Physical Acts of Kindness at Work - or - Candy for Everyone

Tracy Roesler bio photo By Tracy Roesler Comment

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Sure, we all know what a work day typically looks like. We go to work, we stare at our computer, sometimes we’re even productive. But what about the small things that make work better, like the candy dish on your neighbors desk or the birthday celebrations or other 7.3 thousand other small things that make the day a little extra special? What about the big things like a team or company party; how do people feel about 10 year celebrations?

These components are essential to improving the quality of life in the workplace – almost as much as snacks. And to me, it seems that a lot of these are carried out by women, whether through their actual position, or their assumed role within the company.

The bigger undertakings, a Christmas party or a 10 year celebration, in larger companies, are done by people who were hired to do so, or are expected to do so as a component of their job. There are a lot of administrative assistants who organize and arrange the location and the food and the decorations. Through personal observation, these roles heavily skew towards female, but not exclusively so.

Managing the smaller acts though – that gets more tricky. In tech particularly, there is no expectation that anything happens beyond work, which makes the workplace kind of mundane and drab. Especially since we live in a world where many companies have free snacks, performing these acts of kindness can seem unnecessary and redundant. But they are a key component to the atmosphere of the workplace, and should not be undervalued.

Throughout the tenure of my career, I had few bosses who recognized/celebrated my birthday (and the birthdays of my coworkers). And it was split - two were woman, one was a man. But I’ve only had two female bosses; I have had many more male bosses than one. Overwhelmingly, the bosses I have had just ignored things like birthdays. I know it is not due to knowledge gaps; HR systems generally tell you the birthday of your minions, I mean of a boss’s direct reports.

This past year, my birthday came around right around the end of a very long period of flat out, nose to the grindstone, work. So I did what any other person would do on their birthday – I threw an ice cream party for my coworkers. It was a lot of fun for me to bring them a bit of joy, and even though it was low key, and somebody stole my chocolate syrup, I really enjoy doing those sort of things.


Then there are the actions that don’t require a specific day. I would keep candy at my desk for colleagues, a surprisingly expensive endeavor. Sometimes, one of the other girls would help supplement my candy jar. Then there is the perennial favorite of tech employees: donuts. Donuts were brought in by men and women alike – probably with a breakdown roughly equivalent to the male:female ratio at work.

Small physical acts like these are done in the workplace predominantly by women. Particularly in tech. Even reading a blog from last March The Five Dev Love Languages, written by Anne Nichols, talks about bringing them donuts. It’s one of the love languages! She also distinguishes between smaller acts vs larger ones – mandatory fun like a Christmas Party – which will not win many hearts in tech.

I would argue that part of the reason why women perform these acts of physical and emotional labor is because they care, and it makes them feel good to do such things. They also may just like ice cream and candy themselves.

However, I think another component to these actions, like bringing donuts, or candy, or celebrating a birthday, has the added effect of diffusing situations or bolstering opinion. These things make the workplace easier for women. How we are perceived in the workplace is constantly on our minds (at least, it is constantly on my mind), and smaller offerings are a response to that perception. Or an action to that perception.

They also helps breed conversation and camraderie. They break up the workday. They make people smile.

Small physical acts of kindness, this one small component of emotional labor that women shoulder the burden of in the workplace helps to make the workplace a more inviting and welcoming place. And yes, some women do it because they enjoy it, but others do it because it helps make their lives easier. Maybe it’s an expectation that if anybody were to do these things, it would be women. I don’t know.

I do know that both men and women should help make their workplaces more enjoyable. And probably more healthy – maybe we should be bringing bran muffins or carrot sticks instead of donuts and candy. But these small acts of kindness have a ripple effect, and it should not be overwhelmingly women who perform these acts.

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