Companies Are Outsourcing Employee Morale Building

The bonding business (AcroYoga, anyone?) is booming.

Illustration: Cari Vander Yacht for Bloomberg Businessweek

On a recent Thursday evening, Erin McCulloch, 31, was in her New York City office’s conference room balancing on her manager’s shins. Nearby, another colleague lay on her back and lifted the chief executive officer into the air with her feet, airplane-style. Jason Nemer, who’d come to teach this fusion of acrobatics and yoga to employees of tea and supplement company Aloha, was pleased. “We can leverage the wisdom of AcroYoga and apply it to corporate America,” he said. “Both require cooperation and communication.”

This may overstate the powers of AcroYoga, but not by much. Ever since Google began offering employees free massages and fresh-fruit smoothies, startups have had to think hard about recruitment and retention tools, from on-site dry cleaners and baby-sitting to conference-room gymnastics. According to a 2015 survey by job-listings website Glassdoor, 79 percent of workers would prefer new benefits and perks over a raise. More money is nice, of course, but having a little extra in your paycheck may not enrich your life in the same way that making your day-to-day a bit more fun might.

Not every company is Google, so if you don’t have a market cap in the hundreds of billions of dollars, you can outsource your morale building to Wekudo (pronounced “we could do”), which acts as a middleman, pairing businesses like Aloha with, say, AcroYoga instructors. A company can hire Wekudo to set up weekly or monthly events, a need its 24-year-old founder, Lee Rubin, identified in her previous job. Rubin’s manager was tasked with planning employee social events. “They didn’t have the time, and they didn’t know what to do, so they were like, ‘Screw it. We’ll have a happy hour,’ ” Rubin recalls. And because human resources had budgeted $50 to $100 for each employee—thinking it would be spent on trust falls, not Tanqueray and tonics—“people ended up in situations that weren’t professional.” Eventually, Rubin says, the startup banned booze on the company dime, and after that, “there were no events at all.”

What Rubin has learned is that, as nice as free smoothies are, “it’s experiences that keep people engaged. If you want to retain employees, they need to feel like they’re bettering themselves.” And it doesn’t hurt if the company benefits, too. Wekudo trains its third-party instructors to make connections between activities and corporate goals. An improv teacher might have a sales group act out client pitches. Or in a game of laser tag, Wekudo would make sure the teams encourage interdepartmental communication. It’s not exactly $100 in free gin and tonics, and there’s bound to be some eye-rolling, but the concept seems to be catching on. Since Wekudo began last year, 15,000 employees have participated in its events in New York City, and 85 percent of clients have signed up for multiple sessions. This year, Rubin plans to expand to a half-dozen more cities. Some companies have started using Wekudo to attract new business: One CEO hired it to organize a trivia night to help his staff bond with clients.

Back at Aloha, McCulloch admitted that some of the instructor’s team-building analogies were a little forced. (Nemer repeatedly compared AcroYoga to the business world. During the warmup he said, “In a corporate structure, we often lose sight of ourselves, so we’ll start the class by listening to our own bodies.”) But in the end, balancing on your manager’s shins or flying airplane-style is simply “a different way of connecting,” McCulloch said. Her boss, Nicole Tilzer, said, “Often, managers and teams don’t communicate enough.” She laughed, adding, “And tomorrow, I’m going to start throwing Erin around.”

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