Summary: While employee professional development and team building have taken a significant hit since COVID-19 sent us all into separate bubbles, new online programs have emerged that can enhance employee morale and identify potential managerial talent in ways standard teambuilding exercises never could.
I’m a virtual escape room designer. For me, nothing can be held within four walls. In my business, there’s always a way out. Which is why it’s interesting that so many HR managers I speak with lately claim building and sustaining corporate culture can’t be done during this pandemic because these programs and exercises require the “four walls” of an office environment to be viable.
Employee engagement and development have never been more important, they tell me, as their businesses struggle to retain and nurture talent. The pandemic has their teams working remotely while cost-cutting measures threaten what little employee morale remains. The social component that’s so critical to defining a company’s culture is lacking, especially when Zoom call happy-hours are the extent to which informal employee interaction occurs.
All that said, a few companies have thought outside of the box, or in this case, the room, and have explained to us how useful online gaming, like our escape room experience, has been to them.
Teambuilding and employee engagement can be maintained during the pandemic, they reveal, even if treetop rope courses are shut down and birthday celebrations in the breakroom are no longer an option.
When my wife and I first launched our live-hosted, virtual escape room company, right when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we knew people would be looking for fun online diversions as a way to battle quarantine boredom. With that in mind, we marketed to a customer base we saw as cast-offs from brick-and-mortar escape-rooms and video-gamers looking for something different from playing non-stop Call of Duty.
We never expected a national staffing company to contact us, asking if we could run a series of games for a management intern program they were overseeing.
It turns out, the staffing company wanted to see what happened when they placed their interns into a competitive environment where the playing field was essentially equal. All players would be participating by virtual call and all would be facing a challenge not typically tackled in a corporate environment. From this, they helped to identify which soft skills were manifested by which players during the escape room scenario.
Would someone usurp control of the virtual group, shouting down competing solutions? Which intern might quietly try to build team consensus on the side using Slack? Who would feel confident to offer up ideas? Who would work best independently? And who would capitalize off the imaginative or off-the-wall ideas suggested by others?
The day came and the interns took part in their escape room adventure. Staffing company management observed, as silent participants, taking notes and gaining insights on each player. They reports to us that they learned a lot about the interns leadership traits, communication skills, analytical skills as well as who acted as Lone wolves vs. Social butterflies.
We were surprised when the group came back to us several times, with new groups of interns and employees. For them, our online virtual escape room experience served two purposes. First, it actively engaged their small groups of employees who had fun working together on an informal project. Second, it gave them tremendous insights into the talents and skill sets of various employee types.
For HR managers tasked with filling key positions and promoting talented performers, identifying soft skills and personality traits is critical for putting the right people in the right jobs.
While an online escape room might initially appear nothing more than a fun pastime and a terrific way to bond with friends, it actually turned out to be a terrific team building exercise in a time of reduced social interaction.
Here’s why virtual escape rooms work well as a team builders:
1) Each scenario provides the employee teams with a common goal – solve the puzzle and escape the room within the time limit – and yet achieving the goal is not as spelled out as it might be in a corporate environment
2) Teams must call on a whole host of skills, from the mathematical to the cognitive to the social. It presents a new ecosystem where no one player stands out as a key resource. For this project, the natural born leaders don’t always have the answers.
3) Conflicts resolution is a big part of the experiences as teams try to evaluate clues and solve the room’s puzzles while time is running out. How the teams resolve internal conflict is particularly useful to watch.
4) Escape rooms are a learning experience for all. They uncover skills and capabilities that aren’t always apparent in the workplace setting and reveal different sides to employees and how they think under pressure.
5) Everyone walks away from the experience feeling different about themselves and others. “You really saved us back there.” “Who knew you were so intuitive?” “If we did it again, I think I’d contribute more” are all responses we hear again and again.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Warner is co-founder and CEO of Paruzal Games, a live-hosted, virtual escape room company where players engage in adventures and solve puzzles in a timed, online, graphical environment.