For many camp directors, these last few weeks before the campers arrive is our busiest time. Maintenance projects, supply and food orders, and staff training. It is an exciting time anticipating what we have been working towards all year. There is something magical about bringing people together in real life for a common purpose. Recently I attended a small social media conference hosted by Mashable which reminded me about what we do as camp directors to facilitate our staff’s experience. Mashable Connect, was designed to bring people together in a smaller setting where conversations and relationships could be fostered. By all accounts it was hugely successful. The Mashable team provided experiences and a setting for people to build relationships. As we do at camp, those experiences were initially directed by leaders but by the end were taken over by the attendees. It is what we hope takes place over the summer is for staff and campers to take ownership of the process and nurture the relationships on their own.
Social media is a powerful way to connect with people but it does not fill the need for human contact. Children, teens, and young adults have been asked to do more with their 24 hours a day than ever before. They fill their resume with classes and extracurricular activities for a college and work life that has yet to materialize. Social media provides a tool to connect with peers in their hectic and over-scheduled life. Just like the Mashable Connect group, children and teens coming to camp crave that in-person connection and relationships that goes beyond a social profile or large impersonal gatherings. I don’t think kids are less socially skilled at in-person relationships, they are time-deprived. Working with the 7 to 24 year old age group for the last 20 years I have not seen a decline in social skills but an increase in stress and future-focused pressure. Summer camp gives children, teens, and the staff who lead them the time to build a relationship that goes beyond the online profile and momentarily frees them from the stress of striving for that illusive prize.
If you have not met your life partner/spouse in college, it is likely you will meet them through work. The Gallup Organization has spent years trying to identify the consistent dimensions of workplaces with high levels of four critical outcomes: employee retention, customer metrics, productivity, and profitability. We base our management systems and philosophy at camp around this research. One of the 12 dimensions that consistently correlated with these four outcomes was having a friend at work. Not being overly social by nature, once I was able to see the business outcome of providing social opportunities for staff, I was sold. With so many workers telecommuting, the need for in person social connections is even greater.
Here are my three take-aways from Mashable Connect that may help you this summer:
Select the Right Group of People for Your Mission or Camp
Mashable did this by keeping the conference small and hand-selected people to participate based on the theme and goals of the conference. At camp we put our potential staff through an interview process to ensure we get the best balance and people for our specific camp. This is a long process but as camp directors we know this is what makes camp great not only for our campers but for the other staff. One staff member, during her interview, told me one reason she works at my camp is because I always hire people she would want to be friends with outside of camp. There is a lot of value both professionally and personally with having a friendship group curated for you by someone you trust. It is also a lot of responsibility when selecting a staff member to not only think about their ability to do the job but also their ability to fit in and be likable. If you do not have a good “likeability” radar, get someone on your hiring staff who does. It is a real talent. The most inspiring conversations I had at Mashable Connect, like most tech conferences, were in the hallways or on an excursion outside of the conference. It was the small size and select group of attendees that allowed that to happen easier than at larger conferences.
Scaffold Experiences, Proving Less Support as the Camp Progresses
Every camp director knows the value of group activities and learning. Running a 300 person staff or camp activity is not a task for a beginner. The first night of Mashable Connect, Adam Hirsch, the COO of Mashable, lead a huge activity of “speed networking.” Never easy to wrangle adults, he did an admirable job. I met a couple of people that first night that I connected with throughout the conference. As the conference went on, there were less directed activities and more time for people to self-select pre-planned activities like a Gowalla Scavenger Hunt or fireworks show. By providing the group a means to connect, people were able to break into even smaller groups based on personal interests. As camp directors we build around those introductory activities but may not always see the value in providing summer long opportunities to connect socially. I have found it to be less about me planning activities and more about providing a platform by which people can group and plan. Resident camps often have an easier time at this than day camps where we intentionally work hard to provide social experiences after camp ends at 4pm. The goal for the end of the summer is to have empowered your staff to set up activities and to be inclusive enough to make sure anyone can join in. [photo credit 300 person speed networking: by-nc-sa/2.0 mashable.com]
Social technology platforms like Facebook make it easy for staff to stay connected but it needs the commitment of the leaders to make it an extension of the camp rather than isolated people in conversation. I have seen this with the Mashable Connect group on facebook. As with the end of summer camp, everyone left Mashable Connect having spent an intense 4-5 days together only to have that typical summer camp withdrawal feeling. The Facebook group was a way to stay connected but I don’t think it would have been as successful if the Mashable leadership had not also gotten involved. Their involvement gave other members the cue that this is the place were you can continue the conference conversation. Photos and videos of the events are posted here and people are connecting around business interests and organizing their own online chats and in person connections. It is the evolution of a group when the members feel empowered to further the group culture on their own, apart from the organizers. What do you have in place for your summer camp staff? I find that while college students use technology daily, they are less savvy in how to use it in a social group. If you are going to use a particular social platform, take time to review it with staff, show them how to use it, and get key leaders involved. People will naturally go with the activity is so pick a social utility and build your community. Ignore it and people will branch off into splinter groups forming their own group without you.