Skills HR will need in 2021: Bringing the fun back to work

We may be in the midst of a pandemic, but firms can keep staff motivated with video games, photo challenges... and horses

Skills HR will need in 2021: Bringing the fun back to work

For most employees, ‘fun’ is one word that probably hasn’t seen too much usage of late. With many staff back working from home – with all the lack of proper facilities, space, privacy and IT support this may entail – the daily grind has become just that, with loneliness and mental wellbeing issues a real danger. And data from Peldon Rose reveals it’s hurting employers. A third (33 per cent) admit productivity has become a problem since the start of the pandemic, with 48 per cent citing maintaining motivation as the main issue. 

As such, “bringing a sense of fun to a workforce is key”, says Aleksandra Sulimko, HR director at TheSoul Publishing. “Fun breeds creativity, but keeping a team motivated takes effort,” she says. “It’s about ensuring a feeling of connection to what is a very remote workforce.” So just how are firms injecting a bit more levity into proceedings? People Management investigated, in the interests of providing some potentially much-needed inspiration...


For many, fun comprises the ‘micro moments’ the office typically creates. And many companies are seeking to mimic this virtually. Dropbox, for example, has created ‘Coffeebox’, where staff are assigned to a Zoom room with four other randomly assigned Dropboxers. Digital communications agency Octopus went one step further, arranging, before England’s second lockdown kicked in, in-person lunches. “Overnight, we went from a third of our 100 staff always being in the office to 100 per cent working remote – which was a scary prospect,” says Kavita Shergill, head of talent. “‘Lunch club’ is where we offer people lunch on us, in-person, in a socially distanced way. It’s expensed back, and the only proviso is our ‘Octopedes’ have to post a picture on our intranet. 

“We’ve also introduced remote ‘coffee roulette’ – every Wednesday at 4.30 for half an hour,” she says. “This is where we randomly pair people up with someone else in the business. It gets those who might be feeling flat to take time out to talk to someone. Staff tell us the level of happiness such a simple, fun event creates is huge. Many are in their early 20s and stuck at home in cramped flat shares. They tell us being given permission to get out has been amazing for their mental health.”

Games nights 

Organisations are excelling at finding new ways to still have the sorts of fun and games they previously had at work. Tech unicorn SafetyCulture has an adult-sized ball pit in its office, now sitting unused, so it decided to bring larking about to staff’s homes instead. It launched a daily version of TV programme Through the Keyhole, where staff share photos of rooms in their homes and the rest of the team have to guess who it belongs to (the winner gets a surprise gift delivered to their door). 

Global digital transformation agency Somo, meanwhile, has bought everyone a subscription to online game Minecraft and regularly runs player tournaments. And 12-strong Velocity Smart Lockers – supplier of automated collection and delivery solutions – has just purchased a dozen top-of-the-range Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality (VR) headsets that will be distributed to staff to allow it to hold a ‘virtual Christmas party’ – the cornerstone of which will be a team paintballing event via multiplayer VR game Population: One. Anthony Lamoureux, strategy and development director, says: “It’s probably one of the most hair-brained ideas we’ve had but, given we’d normally do paintballing or go-karting together, this seemed like the next best thing. The total cost is less than £5,000 – less than we’d probably have spent flying our Bulgarian staff over 
and putting them up, and hosting a Christmas bash.

“Staff will be able to keep the headsets, so we reckon they’ll have great fun with them next year too. The plan is to see if we can distribute them to clients as well, and have our team host virtual meetings and product demonstrations.”

Horsing around

“There’s nothing more hilarious than trying to lead a horse when it just doesn’t want to know,” says Eman Al-Hillawi, director at Birmingham-based project management and IT consultancy Entec Si. “With half our team on furlough, and the other half working flat out, we knew we needed to inject some fun.” 

So the firm partnered with consultant Jude Jennison, who specialises in exploring leadership and teamwork through horses (pictured). “It’s had a phenomenal impact,” says Al-Hillawi. “You can’t help but laugh your way through a session like this – especially if you have a stubborn horse. And it means people have broken free of the confines of their homes.” 

There’s also an added, highly valuable, learning and development dimension to the experience, she adds: “People learn what their leadership style is – whether they immediately elicit trust, or excitement, or whether they need to cajole others. This plus holding virtual Macmillan coffee mornings and baking competitions – where we get staff’s kids involved – has helped create a bit of fun in difficult circumstances.”

Putting the social into social media

Thankfully not all firms have had to lay off staff. Global payment technology firm has in fact grown by 350 since March, and its mantra for having fun has been connecting existing and new staff. Social media is its primary tool of choice. “We’ve created a Slack channel for our employees’ pets – where people share videos, tips and pictures,” says head of people Louis Jauvin. “We’re also using our internal social media for weekly photo challenges – everything from what people are getting up to, to what they’re eating.” 

It’s a similar story at creative agency Elvis. “Fun is such a part of what we do that I’ve left and rejoined because I missed it,” says executive creative director Neale Horrigan. “We’ve been deeply concerned about how remote working would affect this… One of our initiatives has been our own Big Brother-style online ‘diary room’ called Elvisolation [see pictures, left] on Google Chat. Contributions so far have included how to cook the best brownies, an attempt to befriend a pheasant, magic tricks and someone impersonating a horse! It’s silly, light relief. But for us it’s about community.”

Outsourced call centre provider Teleperformance has also been keeping things social. “We went to having 5,000 staff working from home in a matter of weeks,” says director of employee engagement Lisa Dolan. “We’ve created a virtual Microsoft Teams group, and have all sorts of channels, including a ‘Knitters and Natters’ group.” This supplements its ‘TP and Toast’ sessions – 15-minute calls over a cup of tea – and 10-minute mindfulness sessions each Monday morning. It’s also hosted card-designing competitions for employees’ children, with the best ones printed and sent to people in the community to cheer them up.

Read the rest of our 'Skills HR will need in 2021' series: