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Top Places to Work

8 ways top companies worked to keep employee morale up during the pandemic

Free lunches, gift cards, mental health days, and music shows were all part of the plan.

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1. LUNCH BREAK

Before the pandemic struck, the meat-subscription service ButcherBox ordered a catered lunch for the whole staff every Wednesday. Once everyone was working from home, the Brighton-based company decided to keep up the tradition — and the connections it fosters — by allowing employees to expense a takeout lunch, worth up to $15, each Wednesday and eat together in a virtual lunchroom.

Employees order from favorites like Flour or Chipotle and log on to chat about TV shows, the vagaries of working remotely with kids, and home improvement projects. Business is rarely mentioned, says chief of staff Reba Hatcher, who likes to order fish tacos from Lone Star Taco Bar. The virtual lunchroom has been so popular it spawned an online break room, where co-workers can pop in to take a breather and connect.

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“It really feels like it replicates some of that office random interaction and happenstance,” Hatcher says. “It’s been really nice to get to know people in that way.”

2. SUMMIT MEETING

Many companies host team-building events, but Institution for Savings, the Newburyport-based bank, takes its extracurricular bond to a higher level — literally — with an annual overnight hike in the White Mountains. What was initially an informal group of employees hiking together on weekends in 2014 became a company-sponsored trip, with the bank footing the bill for overnight accommodations and meals at an Appalachian Mountain Club hut.

About 20 people, ranging from die-hard backpackers to novice hikers, have gone on the trip each year, though COVID-19 has delayed this year’s outing until next spring. Wesley Barry, vice president of retail banking, recounts how on last year’s trip, a senior vice president was reluctant to push ahead to the top of Mount Pierce until a junior employee acted as a drill sergeant and motivated her higher-up to summit not just that peak, but a second. “It definitely builds teamwork and respect for your co-workers,” Barry says, “and it’s very much a bonding sort of event.”

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3. ALL THE COMPANY’S A STAGE

At Beacon Communities' annual meeting, the firm’s leaders strut their stuff in a much anticipated and highly competitive talent show. There are songs, skits, and dancing — and a grand finale sing-along of Boston favorite “Sweet Caroline.”

This year, the show went digital, and any employee of the Boston property management company could get in on the act. The traditional judges panel was replaced by live online voting and employees used a chat function to share their reactions in real time, giving shout-outs to performers, requesting dance lessons from talented colleagues, and LOLing at particularly clever lines. The winning entry featured video clips of employees wearing red and white — a nod to the company’s red, white, and black logo — as they danced, played basketball, cheered, and volunteered, all set to “We’re All In This Together,” from High School Musical.

“It was quite phenomenal,” says chief administrative officer Darlene Perrone. The show was so effective at bringing the company together that there is already talk of giving the virtual talent show a regular slot at the annual meeting.

4. A DAY OFF, OUT OF THE BLUE

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the leaders at Watertown’s Addgene noticed that many of their employees — like people around the country — were scared and uncertain. So management gave everyone an unexpected day off. In late March, the life sciences nonprofit declared April 3 a “mental health day” and told all 97 staffers not to log in or come to the office.

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To ensure employees had a chance to truly unplug, Addgene also sent everyone Amazon gift cards, encouraging them to rent a movie to take their minds off work entirely. (A second day off was held August 14.)

Lab technician Racheal Komuhendo was still going in to the building every day, even working extra because the organization was short-staffed. So when the days off arrived, she slept a lot — and it was wonderful. “It was such a relief to me,” she says. “It was good for my well-being.”

5. SAY CHEESE (AND WINE)

While stuck at home because of the pandemic, chief administrative officer Donna Harris and her team from Newburyport’s Darling Consulting Group decided to hold virtual wine-and-cheese meetups on Wednesday nights. At first, everyone supplied their own drinks and snacks. Then, one day in April, every member of the 10-person team got a surprise gourmet gift basket delivered to their home hours before the meeting.

Most of the baskets included a bottle of wine as well as crackers, cheese, nuts, and chocolate. Non-drinkers received a comfort food basket packed with soup, rolls, and cookies.

“It’s a great feeling to know that they’re thinking of you and understanding,” says executive assistant Ann-Marie Ginn, of Merrimac, one of the recipients of the surprise April delivery. “They are very, very kind people here.”

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And Harris’s team wasn’t the only one to receive unexpected goodies before employees returned to the office. A group of analysts who came to retrieve paperwork in June were met in the parking lot by managers bearing ice cream treats.

6. LET THE GAMES CONTINUE

The Summer Olympics may have been canceled this year, but the staff at The Predictive Index did its best to keep the spirit alive. The Westwood-based workplace testing company has been holding office Olympics for years, featuring events like paper-airplane building and office-chair soccer. Teams are randomly assigned, so employees get a chance to connect with colleagues they might rarely talk to otherwise. Each squad is assigned a color and has to come up with a name, logo, and slogan.

Even with the coronavirus keeping co-workers physically separated, the games continued — with teams including Purple Reign, with a violet crown as its symbol, and a squad with the very Boston name the Green Monstahs. Instead of taking place on one day in May, the event was spread out across the month of October. There was pumpkin carving, a group costume contest, a Family Feud-style faceoff, and a competition in which 107 employees walked a total of 1.3 million steps in one day.

Sarah Woodbury, inside sales manager and captain of the orange team, The Squeeze, acted out milking a cow during remote charades and dressed up as Dobby the house elf from the Harry Potter series for the costume contest. She loves the competition and the camaraderie, she says, as well as the good-natured trash-talking the event inspires.

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7. MUSIC TO THEIR EARS

Like many employers, Boston-based Rapid7 was looking for ways to keep remote employees connected and engaged last spring. The solution the cybersecurity company came up with was music. Rapid7 hired artists from around the country to perform a series of virtual acoustic concerts, providing much-needed entertainment to employees and their families while helping out musicians who couldn’t book gigs because of pandemic restrictions.

The first show featured guitarist and singer Joe George from Chicago; artists from Oklahoma, Boston, and Texas also played during the series. Rapid7′s own amateur musicians even got in on the act, playing virtual shows every other week. “It gave you a place to get together and wind down the week in a very special way,” says Jay Brewer, vice president of brand experience, as well as an amateur guitarist and singer who performed as part of the series.

The shows stopped in late spring, but the in-house musicians are gearing up for more online performances this winter.

8. BUDDY SYSTEM

Even before COVID-19 struck, Erin Sullivan wanted to help make the challenges of life a little more manageable for his team at the consulting firm SEI. “Everyone is dealing with something different, but the only consistent theme is everyone is dealing with something,” says Sullivan, managing director for SEI’s Boston branch.

So in 2019, he instituted the Buddy Checks system, asking every employee to check in with at least five co-workers a week. The contact can be as simple as a quick text or as in-depth as a conversation over coffee. Sullivan, a former Marine, was inspired to create the system when he learned about veterans doing similar check-ins on people they had served with.

The system has continued since the company started working remotely. And it seems to be working. After a recent team meeting, principal consultant Ellen Scerbo received a call from one of her colleagues, worried that she seemed to be a bit down. She was feeling fine, she says, but it meant a lot to her that he had cared enough to reach out. “It just boosts you up sometimes,” Scerbo says, “and we all need that, right?”