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Corporate game rooms, parties find a new address - online

Entertainment companies that went virtual last year say corporate clients are hosting events for team-building and boosting morale, even as employees continue to work from anywhere.

June 05, 2021 / 07:30 AM IST
(Representational image) Virtual events and games are one of the ways in which line managers and HR managers are trying to build and strengthen work-from-anywhere teams.

(Representational image) Virtual events and games are one of the ways in which line managers and HR managers are trying to build and strengthen work-from-anywhere teams.

Until about 15 months ago, team outings, retreats and the occasional in-house annual celebration organized by HR were some occasions for employees to have fun - to suspend work and enjoy the company of colleagues.

Enter COVID-19.

With work-from-home becoming the norm, corporates realised that it was not just the logistics of remote work that they had figure out, but also the unique challenges of sustaining the human connection remotely.

After the initial weeks of handling the technical side of the transition, employers noticed a dent in the social structure of the team.

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The office is more than just a workspace. When you are working under the same roof, lunch and chai sessions act as automatic teambuilders and morale boosters. But when each employee is working in a different pin code, how do you keep the team together?

Necessity, of course, is the mother of invention. While many companies - young and old have had to shut shop in 2020, the unique challenges that the lockdown presented, has also birthed and been a blessing to some companies that migrated to the virtual model of functioning.

One such is Puffalope Productions, an entertainment company based out of Chennai. In 2019, a group of cousins who loved playing board games and organizing entertainment nights for their big, fat Indian family decided to convert their passion into a part-time profession, by organizing game nights, car rallies, treasure hunts and scavenger hunts open to the public. A few months later, the whole world went into lockdown. And Puffalope decided to start entertaining them online.

The team of Puffalope in Chennai. Zeeshan Anees is third from left. Puffalope Productions' team in Chennai.

While many event management giants like Wizcraft and Percept had layoffs and shut branch offices because they couldn't adapt soon enough to the new normal, Puffalope rented office space and hired a team of 20-plus for the corporate gigs that started coming their way. The founders quit their full-time jobs in the leather manufacturing industry, and dedicated their lives to creating game-based entertainment packages for all ages and demographics.

“Before 2020, Puffalope was...more of a passion project,” says Zeeshan Anees, 35, co-founder of Puffalope Productions. “I remember our team meeting in early March 2020. Other countries were on lockdown mode, and we were discussing what to do about the offline game nights we had planned for the next month. Luckily, almost on a whim, we decided to try one of our game nights in a virtual format - using WhatsApp. We had the event on the day India first went on lockdown. It worked really well. So we added a few other products to our suite.”

“One of our first corporate clients was the Chennai chapter of YPO (Young Presidents Organisation). We had organised a couple of live events for them in 2019. They asked us to do something online for their Chennai chapter forum meet. We created a virtual Great Gatsby-themed murder mystery for them with live actors, progressive clues, impromptu interrogations... there’s been no looking back since then,” adds Anees.

Since last year, Puffalope has been hosting virtual game nights, mystery-adventure-nights, entertainment events, etc.,  for clients in Switzerland, Belgium, Nigeria and Australia, among other countries and regions. Among its clientele are several high-profile Indian companies like Flipkart, Federal Bank and Intel.

It’s a similar story at H-129, a Chennai-based group that hosts trivia nights for corporates and individuals. After working in the US for a few years, Aditya Dhathathreyan returned to his hometown and set up base in his grandparents’ house at H-129, Besant Nagar.

H-129 founders (from left to right): Aravindan Sudarsan, trivia development and games coordinator; Aditya Dhathathreyan business strategy, partnerships and game design; Prasanna Sugumaran, trivia and game development; and Krishnan Ayalur Seshadrinathan, trivia development and experience design. H-129 founders in Chennai.

“In 2018, I started a collective called Koottam. We would meet at my place once a month to discuss relevant societal issues. In one such meeting, we decided to host a trivia quiz coupled with a culinary experience. It was a hit! So we made it a regular thing,” says Aditya.

“When the lockdown started, Sunil Vishnu of Evam Entertainment asked us to do a trivia night as part of Training Sideways for a corporate client of theirs. After that we have been getting a steady number of corporate gigs,” says Aditya.

Training Sideways is the training and development wing of Evam Entertainment, which started as a theatre group in 2003, founded by Sunil Vishnu K and Karthik Kumar, graduates of MICA, Ahmedabad. “Even before the lockdown, we had gotten a couple of requests from our clients who operated globally, asking us to host an event virtually for all their employees,” says Sunil.

Unlike more established training and event management counterparts, Training Sideways transitioned pretty quickly to the virtual medium and began conducting immersive storytelling, live theatre, musical tambola, music concerts, and learning-based entertainment events for clients across the globe. “Our biggest challenge is to retain attention. Especially with theatre, we had to make it an interactive experience, otherwise it’s tough to keep them glued to their screen. They’ve been working on their laptops all day, so you have to really up your game if you want them to continue looking at the same screen,” says Sunil.

While these companies have been doing their best to come up with creative virtual engagement ideas, corporations have been doing their homework too. Federal Bank used to organise annual cricket tournaments for its employees. With COVID-19, the bank switched to a chess tournament.

“We conducted virtual talent shows where our employees and their family members put up a show. Some of our employees have been conducting masterclasses on their specific skill sets - photography, web design, etc. We had a bank robbery-themed mystery night organised by Puffalope Productions. And we’ve been having sessions around mental wellness, health, stress management, etc., by subject experts,” says Sabeena Shaji, DVP and head (talent development and training) at Federal Bank.

Is this the new normal? “After the first wave, we noticed a dip in demand for our virtual products, so we transitioned to the wedding and live events space. But with the second wave, our virtual business has picked up again,” says Zeeshan of Puffalope Productions.

With businesses considering a more permanent remote working model, perhaps virtual get-togethers will soon be the norm.
Shilpa Krishnan is a Chennai-based author and storyteller. Instagram: @theshilpakrishnan. Views are personal.

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