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Company Culture

Smells like team spirit

Can virtual work meetings and social engagements ever compensate for face-to-face interaction? Insider Engage finds out how companies are assessing team-building activities in the new reality of hybrid working

Socializing at home via video call
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blackCAT/Getty Images

As the UK government recently announced, the last set of Covid-19 restrictions will now be lifted on 19 July at the earliest, instead of the intended date of 21 June. For many companies, that means another month of employees mainly working from home and a further delay before managers and teams can start to adapt to the new world of work wrought by the crisis.

Most midsize companies expect to adopt a version of hybrid working with staff spending half the week working from home, according to a survey by accountancy and business advisory firm BDO.

This raises questions about how to reconnect with employees when they return to the office and how to build and maintain teams in the new world.

The (re)insurance sector is a social industry, with personal relationships playing an important role both within companies and in the wider market

The idea of team building can conjure up thoughts of forced jollity and polarising activities such as bungee jumping and paintballing. But at its heart team building means making sure members trust and understand each other, know what is expected of them and work together for a collective purpose.

The (re)insurance sector is a social industry, with personal relationships playing an important role both within companies and in the wider market. Companies face the task of maintaining and refreshing relationships with many employees working from home on any given day.

Technology such as Zoom has helped keep teams connected in a way that would have been impossible if the pandemic had struck a decade earlier. But some people have still felt isolated while others are anxious about returning to social situations after spending so much time at home.

Something missing

“Training staff is essential and we’ve been able to do training [during the crisis] but there is the element of bringing people together that hasn’t been there,” says Alex Barnes, a partner in BDO’s insurance group. “A lot of employees have got on absolutely fine but there is still something missing and filling that in is going to be very important. The team building aspect is essential.”

Firms say they are waiting to see how teams operate best in a hybrid world. Joanna Browning, HR and communications director at Markel International, says the company’s guidance is that employees should be in the office two to four days a week once restrictions are lifted, but that managers have discretion to decide how that works for their team.

“We’ve made it clear we want to use the office as a connector for creativity and relationships. What that looks like we’ve left for leaders to decide. At a team level, managers want to have certain teams in on certain days to participate in key meetings.”

Craig Keating, chief operations officer at Gallagher Basset, agrees. “Even if people are working from home 100% there will be times to get them in the same room for learning and development,” Keating says.

“We are working hard to make sure we have the right structures in place to link in with our folks. Even when we were all in the office that may not have happened as much as it will happen now.”

Some team members will need more contact and participation than others, particularly younger workers who are near the start of their careers or were recruited during the pandemic and have not been to the office.

The danger of young employees being left behind is highlighted in a report by executive coaches Eddie Ross and Larraine Solomon.

They argue that engagement activities, team building and communication need to be rethought to support corporate culture effectively in a hybrid working environment.

“If you’ve already done 10 years in the office you have established relationships and if you go in once a week to meet people, that may work for you,” Ross says. “Whereas young people may never have met the people they’re working with, and therefore haven’t had a chance to build trust with colleagues.”

Video conferencing has helped teams weather the crisis but the phrase ‘Zoom fatigue’ has entered the language as people have been drained by back-to-back meetings

Simply letting remote workers join meetings online is not enough, they argue. “Leaders should be asking questions like: When do we meet? How do we meet? Do we need two hosts – one hybrid and one in-person?” Solomon says. “How do we make sure we have the right balance between access to leaders and share of voice?”

Video conferencing has helped teams weather the crisis but the phrase “Zoom fatigue” has entered the language as people have been drained by back-to-back meetings.

Upgrading platforms

Upgrading sometimes clunky internal platforms and adopting smarter means for teams to communicate will be part of the solution. This can include AI-enabled collaborative platforms such as Beezy or Slack and webinar technology to support engagement, Ross and Solomon’s report says.

Lorraine Denny, Brit Insurance’s chief engagement officer, says: “We’re scoping out various formats to support connection and engagement. We’ve been using video to help our exec committee connect with the wider company and we’ve been creating videos that share with our underwriting teams how brokers see the trading landscape.

Brit has also upgraded its intranet so employees have better access to information and can share ideas, Denny says.

Amid the work video calls some companies have adapted to the technology to recreate some of the social aspects of office life and to take extra time for personal interaction. Keating says Gallagher Basset has a “water cooler” webinar once a week where people can check in and talk about how things are going.

Gallagher Bassett’s leadership team has set aside time at the start of more structured calls to talk about how they lead their teams or for team members to check how other colleagues are doing and the firm wants this to continue under hybrid working.

“We will have similar meetings taking place with local management and team leaders having those conversations with colleagues,” Keating says.

Markel’s Browning says the company will do lots of team building differently based on changes already made and that employees are looking for activities with more purpose. For example, teams and families took part in World Ocean Day in June to pick up rubbish from rivers and beaches. The annual employee appreciation day gift to each employee used to be a physical gift but now people can choose to give the money to charity, Browning says.

“People will still go to the pub but they are also looking for things that have a sense of meaning and that isn’t just about going for a beer or to a nice restaurant,” Browning says.

Several recent online ‘awaydays’ showed Markel that bigger events can be successful and physical gatherings will probably make up less than half of these in future, Browning says.

At physical get-togethers attendees consistently value informal contact on the sidelines at least as much as the talks and presentations

“Getting people together cost a lot of money, had a high carbon impact and took a huge amount of time. This way involves less time, less travel, less cost and you meet people from all around the world.”

Ross, though, points out that at physical get-togethers attendees consistently value informal contact on the sidelines at least as much as the talks and presentations. It will take companies a long time to reshape approaches to collaboration and teams built up over decades, he adds.

“It’s complex,” Ross says. “Companies want to do the right thing and there’s a lot of pressure on them to have all the answers. The wise companies will say: ‘This is what we do for now’ and then see how it goes.”

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