It's cheesy, but it works.
So says Frank B. Mengert, founder and CEO of ebm, a North Haven, Connecticut-based benefits and HR tech company, about his company's weekly video call, known as "Friday Vibes." The one rule: You can talk about anything but work.
These unconventional meetings--ebm's sometimes involve games like Two Truths and a Lie--have helped reduce turnover in the company since they started them in May 2020. At a time when employees are quitting in record numbers and rotating through workplaces without ever meeting co-workers in-person, such bonding activities can potentially improve team dynamics, says Timothy Golden, professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lally School of Management and a longtime researcher of remote work.
From Inc. 5000 CEOs, here are three ways to forge bonds between team members in your still-virtual workplace.
1. "Anything but work" check-ins
Consistency is crucial to Friday Vibes, Mengert says. Every Friday at 4 p.m., anywhere from half to all of ebm's 47 employees hang out on one Zoom call and chat about non-work topics or play games, especially with new hires. Most Friday Vibes go over the allotted time, he adds. Serious topics like mental health come up sometimes, or the team might spend the whole hour discussing types of cars they've driven before.
A couple of months into the pandemic, the team at Burlingame, California-based gaming and strategy research firm IDG Consulting started to look a little haggard, says CEO and president Yoshio Osaki. The 11-person company went remote in 2018 but over time, IDG employees lost an element of interpersonal connection. "We were our own little islands," he says. When the pandemic hit and people started going through lockdowns and additional childcare stress, Osaki finally realized that since the company went remote he had been checking in on what people were doing, not how they were doing. And morale seemed to be taking a hit as a result.
That's actually pretty common in a remote environment, Golden says. People tend to be more task-oriented than relationship-oriented, so managers have to find ways to rebuild interpersonal trust and rapport virtually. Osaki's solution was to implement a 30-minute mandatory non-work chat every other week (it's since expanded to 60 minutes).
The calls provided fun bonding time, but some turned less lighthearted. Osaki realized that some employees needed additional help and added an annual $1,000 self-care stipend to make it easier to pay for things like therapy. He learned an employee had back pain and bought them an ergonomic chair. Another had gotten into building computers, so they bought him some tools, and he ended up building one for their data scientist. And beyond the insight on employees' needs, Osaki says, "We saw an increase in productivity as well as creativity." In sum, starting the chat has been an important factor in making 2021 a record year for IDG's revenue.
2. Gratitude sharing
Telling your employees you appreciate them seems like obvious advice--but helping them do it in structured ways helps you keep from losing them, according to Keegan Caldwell, founder and managing partner of Boston-based Caldwell Intellectual Property Law. Every Friday at noon, employees share whom they've been grateful for over the last week. "What we found was this was the most important meeting for us to have," Caldwell says. He started it three years ago, inspired by his 12-step recovery process and his ability to make it through the associated challenges. Since then, he estimates, it has improved retention by 10 percent.
For Boston-based Winthrop Wealth and CEO Max Winthrop, it's about the "small wins." On their morning call, the team has the option to share their tiny victories, like putting in extra effort to help a client's family after their spouse died. The company started it after doing a workshop in the fall of 2020 with self-actualization and sharing activities--and Winthrop hasn't lost an employee since. It also helps him keep perspective as a leader, he says: "The small contributions add up to the greater success."
3. Games and experiences
Every month or so, employees at government IT contractor Kech play bingo and Pictionary, compete for who has the cutest pet photo, or speculate about how they would survive a zombie apocalypse. Chris Carpenter, the Williamsburg, Kentucky-based company's CEO and co-founder, likes to mix it up. Her company, which operates call centers for government services, had high turnover before the pandemic. But she says she's managed to keep a core group of employees by adding fun and human connection into their workdays.
Most events come with prizes, and Carpenter estimates she spends $2,000 on gift cards a year for the winners. She organizes them herself and regularly gets messages from employees asking when the next game will be.
When it comes to games, pick something that is collaborative rather than competitive to boost organizational cohesion, says Sean Newman, a visiting professor at Rollins College and senior vice president of operations at London-based financial services firm Aon. And try to use bonding activities or games to build up relationships between specific employees. "To the extent that your games can show the manager really cares and establish that relationship... it can be a real positive outcome for retention," he says.
Games and more elaborate, planned events can help avoid the dreaded Zoom happy hour, says Jonathan Conelias, CEO of Boston-based ReElivate, which provides virtual experiences for clients, including Amazon and Google. His advice: Try to plan something special and interesting that gives employees a shared experience to refer to, like an escape room.
Lauren Greenwood's company, YouCopia, which is based in Chicago and provides organizational home goods for consumers, simply does "welcome lunches" on the first day for new hires with three weird questions for everyone else to answer. (The meals were virtual for part of the pandemic but are now in-person for smaller groups.) If you're too busy to organize creative bonding activities--or it's just not your thing--hire someone to handle it, she advises.