Book It!

04_2016_worklife_MAIN_book_open_bigstock-111854537_1424x1068Ever wish you could read more books—and not just when you’re on vacation? Looking for a way to boost morale and creativity in your work team? Want a steady diet of interesting and relevant new ideas that can energize your work and career?

Then tear yourself away from email and spreadsheets and borrow a page from the many businesses that have started employee book clubs.

Business book clubs meet at lunchtime, after work, or over a conference call; some read business books exclusively, while others mix in fiction as well. Here’s how some successful reading groups got their start—and continue to thrive.

The Start-Up

ALICE (“A Life-Improving Customer Experience”), which makes an app for the hospitality industry, was experiencing the growing pains and breakneck pace common to start-ups. So the company’s founders made an unusual decision: to slow down and read.

The failure rate for start-ups is 80 to 90 percent, writes ALICE cofounder Dmitry Koltunov in TechCrunch. But books “provide direct access to people who have done it and can help you ‘grow up’ before you run out of funds.” Koltunov and his team identified specific business challenges and picked books that focus on those challenges. To learn how to deepen user engagement, they selected Hooked, by Nir Eyal. To learn how to build a great company, they chose Good to Great, by Jim Collins, a 2001 title that’s a favorite of many workplace book groups.

Participation is voluntary; employees who opt-in read one book a month in any format—hardcover, paperback, e-reader, audio—and then discuss that book under the direction of a volunteer leader. Three years after the book club started, it’s “our most comprehensive learning tool,” Koltunov writes.

The Virtual Team

Work teams that don’t share a physical office may miss the casual interactions and water-cooler chat that enliven office environments. To address that lack, ETMG, a 16-person, “100% virtual” Silicon Valley marketing agency, started a book group that meets every other month over a conference call.

Book titles are suggested in advance via email, and three executives make the final decision. “We keep it pretty light,” says Linda Unger, the agency’s chief financial officer. “We started with books that would help the team from a business perspective, like Go Suck a Lemon—a book about emotional intelligence—and Choosing Easy World, about the power of positive thinking. But attendance dropped, so we decided to mix it up with fun and current books,” including Mindy Kaling’s memoir Why Not Me? and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. Books must be under 300 pages and available on e-reader and audio; the company’s human resources manager leads the discussion. The call begins at noon and lasts about an hour; everyone brings lunch (ETMG foots the bill), “and we chat for a few minutes about what everyone is eating, too,” Unger says.

Although there’s no formal follow-up, “everyone talks about the book before and after the meeting. It’s been great for morale and team spirit.”

The After-Hours Meetup

If the workday is too jammed for a book break, an evening meeting may be the solution. It works for Sarah Hastelow, a publicist at Penguin Random House Children’s UK, who gets together once a month at 5:30 p.m. with other members of the public relations and marketing teams in their London office. “We became book publicists because we love all books,” says Hastelow, “so we actively try to read books outside the children’s genre.” Recent picks have included All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood.

After-hours meetups also work for professional organizations like the CLUB, a San Francisco Bay Area network of women in leadership positions. The group’s “Big Read” meets quarterly in downtown Palo Alto to discuss books by women about professional development; recent titles have included Rebels at Work, by Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina, and Rise, by Patty Azzarello. Co-leader Judith Coley, the chief marketing officer at a start-up that sells to enterprises, found Rise “a great book to help me develop the necessary mindset” for working with senior-level executives at major tech companies and venture capital firms.

Because its members work at different companies, Financial Women of San Francisco also holds book-club meetings after work, usually in a member’s conference room. The club, which started earlier this year, meets monthly and reads only business books, such as Mindset, by Carol Dweck, and Knowing Your Value, by Mika Brzezinski. Group member Julianna Iran, a wealth advisor at The Presidio Group, says she is impressed by the “deep and meaningful” discussions at meetings. After reading Knowing Your Value, “the women shared openly the ways they had been treated unfairly or differently because they were women or because of their race.”

The More, the Better

The online eyeglass company Warby Parker took its name from two characters in books by Jack Kerouac—Zagg Parker and Warby Pepper—so it’s only logical that the company endorsed reading groups from its earliest days. “It happened very organically,” with a few people talking about their current reads, cofounder Neil Blumenthal told Fast Company; it evolved into a single weekly book club, and it now flourishes as 11 mini-groups that meet at least monthly. Titles are a mix of fiction and nonfiction (usually business-related): “The hope was that if it was fiction that it would spur creativity and that if it was nonfiction there would be inherent lessons from other industries and walks of life that allow us to be better at designing eyewear,” Blumenthal said.

Whether your workplace creates a single book group or 11, the benefits of reading both on the job and off can make your office more functional, productive, and even happier.

Nancy Friedman is a writer and brand consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. Furthermore, she is a co-founder at KidzVuz, where she writes about new projects and start-ups.

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