Long reads

How penguins, megaphones and castles helped employers build morale

24 Oct 2019 By Siobhan Palmer

Sometimes, dress down Friday doesn't quite cut it. Meet the businesses who went a step further to perk up their workforce

Pick up a penguin

When book giant Penguin Random House decided an office mascot would be a fillip for employees at its huge Maryland warehouse in the US, it was inevitable which species it would turn to. Enter Tetra and Lilly, two small African penguins drafted in as summer interns, who became viral sensations after a video of their antics was posted online.

Whether it was quality assurance (pecking at books from Dr Seuss to Michelle Obama’s autobiography), brand research (coming face to face with the emperor penguin logo was a bewildering experience) or hopping on a forklift to shift some stock, the pair were soon an indispensable part of working life. And being rewarded in fish rather than dollars no doubt pleased the finance department…

Grin and bare it

It’s not uncommon to see dress-down Fridays everywhere from investment banks to fashion houses. But in 2009, Newcastle-based marketing firm onebestway hit on something a little more radical in its search to boost morale. After consulting a business psychologist when the credit crunch led to a drop in revenues, bosses became convinced that by encouraging staff to strip naked for an entire working day, communication would be improved. As office manager Sam Jackson put it: “Now that we’ve seen each other naked, there are no barriers.” The excruciating results were filmed for a TV documentary, though some employees preferred to retain at least their underwear. Did it work? There hasn’t exactly been a rash of imitators keen to replicate the experience. And onebestway was wound up just five years after its nude experiment.

Keys to the castle

The office environment makes a key difference to staff motivation. And Chris Morling, founder of financial comparison service money.co.uk, has sunk plenty into the idea – he moved his employees into an historic castle comprising ice cave, hidden doorways, chalet and onsite cinema room. “We spend half our waking life in the office, so why not make it the very best we possibly can?” says Morling. “There’s no reason you have to have white walls and a traditional office – why not have a cosy space where people can really collaborate and relax?” Which makes you wonder why he also chose Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen to provide the interior design. 

Catching a few zzzzs

In most workplaces – in the UK at least – getting your head down to catch up on some sleep in the middle of the day would be frowned upon. At L’Oréal’s Paris headquarters, they take a different view. Every day, a ‘nap truck’ pulls up to allow workers to catch 40 winks in a peaceful environment, in what’s seen as a significant morale booster for stressed-out staff. If they prefer to stay awake, they can indulge in a ‘zero gravity’ massage chair or virtual reality-aided meditation. It seems the idea is catching on: the business behind the trucks has also launched a range of ‘nap bars’ in the city’s business district to cater for individuals who can’t get home for a lunch hour snooze.

Don’t believe the hype

If you’re hard at work at US food delivery firm SnackNation and hear a loudhailer screaming into life, don’t panic – it just means you’ve got a new colleague. New starters at the business are introduced to their co-workers in a public initiation modelled on a boxer’s entrance to the ring, which means your educational background, professional experience and out-of-work interests are barked out at volume before you run through a cloud of dry ice to share high-fives with the rest of the office. If that sounds like the stuff of your worst nightmares, it might not be the employer for you.

Free money

They say cash isn’t a good motivator. Try telling that to Warren Buffett’s employees. The investor and philanthropist runs an annual competition open to employees at his firm, Berkshire Hathaway, or any of the businesses it invests in, including Duracell and Dairy Queen. Top prize is $1m per year for life for anyone who can accurately predict which teams will make it through the first round of the US college basketball knockout tournament known as ‘March Madness’. No one has ever scooped the pot. But each year $100,000 is shared between those who successfully predict the greatest number of match outcomes. Still, Buffett can afford such generosity – at the last count, he was worth $81bn.

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