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Nothing Can Replace In-Person Happy Hours, but a Virtual Fun Retreat Comes Close

How to Engage Your Employees During a Pandemic

This summer, for the first time in my career, I started to feel burnt out. It wasn’t because of a heavy workload or overbearing manager. It eventually hit me – I missed connecting socially with my colleagues.

Once COVID-19 stripped away normal social interactions and the workday became an endless blur of Zoom meetings, I realized how much I took work-related social events for granted. After chatting with some of my colleagues, I learned that many of them felt similarly.

Research has demonstrated that engaged employees are more productive in the workplace and are less likely to leave the organization (Chanana & Sangeeta, 2020). Firms with a strong corporate culture perform better in the midst of a pandemic than companies without a strong culture, regardless of COVID-19’s impact on the operations (Li et al, 2020). For many companies, including PICI, temporarily shifting to a fully remote workforce leads to a need to create new opportunities for virtual engagement.

I started to brainstorm a solution where we could all relax, socialize and unplug from our work emails and meetings in unison. I envisioned a half-day, low-budget retreat where employees could interact and learn interesting skills from each other. This could range from how to solve a Rubik’s cube to how to make a sushi roll.

After receiving overwhelming support from our senior leadership team and recruiting a colleague to help, we began to execute my vision. Here’s how we did it.


Step 1: Decide on a Date and Agenda

We reserved a date about a month in advance. We informed all colleagues about the goal of the Fun Retreat and the expectation that they should not only join but also forget about work during this time (i.e. no multitasking).

The final agenda was:

  • 12:00-1:15 – Lunch Social Hour
  • 1:30-2:15 – Fun Session #1
  • 2:30-3:15 – Fun Session #2
  • 3:30-4:15 – Fun Session #3
  • 4:30-6:00 – Social Hour (optional)
Step 2: Collect Ideas and Hosts for Fun Sessions

Setting up the Fun Sessions required the most time and effort to plan. I knew that my coworkers have a lot of unique talents and interests to share. I also knew that not all employees would find each event/talent interesting. I decided to run multiple events in parallel and have attendees choose which event per session they were most interested in.

At a high-level, this involved:

  1. Recruiting coworkers to host a session to teach their talent. Sessions spanned cooking Italian sauces to cocktail making, art classes and an exhibit of historical reenactment costumes.
  2. Once we had a preliminary list of events, we had all employees complete a survey to choose the events they found most interesting.
  3. We used the survey results to schedule the sessions.
  4. We held an information session for hosts to describe expectations and brainstorm how to make each event successful. We stressed interactivity, fun and time management to allow attendees to take short breaks between sessions.
  5. We had all hosts email a preparation list to their attendees a week in advance to share ingredients or supplies needed.
  6. All event hosts recorded their Zoom event. We made these available to all employees afterwards to catch up on any events they missed out on.

Who paid for the supplies and lunch?
PICI provided each employee a small budget to purchase lunch or supplies. The overall budget of the retreat was small because there were no additional costs – all of our events were led by PICI employees who were happy to volunteer their time.

Do you have any tips for the hosts regarding technology?
We used Zoom as our meeting technology. Each host was in charge of hosting and recording their Zoom meeting. I encouraged hosts to play around with their cameras prior to the event to find the best angles for their activity. Many of the hosts chose to have 2 devices connected to Zoom to provide multiple camera angles. For example, many of the cooking hosts had one device pointed at the stove or cutting board and the other showing their face.

This sounds complex, how can I make the Fun Retreat simpler to plan?
One way to simplify is by having fewer parallel fun sessions. Alternatively, you could have one fun session for all employees or hold a social lunch with no fun sessions. However, I found smaller groups are key to socialization and engagement.

Step 3: Communicate

Leading up to the event, we sent out several emails, packed with funny memes, to remind everyone of the upcoming event and to drum up excitement.

Step 4: Have Fun

As a retreat organizer, I jumped in and out of all the sessions to see that they were going smoothly. They were! I was amazed to see the amount of participation from all attendees. I saw coworkers decorating cakes, painting, recruiting their family members to help cook, providing tasting notes on wine and even hurling Elizabethan insults commonly heard at Renaissance Fairs!

Other Tips for Success

  • Use the Breakout Rooms feature of Zoom to randomly split employees into small groups for 10 minutes st at a time for large sessions like Lunch Social Hour. I provided icebreaker conversation topics for each group – some used it, some didn’t.
  • While optional, the social hour was a chance for employees to chat and show off any of their accomplishments. We were prepared to use the breakout rooms to encourage conversation, but didn’t have to because conversation was flowing.
What I Learned

1. Employees were engaged. Early on in the retreat, there were clear indications of success. At lunch, there was so much enthusiastic conversation from the breakout rooms in anticipation of the sessions that I couldn’t get a word in to explain the next icebreaker.

2. The payoff was worth the work. Was this a lot of work? Yes and no. For someone who cringes at the thought of party planning, organizing this retreat was much less effort than I would have expected. Yes, it required me to work a few extra hours to get everything planned. But I had help from a retreat co-organizer and the event hosts, and the positive feedback I received after the retreat confirmed that the retreat helped improve morale.

3. Organizing this event was an invaluable career development opportunity for me. I learned that a small idea, paired with passion and a relatively meager budget, can put a smile on my coworkers’ faces and bring joy to the workplace. I also learned that it can be fun to lead a project that falls outside of my area of technical expertise (biostatistics).

4. Engagement is critical to an organization’s growth. Research suggests that engagement practices like the retreat boost employee morale, motivation and commitment towards an organization during the pandemic (Chanana & Sangeeta, 2020). For PICI, the Virtual Fun Retreat anecdotally met its goal of helping employees decompress and socialize in a relaxed setting. In fact, because of the positive feedback, PICI will build off the success with a new series of events with similar design.

Whether big or small, if your company, department or academic lab is starting to feel burnt out, I highly recommend spicing things up with a fun retreat. I hope this guide helps you. And, if you have any questions or held a similar event at your work, let us know via social media.

Questions about how to put on a Fun Retreat? Comment on social media. We’ll respond.

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