By Rick Bell
Jul. 14, 2020
Escape rooms have grown in popularity as a way for friends and families to collectively crack the code to diffuse an imaginary time bomb or uncover clues to propel their mythical team of adventurers past an evil witch and return home.
Not surprisingly, these live-action games that allow teams to cooperatively explore a physical space and solve mental and physical puzzles to accomplish a goal as time ticks away also have become a popular corporate team-building tool.
But team building has been a challenge for organizations in recent months. As more employees work remotely and opportunities for workers to congregate in one place for any length of time is often discouraged, dodging mythical trolls and creating a team of elite hackers to foil a mad scientist’s plot to take over the world has not exactly been top of mind for most organizations.
With a recent report by HR consultancy Gartner stating that 74 percent of CFOs intend to shift some employees to remote work permanently, collaboration among workers could continue to deteriorate. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 19 percent of remote workers say they struggle with loneliness, and 17 percent add that a lack of communication and collaboration also is an issue for them.
While Zoom happy hours and virtual lunch chats bring colleagues together for a more personal experience, they don’t necessarily build and sustain organizational teamwork. Videoconference fatigue, or “Zoom fatigue,” is further exhausting employees, according to experts.
So, enter the virtual escape room, which can provide companies in need of activities fostering communication, collaboration and fun in a game-like environment minus the fatigue associated with a workday videoconference.
Seattle-based escape-room company Puzzle Break in March pivoted to a virtual version for remote teams to play online after shutting down all its physical escape room facilities. As of early July, company officials said that more than 400 escape experience groups have included over 3,300 players — many with more than 20 in a group. Participants including companies like Microsoft, Starbucks and Deloitte are using the escape rooms as a remote team-building tool, they add.
But as Puzzle Break helped to facilitate the virtual employee engagement efforts of its clients, it also faced challenges of its own. According to Puzzle Break founder Nate Martin, demand for virtual escape rooms outpaced his staff’s ability to keep up. Unlike many companies that laid off or furloughed their hourly employees, Puzzle Break began searching for talent.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to bring on and retain long-term employees with pay and benefits well above industry standard,” said Martin, whose staffing has climbed up to 40 employees. “When COVID hit and we pivoted to virtual team building, we became slammed with demand from a newly global customer base. In order to keep up with demand, we’ve been hiring hourly folks as fast as we can to curate Puzzle Break experiences for time zones across the planet.”
Scaling up onboarding
With the new demand for virtual team building, Martin said it is extremely difficult to find time at the company level to get everyone together since all his employees are remote for the time being.
“Fortunately, we have a baked-in solution,” he said. “All our new hires go through multiple Puzzle Break virtual team-building experiences together in a cohort as part of their onboarding. We have deliberately engineered our employee training to be hands-on team building.”
For Puzzle Break, which has physical locations in Seattle, New York and the Boston area, growth is a relief in this era of cutting staff. But it does test the organization’s people practices, Martin said.
“We’ve reached a point where I haven’t met over half our workforce,” Martin said. “It’s great to grow, but it is bringing all sorts of new and exciting challenges.”
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