By Claire Stewart 21 November 2017

A dose of song in a spare meeting room during lunch is the latest entrant in an array of methods being tried by companies to help employees feel part of a community.

Launched in 2010, Britain’s Office Choir of the Year competition now attracts more than 1000 singers from 40 companies, including multinational banks, law firms and consultancies. Deloitte took the top prize in 2017. 

There’s yet to be a comparable program in Australia, but there is a growing interest in workplace choirs, from participants and also from organisations who see the benefits it brings. 

Research conducted by Oxford University’s Experimental Psychology department in 2015 found that of a number of adults partaking in different education programs, it was the singers who bonded fastest. 

“The difference between the singers and the non-singers appeared right at the start of the study,” research leader Dr Eiluned Pearce said. 

“In the first month, people in the singing classes became much closer to each other over the course of a single class than those in the other classes did. Singing broke the ice better than other activities.”

Music, it seems, is a great leveller, energising staff and bringing people together from disparate parts of an organisation. It also provides an opportunity for people who are less inclined to join corporate sports events or fitness challenges to still feel included in the workplace community. 

Workplace-based activities encourage social contact.

It’s still a workplace

A sense of community is key to staff feeling engaged – and being productive. A robust company culture is part of the equation but executive leadership consultant John Baldoni says that essential to developing a sense of engagement amongst staff is the need to develop what he calls belonging. 

That comes from identifying the corporate purpose and making sure everyone knows how they make a difference in achieving that purpose, recognising results and encouraging camaraderie. 

The first two are the subject of reams of management consulting advice, but developing camaraderie is a more delicate endeavour. 

“Work is not a place to socialise. It is a place to pull together to do the job,” Baldoni wrote in an article for Forbes online. 

“[But] when people are united in purpose they may find affinity with one another. Managers can encourage that connection by creating opportunities for employees to connect in their off-hours through activities that run the gamut from recreational sports, picnics or group volunteer events.”

However, he warns that organisations shouldn’t try and force camaraderie through participation. “When it comes to socialisation … forcing people to do something outside of work defeats the essence of belonging.” 

I’m a big believer in sitting at a table and having a meal together. Carolyn Creswell, Carman’s Fine Foods

How food can feed togetherness

For Carolyn Creswell, founder of multimillion dollar muesli empire Carman’s Fine Foods, the answer lies in the company’s lunch routine, bringing colleagues together to eat around a shared space. 

“I’m a big believer in sitting at a table, having a meal together and looking people in the eye as you have a conversation,” Creswell has said. 

So she banned eating at the desk in the office and instead everyone comes to the lunch room at the same time each day. “We eat, do the quiz in the paper, have a laugh and then everyone goes back to their desk. Food needs to be enjoyed, it’s not just a fuel.” 

Getting away from the desk for at least part of the workday is central to maintaining wellbeing. It’s well known that the opportunity to spend time in green space adds to employee satisfaction levels. But some organisations are taking that to the next level, creating office garden spaces where employees can get their hands dirty at work. 

Vegetable gardens can be established on rooftops or in office courtyards and provide an opportunity for people to join the office garden club and take responsibility for day to day management of the space. 

“Edible gardens are a natural progression from rooftop gardens, community gardens and vegetables grown on nature strips,” Leaf, Root & Fruit gardening services founder Duncan Cocking has said. He believes Australia is at the start of a trend already growing overseas. 

Google has a complete food system at its headquarters, including a dedicated role called manager of culinary horticulture. But a company garden doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Some companies choose to bring in professional gardeners to keep the plots under control, with employees chipping in when they can. 

Regardless of how it’s done, having green space and fresh vegetables that people can take home, or pick to add to their lunch, is a welcome corporate benefit, and a great way to get employees interacting away from the whiteboard. 

Perhaps the key to any of these extracurricular workplace based activities is that they encourage social contact across silos and age groups, and from top to bottom of the hierarchy, breaking tribal barriers and allowing employees to enjoy being a part of something bigger.

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