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From Puzzles to Potlucks: How to Engage Employees in a Hybrid Workplace


A group of people eating pizza in an office.


Goodbye, watercooler. Hello, Disney jigsaw puzzle.

That's the situation at the Orlando, Fla., office of Sabre International, a software and technology company that specializes in travel. Last year, Amanda Brunson, the company's people business partner, was pondering what small things she could do at the office to keep employees engaged. Out of the 50 employees at the Orlando location, only a handful came in regularly, though all were invited.

So Brunson decided to put a jigsaw puzzle in the break room for employees to work on, bit by bit, whenever they were in the office. And it wasn't just any jigsaw puzzle, but a Disney-themed one from the movie "Frozen." It was a hit, and Brunson has since brought in an ever-widening selection of jigsaw puzzles as a small way to keep employees engaged with each other.

"We wanted everyone to have the opportunity to take a mental break whenever they needed one," she said. "If you're having a bad day, you know you can go to the break room and work on a puzzle."

Of course, no one is suggesting that jigsaw puzzles are the magic wand that will lure employees back to the office and keep them there. But as the U.S. continues to rebound from the emotional and physical impacts of the pandemic, HR professionals are searching for ideas—both big and small—to help employees feel more comfortable and engaged at the office.

At organizations where HR professionals are being asked to help bring back employees for at least part of each week, some simple and inexpensive steps seem to be working. For one, jigsaw puzzles give employees that rare opportunity to connect with each other on a nonwork project.

"It gives them an opportunity to build trust and relationships," Brunson said. "That way, when they need something, they already know who to go to because they've already built trust."

At one of Sabre's offices in Poland, the puzzle program took on a life of its own. More than 100 employees came together one day to try to create what they hoped would be the biggest jigsaw puzzle effort in the world—working on 60 different puzzles with thousands of pieces for a combined 20 hours. "This effort engaged team members like nothing else," Brunson said.

Food Improves Employee Turnout

A major attraction at Sabre's Orlando office is food of any kind. On the last Thursday of every month, the office orders lunch from Chick-fil-A or Jersey Mike's and serves it in the break room. "We tend to see a 50 percent extra turnout when food is offered," Brunson said.

Food is also an attractive incentive at Schulte Building Systems in Hockley, Texas. In the morning, when employees saunter into the break room for coffee, they'll often find cookies, donuts and sometimes even homemade breakfast burritos, said Paula Harvey, SHRM-SCP, vice president of HR/safety. She explained that the company's production manager loves to cook and sometimes slaps on an apron and makes breakfast burritos onsite for workers who come into the office.

"People munch and share, and it helps to improve the friendliness of the workforce," said Harvey, who is a SHRM board member. The company also sponsors food-centric events throughout the year, including a chili cook-off in the fall and a hot dog fest around the Fourth of July.

Smaller employers may not have the money to regularly feed employees, but that doesn't stop some from organizing get-togethers where folks bring food to share. For example, monthly potlucks are very popular in the IT division of the HR department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said workforce relations manager Jeff Palkowski, SHRM-SCP.

The first potluck was a bit of a bust because there was no official sign-up sheet indicating what employees would bring, so four of the nine attending all brought taco dip. Since then, online sign-ups have improved the mix for what has become a monthly themed potluck, which are achieving 100 percent in-person attendance for the nine-person team, he said.

Balancing Flexibility and Togetherness

To be sure, nothing can replace the spontaneity of real watercooler conversations that can only happen when employees are physically at the workplace, said futurist Jacob Morgan, author of Future Leader: Nine Skills and Mindsets to Succeed in the Next Decade (Wiley, 2020). "I have yet to meet a single human being who says that virtual is as good as in-person," he said. 

Instead of luring employees back to work with incentives such as free food or gift cards, Morgan said a far better way to motivate workers is to sit down and talk with them about flexible work arrangements that make sense for everyone.

"Organizations need to be more open-minded and flexible about having those conversations with their people," he said.

At the same time, employees need to understand that most employers want to encourage them to spend quality time together to foster dialogue and innovation.

"To define corporate culture, you need to spend time together and brainstorm," Morgan said.

In contrast, offering food and other freebies "doesn't create a sustainable relationship," he said. "That's based on things employees get, not about values exchanged."

Instead, Morgan recommends that HR invest in more meaningful benefits, such as employee wellness, coaching and mentoring.

"In the end," he said, "that will be much more valuable than giving employees a free lunch."

Bruce Horovitz is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

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