Business of Life: Playtime, Events, Perks go Long way in Team Building

Teamwork: 'Enemy is e-mail,' so Shops Foster Face-to-Face Activities

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Mohan ramaswamy recently sneaked into a luxury apartment building pretending to be a bellhop as his Digitas colleagues snapped a picture of the feat. The stunt, he swore, was completely sanctioned by Digitas, where he is a senior analyst in the strategy group.

Mr. Ramaswamy and his colleagues plotted a citywide scavenger hunt in New York on Digitas' dime. They tossed together teams of varying ages and tenures and made them finish the adventure with a trivia game about their colleagues. The winners, who received engraved trophies and a gift card, placed a team member's hobbies and had to guess how much he'd spend on a haircut.

While some would consider this event a time-wasting (and cheesy) exercise, others argue such team-building efforts are perks crucial to employee retention.

These days office perks go well beyond the generic coffee in the kitchen. At GSD&M in Austin, Texas, it's an espresso bar and breakfast-taco vendors in the lobby who run out in 30 minutes. New York's Strawberry Frog brings in a chef twice a week to cook lunch for the staff. At MindShare, there's an in-house bar called Brain Drain. Omnicom agencies enjoy discounts of about 20% off products from some of their clients, including Apple and Cingular Wireless. Chair massages and on-premises yoga, pilates or tai chi classes are extras agencies offer to help combat stress.

TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., built a basketball court as part of its "work hard, play hard" atmosphere. GSD&M watched its rec room with a foosball table and table tennis get gobbled up as it grew, so with the recent addition of office space in a nearby building, the agency decided to add an air-conditioned, outdoor rec tent. Piper Jones, GSD&M' s director of agency services, said it not only helps keep a flow of people and energy between the two spaces, it's just a great place for a short getaway.

In a culture that leans toward the "live to work" rather than "work to live" philosophy, it often feels like we spend more time with our co-workers than we do at home.

"We sell ideas, and if your employees are unhappy, you are not going to get a lot of good ideas," said Aaron Reitkopf, group president of MDC's Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York.

So what makes employees in the advertising industry happy?

Birthdays off, dry-cleaning drop-off and pickup-the list of perks goes on. But Katie Popp, best-companies team manager at the Great Place to Work Institute, argues it takes a lot more than simple or flashy office perks to make a company a great place to work.

"What it comes down to are the relationships in the organization, and are they built on trust," she said. "Companies that are the best companies have a really clear culture. ... Instead of just throwing all the perks out there at their employees, they provide suitable benefits and perks. "

By Ms. Popp's reasoning, team-building adventures such as Mr. Ramaswamy's scavenger hunt are the types of perks that help retain employees, in part because the idea came from Mr. Ramaswamy, and Digitas didn't just listen, it followed through.

"There should be a lot of different communication vehicles both for management ... and for employees to ask questions and provide suggestions to management," Ms. Popp said.

Mr. Ramaswamy said his excursion not only makes working with his colleagues easier and more fun but "this keeps me at Digitas and will continue to keep me at Digitas."

Many agencies like Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners have known for a long time that culture is the key to employee retention. As Mr. Reitkopf said, "All we have is culture. ... The more they play together, the more they feel like they are doing something that's got real meaning to it, the more people are happy and healthy and having good ideas."

While KB offers various perks, Mr. Reitkopf says one that embodies its culture is the Trolley, a twice-monthly town hall cum excuse to party together. Born 15 years ago when an actual drink cart used to make the rounds, mixing drinks and inviting odd groups to just hang out, Trolley now has become a chance to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries and draw in new employees.

Trolley time

Mr. Reitkopf estimates that Trolleys held inside the office are attended by 90% of employees. The 10% who can't make it, he said, are on deadline and just can't get away. When the Trolley gatherings are held at various drinking establishments in the neighborhood, he estimates 20% still make it. "I have friends I only know from Trolley," one staffer said.

In an industry where ideas can come from any mix of people, fostering interaction is crucial. Scott Goodson, founder-CEO of Strawberry Frog, said his perks are all about "a brilliant connecting space for people who usually don't see each other. The enemy is e-mail and cellphones, so face-to-face contact is a luxury."
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