We had a problem. It generally struck our workforce at that point when the day's forecast called for "increasing shades of gray, quickly turning to total blackness," with temperatures not unlike those inside the freezer portion of a refrigerator.

In Maine, this malady strikes more often than the seasonal flu. Symptoms? Carpenters suffer from irritability and "feverish fretting" at the jobsite. Foremen experience draining bouts of "impaired decision making." Electricians and plumbers are afflicted with symptoms of "artful amnesia," resulting in inconsistent job attendance. "Dysfunctional December" is what my husband, Paul, calls it. Being a former teacher, I just call it Attention Deficit Disorder. Don't get me wrong. For the other 11 months of the year, our crew is superb. It's only in December that this disorder strikes.

Treat the symptoms

Although there's no cure for the desolation that descends on Maine this time of year (you can't change the weather), we struggled to think of some way to ease its effects. That's when the concept of Crew Cruise 2002 was born. We decided we'd take a company trip, a Caribbean cruise from Miami to Mexico, with a stop in Key West. The company would pay airfare, motel, taxi fares, and cruise expenses for employees and their spouses. In addition, each employee would be paid his or her regular salary during the week we were away.

Excitement abounded. Evans, our youngest employee, excitedly told us how many days there were until "take off." He and his girlfriend, Jenny, had never even flown, let alone been on a cruise. Tim, our newest employee, told us that the ship we were slated to take in two weeks had just returned to port with the Norwalk Virus. He then assumed the role of "sick ship reporter."

Team spirit

Once we were on the ship, we held a team meeting each morning of our trip. Meeting No. 1 was held with the sun at our backs and surf at our feet. That day, we asked employees to write a job overview. Tim wrote, "I would describe my job as learning the craftsmanship of building, being the foreman's extra hands, knowing what needs to be done -- when, where, and how."

Herb wrote: "My job entails overseeing the crew, materials, and quality workmanship. If the crew knows what to do and how to do it, we'll be happy and busy." Evans simply stated, "I just do what they tell me to do."

Each day, sandwiched between parasailing, touring Duval Street in Key West, skirting vendors in Cozumel, formal and not so formal dinners, Broadway-quality shows, swimming, reading, sunning, dancing, and partaking in the day's specialty libation, we actually got some work done. We all shared ideas about what we could do to make everyone's days less frustrating and more productive. We also talked about how we, as a group, could continue to move in a positive direction. We came up with a list of suggestions.

* Research health and retirement plans

* Make more information about our products available to crew and clients

* Give the crew a list of "most frequently asked client questions," including answers

* Hold morning and afternoon crew meetings on site each day

* Set up a lending library of trade books and journals

* Hire additional carpenters

* Order trade journal subscriptions for each member of the crew

* Communicate, communicate, communicate

And the last idea: Go on another cruise in December 2003!

Total cost per person: approximately $800. Total value to our company spirit: priceless. --Susan Meynell and her husband, Paul, own Acadia Post & Beam, a design/build company in Sullivan, Maine.