The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Book Club at Work (+FREE Checklist)
Starting a book club sounds like a simple endeavor. The rules are straightforward: choose a book, pour wine, and talk about it, right? But if you’re planning to manage an office book club, there are a few more considerations (like looping in human resources!).
I’ve started three book clubs over the years, but I chaired this post longest while working at a family foundation that supported humanitarian efforts in developing countries. During my first week, I asked the HR manager if there was a book club, and when she shook her head, I asked if I could start one. She thought it was a great idea, so I chose a book and sent an email around to the other 15 employees to see who might be interested. By the time I left more than five years later, the book club was still running, and our staff had tripled in size.
We met regularly—every other month—and enjoyed the time to pause from our work to reflect on the big issues facing our world. I usually made treats, which helped lure people to our lunchtime meetings, and while people came and went (not everyone showed up, even after accepting the meeting request), we always had a steady stream of committed readers.
In running these meetings and working to increase staff participation, I learned a few things along the way. If you’d like to start an office book club of your own, here are a few things to keep in mind.
8 Tips for Successfully Starting (and Managing) a Book Club at Work
Whether your group is large or small, be sure everyone knows what to expect. Clear the club with HR, and clarify the types of books you’ll be reading. When I worked in philanthropy, our club was designed as a way to deepen our knowledge of the humanitarian field, so we read mostly nonfiction selections profiling NGOs, covering historical events like famines, disasters, or global conflicts, and books discussing the role of philanthropy and its purpose in society. Depending on your line of work, though, you might want to focus on industry-related books, creativity or professional development, or just use the group to read the latest New York Times bestseller as an enjoyable diversion from whatever you do all day.
2. House rules
I’ve operated book clubs without formal rules regarding attendance or participation. This flexibility keeps the club accessible and informal, while encouraging colleagues to read the books even if they can’t attend.
3. Book access
Check with your HR department to see if they’ll cover the cost of books (it doesn’t hurt to ask!). If yes, order as many as you need, and distribute them well in advance. You can also recommend local libraries, ordering from Amazon, or even audio books for commuters.
4. Timing is everything
“Brown bag” lunch discussions are usually a good time to meet, since it’s a natural break in the day, and doesn’t require any after-hours meetings. As for frequency, every two months seems to be a sweet spot, although if you’re ambitious, once a month could work if the group is committed. Quarterly would leave too much time between finishing a book and the discussion to follow.
5. Use resources to your advantage
At my foundation, our staff was comprised of experts in various fields like homelessness, disaster relief, water, and more. When book selections coincided with our program areas, I invited program officers to attend and share a bit about the grantmaking efforts in this area and answer questions. This approach is a great way for everyone to learn more about various initiatives and departments in your company, and to encourage cross-departmental engagement. When you can, invite folks who head departments, or staff who you know might be knowledgeable about a particular topic.
6. Keep it casual
Open each meeting with a few comments to start the conversation, but let it naturally spread from there. Sometimes I prepare a question or two, but the informality of the discussion makes everyone feel comfortable enough to share any reactions they had while reading. If you’d like to plan ahead, write a handful of questions and email them to everyone beforehand. Some people will appreciate the prompts, and will come prepared with even deeper insights.
7. Bring treats
Bribery isn’t absolutely necessary, but it can help boost enthusiasm. I’ve made everything from caramel corn to hand pies. Here are some great recipes to try: caramel corn, chocolate chip cookies, and blueberry crumb bars.
8. Stay organized
I recommend taking an occasional poll to see which books were favorites and which fell short. Also, keep a running list of potential books so you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes time to choose the next selection. (Creating an exclusive wish list on Amazon helps with this!)