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The hybrid social network at work

From doing magic tricks with bosses to sending desserts to employees’ homes, companies are adding real-life elements to online events to keep both morale and productivity up

Early in May, Amit Somani was looking for an online event for his company’s annual founder’s day. For years, as managing partner at Prime Ventures, a venture capital firm, Somani had hosted a get-together in a five-star hotel in Bengaluru, flying in founders of startups that his company had funded. This year, with the pandemic wreaking havoc, that was not an option.

“The only option was yet another online conference. But I felt the social element was sorely missing and wanted the online event to be innovative and participatory," he says. Somani posted a tweet, asking people, especially entertainers, if there was a way to conduct an online event that was better than just meeting everyone on screen.

Stage performer and illusionist Nakul Shenoy saw the tweet and messaged him. Since March, Shenoy, who had been fine tuning stage performances to suit screens, had just the right event in mind—a show that had elements of team interaction and participation. Somani hired him.

Company leaders realize that social engagement is an important element to network and keep productivity levels up, an association often emphasized by workplace experts and research papers. While many offices have reopened, they remain operations-only, leaving no space for social engagement. For those still working from home, absence of get-togethers and travel has made work repetitive, and the online activities organized by the HR that were once fun have now become boring and dull.

Though it’s still not possible to have events in real spaces, companies are hosting “hybrid" social events that combine online and offline experiences to engage their employees and stakeholders.

From making food together, to drawing or singing, to quizzes, and health challenges on fitness apps to sending desserts to employees’ homes for an evening get-together—hybrid interactions add a physical element to an online-only event.

A DASH OF REAL LIFE

For Somani and his 50 co-workers, Shenoy designed a hybrid event, called Box of Mystery, which involved sending a surprise box to each of the participant’s homes. The box could be opened only on the day of the event for a shared experience; even Somani was forbidden from knowing what was in the box.

The sense of mystery built through the week as the little black boxes reached people’s homes. Founders were excited. Prime’s casual WhatsApp group was flooded with conversations. At on D-day, when everyone logged into the Zoom link that Shenoy had sent, they all opened their boxes together. “Throughout the event, we conducted our own tricks, like we were all magicians," says Ankit Gupta, 32, chief executive of online game engagement startup, Quizizz.

Long after it was over, the event and the innovative way it had been conducted stayed with Gupta, giving him ideas for his own startup. “It made me think how the pandemic has forced us to be innovative in new ways and figure out new ways for remote engagement," he says.

When people go to an office, everything from a birthday party to a social coffee is an exciting experience as people talk to each other and get a break from their computer screens.

Bringing the same levels of enthusiasm in an online-only event can be a challenge, says Sayan Chatterjee, the human resource director of Beam Suntory India, a premium spirits company.

“There’s no grapevine conversation, we don’t know how conducive the home environment is for the attendee and what and of challenges they would face attending the ‘social’ event," he says. That’s the reason that HR teams have to be extra creative. Since the lockdown, his team has developed various versions of hybrid events—making cocktails together, yoga and meditation classes for employees and their family members, and a fancy dress session for new hires.

Rashi Chugh, who joined as a marketer with Beam Suntory India in May, was one of the 38 people who attended the fancy dress session. She, along with all the others, were asked to dress up in fancy attire using props at home and come as a character. Chugh, a self-confessed Mumbai girl, dressed for the beach, in a floral dress, sunglasses and a fedora, complete with a piña colada.

“It made me remember my childhood days and our fancy dress competitions at school and made the whole experience even all the more personal," laughs Chugh, 30, based in Gurugram. The problem of never having met her colleagues in real life melted away, as she could engage with them at a more social level and even make friends—all without meeting them.

“It’s a feeling like we are going back to school," agrees Smruti Alinje Bhalerao, who participated in an online mocktail-making session with 50 co-workers that was organized by Walktails, an event management company. The interaction while doing the activity, like someone asked what’s the right way to cut apples, made the event more memorable.

“Nothing beats being physically present in each other’s company, but with the situation, these kind of events are the next best thing to socialize with co-workers," she says.

Meeting people in real life is, of course, better, agrees Chugh, “but since we are all dealing with distance, interactive online sessions are a great way to bond and know your peers."

“There is something very ritualistic about a collective, shared experience with physical objects in play, says Shenoy, who has been doing online shows for companies for a few months and always asks people to use commonly available objects to involve them in the show.

The Mystery Box event was a raving success, with founders like Gupta gushing all over Twitter and WhatsApp about how much fun they had. Though Shenoy designed it as a one-off experience, seeing the response, he has already run it twice for friends and public. “These events are definitely the way forward in the post-corona world," says Shenoy, though he adds that they have to be well designed to make an impact.

And that isn’t easy. “This is the bleeding edge of live events," says Somani, who is currently looking for a comedian, who can do a collaborative show for his next conference. Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

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