family atmosphere at the lab."

SnackChat co-facilitator Jose Sanchez fries up tostones, Snackchat’s signature treat.SnackChat co-facilitator Jose Sanchez fries up tostones, SnackChat’s signature treat.Participants pair up, fill their plates with treats, and take turns introducing themselves to the fresh face before them. Conversation topics range from favorite movies to research expertise, and it doesn't take long for co-workers who may never have crossed paths to reach common ground. Two SnackChat attendees even discovered they had both worked at the same lab across the country before starting at the MagLab.

When the buzzer sounds, participants rotate, leaving one conversation to strike up another. The conversation rounds are long enough to spark new friendships, while fleeting enough to leave duos with more to discuss next time they bump into each other.

SnackChat has been a hit: In a post-event survey, participants were enthusiastic about attending future events and said they would recommend the program to their colleagues. "SnackChat receives high praise from me!" said Business Systems Director Debra Booth, who attended a recent SnackChat shortly after joining the lab's staff. "It afforded me the chance to meet more colleagues than I would have in the normal cycle of my day … and it didn't take a lot of time!"

Maybe it's the new connections they're making. Or maybe it's the fresh tostones SnackChat co-facilitator Jose Sanchez fries up before each event. Either way, SnackChat's success highlights that the recipe for connection in the MagLab community has two simple ingredients: good food and great conversations.