How can employers motivate teams collectively in the current environment?

Need to know:

  • Employers avoid quizzes and opt for virtual play-based games to keep employees motivated.
  • They can investigate wellbeing platforms paired with wearable technology to collectively engage staff in active challenges.
  • Benefits should be reviewed and tailored to employees’ personal circumstances.

Team building exercises, away days, family fun days and pub quizzes have long been mainstays of an employer’s motivation strategy. But the arrival of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic in 2020 has forced organisations to adapt their methods and reach out to teams that are working in, sometimes widely, dispersed locations.

One year on and with England now in its third lockdown the unprecedented pressures on both organisations and employees show no immediate sign of waning, so how are organisations reaching out to teams and bolstering spirits in such a difficult time? And what virtual team building services have sprung up to bridge the gap?

While virtual quizzes are popular and have been entertaining many people during the pandemic, there are alternatives that can help an employer motivate and engage a remote workforce. One example is The Crystal Maze Live Experience, an immersive game based on the popular 90s TV show, which has pivoted and developed a virtual version called Dome from Home. The game, according to sales and events director Harry Blaiberg, is a “fun and unique” way of keeping teams connected and an antidote to Zoom quizzes. Each experience is hosted and led by a maze master. “This provides bosses and team leaders who would usually drive video meetings with the opportunity to take a step back from leading and instead be a part of the team,” Blaiberg says. “This helps provide a feeling of unity, and it provides a break from work and some light-hearted fun for team members to enjoy together.”

Play time
Employers are also turning to play-based workshops. Jessica Shaw, director of Pact Creative Training, a play-based workshop provider, has hosted sessions for numerous organisations over the past year.

The facilitator-led sessions vary from word-play, storytelling or imagination-based games to movement-themed classes like virtual fencing, or drawing exercises and drama-based ice breakers. “The aim is to bridge the gap for teams working far apart and replicate the sense of camaraderie that working in an office usually brings,” Shaw explains. “Using short, playful activities can be a great boost for engagement, an effective leveller and break the monotony.

“We’ve had many bookings over lockdown where managers want to support their staff to feel connected to the organisation and to one another, and to give teams an opportunity to re-group and let off steam during such challenging circumstances.

“Staff report feeling very uplifted, so this is a good way for managers to demonstrate their care and concern for staff morale and that they are investing in the longevity of their teams.”

Wearable technology is another way employers are connecting colleagues, lifting spirits and simultaneously encouraging better health. Global fitness device firm Garmin joined forces with employee wellbeing platform Tictrac to enable staff to track their daily steps on connected devices and participate in various active challenges to see who can complete them the quickest.

Connectivity for good mental health

A survey of 150 HR leaders in November 2020 by Wade Macdonald and Doyle Clayton, revealed as many as three fifths (62%) of employees have experienced mental health issues since the outbreak of the pandemic.

“Many people are suffering personally right now and not feeling appreciated at work is only going to amplify negative feelings,” explains Iain Thomson, director of incentive and recognition at Sodexo Engage. “There’s a huge focus on self-care, with many managers reminding staff to eat well, exercise, rest, and not sacrifice basic needs for work. Offering staff rewards that align with this area of focus has proven particularly successful, including fruit baskets, healthy treats and wellbeing packages.”

Signs of burnout

Thomson flags that while some employees are juggling duties like home schooling with work, and require more time and flexibility, others are working 12/14 hours days because their social lives have taken a hit. “It’s crucial managers discourage this behaviour as it’ll result in a burnout crisis,” he warns. “A key sign of a burned-out workforce is disengaged, unmotivated staff, who’ve become cynical about work; so it’s important to keep an eye out.”

Employee burnout while remote working is a key issue for employers, agrees Sharon Doherty, chief people and places officer at global fintech firm Finastra, which employs more than 9,000 employees across 42 countries. “Empathetic, open conversations and regular communication are essential in keeping company culture alive while staff are working remotely,” she says. “To address the problem of burnout, we launched several policies that looked at the benefits of shortening meetings, being culturally aware of days off around the world, and focusing time on what is important to our teams. We have rolled out uncapped holidays so our teams can take time off when they need it.”

Regular check-ins 

David Williams, CEO and founder of global leadership development and creative change agency Impact, which employs 250 people in 11 countries, hosts twice weekly virtual check-in sessions with mixed teams of country managers and heads of function where he provides business updates. Employees are also asked about the direction the business should take and recordings of the meetings are then made available to everyone in the organisation. “No matter how physically dispersed we may be, it’s vital that everyone feels and understands the significance of their contribution to our business,” he says. “We all agree that we are better connected and better informed now than we were before the crisis.”

According to Williams, good leadership, especially during times of uncertainty, sometimes requires a more hands-off approach. “To thrive, it is important that people know you are there to support them, but crucially, they are given space and time to develop ideas and initiatives under their own steam,” he says. Carving out non-work time where employees connect and share stories, is also essential, he adds. Every Friday lunchtime his staff host sessions covering topics from online dance to art and cookery classes. Care packages are also sent out to employees.

Recognition in hard times

Jamie King, head of global reward at Xexec, has noticed an increasing number of both prospective and existing clients looking to review and upgrade an existing reward and recognition scheme or formalise a new one. “It is clear that businesses are well aware of the importance of motivating and engaging their employees especially during these trying times, and the majority of them have the foresight to realise that these schemes can play a vital role in the achievement of overall business objectives,” he says.

Remote working has resulted in a shift towards rewards that have a much stronger focus on home-related family activities and shared experiences as opposed to the classic retail voucher, he adds.

Despite the pandemic-induced uncertainty and pressure wrought on employers and staff, King insists there is light at the end of the tunnel. “We believe that many of the innovations forced on us now due to remote working will remain with us after lockdown in what will end up being a much more wholesome approach to employee engagement, recognition and celebration.”

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