Work­place: The bond­ing busi­ness (laser tag, any­one?) is boom­ing

Com­pa­nies are out­sourc­ing em­ployee morale build­ing

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - By Jen­nifer Miller

On a re­cent Thurs­day evening, Erin Mccul­loch, 31, was in her New York City of­fice’s con­fer­ence room bal­anc­ing on her man­ager’s shins. Nearby, an­other col­league lay on her back and lifted the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer into the air with her feet, air­plane-style. Ja­son Ne­mer, who’d come to teach this fu­sion of ac­ro­bat­ics and yoga to em­ploy­ees of tea and sup­ple­ment com­pany Aloha, was pleased. “We can lev­er­age the wis­dom of Acroyoga and ap­ply it to cor­po­rate Amer­ica,” he said. “Both re­quire co­op­er­a­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

This may over­state the pow­ers of Acroyoga, but not by much. Ever since Google be­gan of­fer­ing em­ploy­ees free mas­sages and fresh-fruit smooth­ies, star­tups have had to think hard about re­cruit­ment and re­ten­tion tools, from on-site dry clean­ers and baby- sit­ting to con­fer­ence-room gym­nas­tics. Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 sur­vey by job-list­ings web­site Glass­door, 79 per­cent of work­ers would pre­fer new ben­e­fits and perks over a raise. More money is nice, of course, but hav­ing a lit­tle ex­tra in your pay­check may not en­rich your life in the same way that mak­ing your day-to­day a bit more fun might.

Not ev­ery com­pany is Google, so if you don’t have a mar­ket cap in the hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars, you can out­source your morale build­ing to Wekudo ( pro­nounced “we could do”), which acts as a mid­dle­man, pair­ing busi­nesses like Aloha with, say, Acroyoga in­struc­tors. A com­pany can hire Wekudo to set up weekly or monthly events, a need its 24-year- old founder, Lee Rubin, iden­ti­fied in her pre­vi­ous job. Rubin’s man­ager was tasked with plan­ning em­ployee so­cial events. “They didn’t have the time, and they didn’t know what to do, so they were like, ‘Screw it. We’ll have a happy hour,’ ” Rubin re­calls. And be­cause hu­man re­sources had bud­geted $50 to $100 for each em­ployee—think­ing it would be spent on trust falls, not Tan­queray and ton­ics—“peo­ple ended up in sit­u­a­tions that weren’t pro­fes­sional.” Even­tu­ally, Rubin says, the startup banned booze on the com­pany dime, and af­ter that, “there were no events at all.”

What Rubin has learned is that, as nice as free smooth­ies are, “it’s ex­pe­ri­ences that keep peo­ple en­gaged. If you want to re­tain em­ploy­ees, they need to feel like they’re bet­ter­ing them­selves.” And it doesn’t hurt if the com­pany ben­e­fits, too. Wekudo trains its third­party in­struc­tors to make con­nec­tions be­tween ac­tiv­i­ties and cor­po­rate goals. An im­prov teacher might have a sales group act out client pitches. Or in a game of laser tag, Wekudo would make sure the teams en­cour­age in­ter­de­part­men­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It’s not ex­actly $100 in free gin and ton­ics, and there’s bound to be some eye-rolling, but the con­cept seems to be catch­ing on. Since Wekudo be­gan last year, 15,000 em­ploy­ees have par­tic­i­pated in its events in New York City, and 85 per­cent of clients have signed up for mul­ti­ple ses­sions. This year, Rubin plans to ex­pand to a half-dozen more cities. Some com­pa­nies have started us­ing Wekudo to at­tract new busi­ness: One CEO hired it to or­ga­nize a trivia night to help his staff bond with clients.

Back at Aloha, Mccul­loch ad­mit­ted that some of the in­struc­tor’s team- build­ing analo­gies were a lit­tle forced. (Ne­mer re­peat­edly com­pared Acroyoga to the busi­ness world. Dur­ing the warmup he said, “In a cor­po­rate struc­ture, we of­ten lose sight of our­selves, so we’ll start the class by lis­ten­ing to our own bod­ies.”) But in the end, bal­anc­ing on your man­ager’s shins or fly­ing air­plane-style is sim­ply “a dif­fer­ent way of con­nect­ing,” Mccul­loch said. Her boss, Ni­cole Tilzer, said, “Of­ten, man­agers and teams don’t com­mu­ni­cate enough.” She laughed, adding, “And to­mor­row, I’m go­ing to start throw­ing Erin around.” <BW>

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