Cake-decorating, quizzes and remote lunches: keeping staff connected in the remote-work era

Susie Mesure
·5-min read

Nurturing a sense of shared purpose with work colleagues is challenging in these days of remote work and video meetings. Gone are post-work pints, sandwich-queue chats, tasting your colleague’s “cake-off” creation, and anything else resembling physical proximity and connection to your team. But with a little ingenuity – and a tolerance for 2D socialising – it’s still possible to keep spirits high and have fun.

From virtual magicians and online games to judging cakes purely on how delicious they look on Zoom, employees are finding new ways to bond with colleagues – remotely. Events such as quizzes and lunchtime yoga may even have become more popular now that people can log on from home rather than having to stay late at the office or endure a lunch-hour sweat.

Jade Emmons, a London-based communications manager for Degreed, a US education technology company, spent part of Halloween in fancy dress, running around her home seeking random items of clothing and a pumpkin as part of a competitive scavenger hunt. That was one of several online games held during her company’s virtual party.

“There was a costume competition, of course, and I was Samara, from The Ring,” Emmons says. “For Guess that Fridge [who it belonged to] we were all peering at photos, trying to work out if we were looking at English milk or an American yoghurt brand.” It was surprising fun, she says, although she’s also a fan of less energetic shared virtual experiences. These include welcoming joiners by sending everyone an Uber Eats voucher, and setting up a video call so they can all eat lunch “together”.

Other companies have been equally imaginative. One media organisation replaced its summer party with a global rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which correspondents from around the world took on some of Shakespeare’s most popular roles.

Meanwhile, at Kindred, a PR firm, winning the 2020 baking competition hinges on how well you can pipe icing rather than perfect the best rise, as in previous years. Each participant received a Betty Crocker cake mix, so the real challenge was the decoration. A Chris Whitty cake – very 2020 – dreamed up by associate director Beccie Stevenson, made it to the final round. “You can’t taste it so it’s all down to the aesthetic,” she says.

Stevenson is also a fan of a monthly initiative called Change Maker that gets people to nominate a colleague of the month. Her last pick was Emma Parrish, who won in October for the effort she put into suggesting books, podcasts and music to celebrate Black History Month. “She tackled quite difficult conversations, head on,” says Stevenson. Each winner gets to virtually spin a wheel to win a prize, which ranges from an alarm clock to a pair of sheepskin slippers.

Nick Winham, whose job is overseeing a programme to recruit and train the next generation of talent for the software provider ServiceNow, is one of the California-based company’s culture champions, helping to run initiatives to keep its dispersed workforce feeling connected. He says the shift to remote working has resulted in many more people taking part in events such as quizzes. “When we did them at the office, we’d only get 15 people at most,” he says. “Doing them virtually, we’re getting 40 to 50. Other colleagues join in with their families.” Virtual yoga and meditation sessions are also proving to be much more popular than the real-life versions ever were.

For companies keen to introduce their own programmes, Winham’s tips include blocking off time during the working day for non-work sessions. His quizzes, for instance, are at 4pm on Thursdays, with a takeaway pizza prize for the winner. “It gets very competitive,” he says.

It helps to have a variety of ways that people can get involved. “It’s not one size fits all. A quiz won’t work for everyone,” Winham says. “Wellness won’t work for everyone. It’s a challenge but doing things virtually can work better. You give more people the chance to engage, so you can [end up with] a more inclusive culture online, by opening up opportunities for more people to interact with each other who maybe wouldn’t have done previously.”

A “step-up” challenge earlier this summer, where ServiceNow colleagues formed teams to record their daily step counts, proved popular thanks to a novel twist that saw two executive directors volunteer to do something different with their hair depending on how much money was raised during the week-long challenge. “That created engagement,” Winham says. “Step-up September” developed as a result, with teams from across Europe.

Related: No touchscreens, more space: welcome to the post-pandemic office?

Other activities encourage people to chat openly about the challenges of working from home, with some offering coping tips. “The main advice has been to take a break,” Winham says, adding that he went for a walk before talking to me.

London-based LocalGlobe, which invests in startup tech companies, hosts virtual “lunch and learn sessions” with guests as diverse as the founder of the small business supporter Funding Circle and a representative of the anti-poverty group Camden Giving. Emma Phillips, a partner at LocalGlobe, says she wants to do all she can to keep employees engaged and connected. “At the moment people are feeling more cut off and isolated than ever, and there is concern that once we’ve defeated Covid-19, we’ll have an even worse mental health pandemic on our hands.”

Often the simplest ideas can help compensate for the lack of in-person interaction. Online channels dedicated to different interests, from cats to physical fitness, work well at Degreed, says Emmons, although she steers clear of the HIIT workout and body-building chat. “Our London office manager has a virtual running club that she’s tried to convince me to join, but I’ve managed to dodge it so far!”

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