Team spirit goes digital and to the park as COVID-19 measures continue


TORONTO — Siequalynnda McNeil-Bobb glides her stylus along a tablet, turning the strokes into an intricate drawing of a wolf.

Her fellow WildBrain Ltd. animators watch through their computer screens as she draws Coast Salish art, describing being from the Stó:lo Nation and speaking Halq’eméylem.

“They thought it was so cool and I got so many messages after,” she says. “It felt incredible. The studio is full of different cultures, but I haven’t found as many who share one similar to mine, so this was something new to share.”

For many businesses that moved to a remote-work model this year, keeping employees engaged without the usual watercooler chatter, team lunches or after-work pub nights has been a challenge. With a view to boosting morale, some have found new ways to stay connected: virtual movie nights, cooking classes, Q&A sessions with famous guests and sometimes even small, physically distanced gatherings.

For McNeil-Bobb, WildBrain’s efforts were a chance to stay connected with coworkers she hasn’t seen in five months.

Other staff at the Halifax entertainment company, which is behind such animated series as “Carmen Sandiego” and “Snoopy in Space,” have had a chance to show off their skills with sketchpad drawing, stamp sculpting, Photoshop and painting.

On top of art sessions, it hosts virtual coffee breaks, fitness sessions and a offered week of Pride-related activities including a Q&A with “Canada’s Drag Race” star Tynomi Banks.

At the Royal Bank of Canada, virtual movie nights, volunteering opportunities, scavenger hunts, coffee chats and monthly Q&A sessions with the company’s leaders.

There have also been workout challenges, name-that-baby and kids’ art contests and chances for workers to share videos of their “COVID hobbies” — guitar, ping pong, Scrabble, trampoline and yoga.

Meanwhile, Manulife Financial Corp. employees are belting out tunes, creating wigs from scratch and playing the piano blindfolded in a company-wide virtual talent show.

The insurer also launched a staff book club, with selections like Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” and hosted sessions with guests speakers including astronauts and the Boston Red Sox trainers.

“These are attempts to see what the new normal will look like that keep people engaged and let employees know that their organization still cares about them and their team is still there,” said John Trougakos, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, who has researched employee wellbeing and productivity.

“This gives companies a way to come up with new normals and ways of doing things, because the old way isn’t necessarily the only way.”

These reimagined team activities, he said, are boosting productivity, creativity, satisfaction and commitment, while also addressing long-held fears about working from home being isolating and a detriment to companies.

Many companies have realized productivity isn’t plummeting while workers are at home, so they are increasingly turning their attention towards team spirit.

At Montreal’s Element AI that’s manifested itself in getting staff to host virtual home tours so they can bond over their new workspaces and at Toronto-based benefits company League, it’s meant virtual cooking classes and morning stretch sessions.

While those companies say staff have embraced the new experiences, Trougakos predicts not all the new programs will survive the pandemic.

“We are in a testing period. Some things are going to work and be fine, but also some things are going to come off as not too good and won’t work out as they planned,” he said.

Meghan Smith, the vice-president of people and culture at Toronto-based education software company Top Hat, has noticed an evolution in what bonding experiences employees have been interested in throughout the pandemic.

Staff at first enjoyed virtual game nights, escape rooms, lunch and learns and even a digital baby shower for a staff member who was due to give birth.

“We shipped a massive balloon to her house. She had no idea and we got her favourite cupcakes sent,” said Smith.

“We played a lot of games virtually where we had to submit our baby pictures and guess who it was. It was honestly one of the best baby showers I have gone to.”

When professional sports resumed, interest edged towards online sports viewing parties or small meet-ups in parks.

Attendees were advised to stay at least six feet apart, but the company made gatherings easy by building an internal map workers could submit their address to figure out what Top Hat pals lived nearby.

Workers seem to appreciate the efforts.

“Our employee engagement scores have really gone up and you wouldn’t think that wouldn’t happen during the pandemic and such a challenging time,” said Smith.

The efforts won’t replace the excitement of the family picnics Top Hat hosted some summers, but it’s the thought that counts.

“It’s so important to make sure your employees are heard and that we are doing what we need to as a business to make them feel supported, appreciated and recognized.”

Companies in this story: (TSX:WILD, TSX:RY, TSX:MFC)