Locked down, but not out: How the drinks industry kept connected during Covid-19

Jo Bruce

Jo Bruce

21 August 2020

Keeping in touch with colleagues has been vital for the sociable beings that work on the hospitality frontline. So what have the creative minds in bars, pubs and restaurants come up with to keep their furloughed teams engaged during lockdown? Jo Bruce finds out

Toilet roll keepie uppie, anyone? While it would be easy to rely on video calls and old-fashioned emails, the hospitality industry has far more flair than that. Instead, employers have turned to Spanish lessons, group fitness sessions – and toilet roll keepie uppie − to help teams survive the lockdown and remain match-ready for a return to the bar.

That’s because equally important as the employment contract between operators and furloughed team members is the psychological contract they have with their staff. So helping employees to feel connected when home alone has been key to supporting mental health and fostering a positive employee culture.

Competitive edge

Adding a competitive element to things has proved popular with many – and not just Zoom pub quizzes either. Northern bar group Arc Inspirations, for example, has done daily vlogs from its senior team, issuing fitness challenges (such as squats to music, ouch), cocktail quizzes, cooking competitions and sharing music playlists.

Its annual company-wide cocktail competition has also still taken place, with team members creating an ‘isolation cocktail’. The winning drink, Holidaying at Home, was crafted with ingredients including homemade rhubarb and vanilla jam, Slingsby Gooseberry gin, Tio Pepe Sherry, homemade kiwi syrup, pineapple juice and Prosecco.

At House Café Company, which owns the Riding House Café in London’s Fitzrovia, cocktail competitions have also been a key way of keeping staff connected –but so have contests for the best lockdown outfit or haircut as well as toilet roll keepie uppies.

The team at Lab 22 in Cardiff , twice winner of Imbibe’s Drinks List of the Year, meanwhile have kept their eye on the re-opening ball and are using lockdown to come up with cocktail ideas for the new menu. Max Hayward, bartender at Lab 22, says: ‘Working on ideas has been lots of fun and has helped keep us connected and on the ball.’ They’ve opted for collaboration over competition, however, and have been taking part in online cocktail technique workshops with the team at London’s Artesian bar.

Art creating positivity

At East Anglia pub and restaurant operator the Chestnut Group, team members are being kept busy with art competitions (with winning entries to be featured in its venues), online weekly Spanish lessons, baking challenges, sharing acts of kindness (such as care packages for the elderly) and a bike maintenance session.

It has been amazing to see people’s hidden talents and understand more about each other

Sarah Barclay

Some of the initiatives have been so successful that the group is planning to continue them even when things reopen. ‘It has been amazing to see people’s hidden talents and understand more about each other,’ group HR manager Sarah Barclay says. ‘So much positivity has come out of the sessions and new friendships have been built within the Chestnut team. We will be continuing with the art theme, with an art show and competition when we reopen. Some of the quizzes, as well as our Spanish and fitness sessions, we are planning to continue, too.’

Pub operator Imagine Inns, too, is intending to carry on some of its initiatives post-lockdown, such has been their popularity. Managing director Mike Hales has organised online fitness workouts and positive mindset sessions for his team. Around 30% of workers have signed up to the fitness classes, along with 2,500 of the inns’ customers, who have also appreciated this weekly focus.

Around 40% of the workforce have also engaged with the complimentary one-to-one coaching sessions. Hales says: ‘The fitness classes have given the team something to look forward to each week and created another talking point with each other. We are looking to carry these on after reopening. The coaching sessions have been great at helping people to keep focusing positively in these challenging times. Some of the strongest people in our team have suffered the worst during this.’

Sharing on social

The social media space has, of course, been a solace for many during this time and many canny operators have tapped into this growing trend to create spaces for their teams to engage and interact, such as team Facebook groups.

At national bar operator New World Trading Company, a ‘New World Together’ group has been created to unite past and present employees. Stephanie Lloyd, the company’s marketing and digital director, says: ‘In here, there is the connected spirit of our New World culture and lots of things to encourage one another.’

Chestnut Group, meanwhile, has created a ‘Team Chestnut’ group which HR manager Barclay says has become ‘a great sharing and inspiring page for all to feel the wider presence of the whole Chestnut team.’

From coaching sessions to cocktail competitions, it certainly seems that while the bar industry still faces many challenges, the level of focus on team engagement means this is at least one area which will undoubtedly come out of this crisis for the better.

This article was first published in Imbibe's summer Community Edition magazine.

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