It’s no fun being in lockdown, even if you have a dream job as a game developer. That’s why Blind Squirrel Games, a game development services company in Orange County, California, has been doing more to entertain its employees.
CEO Brad Hendricks and Kitty Mach, Blind Squirrel Games‘ senior community manager, have ramped up the entertainment for employees to boost morale during the pandemic. Blind Squirrel Games has made this one of the top priorities for the 110 employees in the name of keeping them motivated and enthusiastic about collaborating.
The management team is grateful that they’ve been able to operate almost as normal with their full force and want to ensure they’re doing everything in their power to create positive employee interactions and engagements.
They have created social spaces such as digital clubs for employees. Using the company’s platform, employees can start clubs and discussion groups based on common interests like comics and books, pets, cooking, video games, coding clubs, and board games. Employees can search for clubs, find information about where they can socialize, and look for scheduled digital meetups or schedule their own.
The company has also set up a directory where employees can find other employees’ livestream channels, social groups outside of BSG’s owned channels, player IDs they want to share with each other so they can game with each other, and social networks. Prior to the work-from-home mandate, the company held weekly Friday socials, and those continue. They hold randomized raffles to give employees digital gift cards for the grocery store or another store of their choice.
I spoke with Hendricks and Mach about this. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You’ve figured out how to have fun?
Brad Hendricks: Yeah, I think so. We identified early on, psychologically this is going to pose a significant issue for certain individuals in the company. Obviously, we have — game developers typically are single. Not always. We have families as well. But we knew there was a fairly large segment of our population that lives at home, possibly alone. We wanted to make sure that we were addressing what we thought at the time was just going to be four weeks, and then turned into something much longer. We were glad we got ahead of the curve.
I tapped Kitty [Mach], our community manager, who’s also doing a ton of other things. She helped us, with some other individuals in the organization, to come up with a plan to start engaging employees and keep them excited and motivated and give them tools to deal with the issues that we knew were going to come up. We just didn’t know how they were going to manifest or anything like that. We just figured the best way to keep people occupied is to give them things to do outside of work. When you can’t come together, the form we’re at right now is the only way we could have done it. We came up with a lot of different types of programs for keeping people involved all the time.
GamesBeat: Has this been measured in some way, in a good way?
Hendricks: I’m sure Kitty has some data. She’s the one who’s responsible. For example, one of the things that we do that seems to be one of the more popular — I don’t know if it’s actually the most popular. But the Beer Friday, which is going to happen today at 5 — basically we did this in the office normally. We used to go at five o’clock and turn the taps on. We have taps in the office. We’d all have a beer. We decided to keep that going. We have a virtual Beer Friday at 5, and everybody gets on Zoom. We have Teams and other kinds of technology as well, but we felt that Zoom was the better way to do it, because we can do some fun things with Zoom, like give away prizes and things like that.
GamesBeat: How adventurous did you get with that? Did you think about sending beer to employees’ houses?
Hendricks: We didn’t do that. I guess we were a little concerned about the liability there. We figured people could get their own beer. We did send gift packages. In fact, I think that was last week. We sent snacks to every employee in the company, no matter where they are. We have some remote employees that are in other states. It included healthy snacks and stuff like that. And then during the beer Friday every — I think it’s twice during Beer Friday, we’ll spin the wheel and everybody’s name who’s at the event, we’ll give away a prize. That’s fun.
Kitty Mach: We actually started our Friday social in March. Brad was great at — immediately when we went remote, we needed an option to keep people engaged and give them somewhere they could socialize. We found a way to do the regular beer Fridays digitally. We set that up and we’ve been doing it every Friday. We’ve been taking feedback from employees, what they’d like to see. We’ve done raffles where, if you show up, we’ll give you your choice of digital gift card for whatever service. We’re all ordering things online now because a lot of people can’t go out.
Tonight we’re even doing a pub quiz, where we do trivia and people get to participate in fun categories. We give prizes away for that too. We’ve been doing it every Friday since the end of March, and it’s just been getting more popular. More people have been turning up. It’s a great time for people to dip out of work, pop in, say hi, and show what they’re up to. We like to leave it open so people can come and go, just like they would in the office.
GamesBeat: Are people turning on their cameras for this?
Hendricks: Yeah, yeah. There’s a couple of people who don’t do cameras because they’re embarrassed. One of them was really funny. One of our IT guys is apparently growing a beard, and he was embarrassed because he didn’t think it was full enough. He didn’t want to turn on his camera. But most people — we mandate it for executives and directors, any type of manager, that you have a camera. Our IT department went out of the way. Even for people that don’t have cameras who wanted to have cameras at home, our IT department gave some cameras to employees who needed them. That’s not a big deal. Having that personal face-to-face makes it seem a little bit more real.
GamesBeat: Has the internet held up for you? Do you have to do anything about that?
Hendricks: At least where I live, it’s been fine. Some people are using Wi-Fi and have some issues. Most of the time it’s pretty good. The technology has gotten so good, whether you’re using Teams or Zoom or whatever. We never seem to have problems. A lot of the companies we’re working with have their own proprietary technologies they’re using too. It hasn’t been a problem.
We always encourage everyone, even our clients, to have a camera. It makes it more personal. Everybody, when we’re meeting, whether it’s EA or Disney or anyone else in the world that we work with, they all seem to have cameras too. I think people are getting used to it.
GamesBeat: You have 110 employees or so?
Hendricks: I think we’re at 120 now. We’re growing still, since the last time we talked.
GamesBeat: Have you been hiring people without meeting?
Hendricks: Yes, physically. That’s absolutely 100 percent correct. The last time we talked, I think we were at 110. We’ve hired 10 people during the COVID crisis without actually physically meeting them. The way we do that, if we’re hiring them, our HR manager and our IT department, we coordinate this. They all meet at the office, do all the paperwork. We do the separation and everyone has gloves and masks and all that. Then they take computers back home with them if they need to, or any type of equipment. That’s how we’ve been doing it.
GamesBeat: Have you had to have a full company meeting with all 120 people there yet?
Hendricks: Yep, we did that almost a month ago now. Every quarter we try to do what we call a company stand-up, where we go over the status of the company financially, some of the projects that we’re working on and how they’re doing. We’re doing a lot of projects simultaneously. We talk about what’s coming. We get people excited about where we’re heading and some of the new things we’re doing. Obviously we talk about some of the social aspects. The meetup on Fridays isn’t the only thing we’re doing. We also have virtual social clubs that we’ve set up within our Teams environment that are proving to be quite exciting.
Mach: There’s a comic book club, movie watching parties. We have a cooking club where people share recipes that work well in quarantine. There’s a lot of different interests. We also have remote tabletop gaming. We let the employees decide what they’re most interested in, and we support what grows from there. It’s been interesting to see what people want to do in these times.
GamesBeat: Are you pairing people up at all? The people who like comics, do you find them for each other?
Mach: We have a directory we set up where we list every active club with who the owners are, who the active members are, if there are any calendar updates or meetups. That’s viewable to everyone in the company. It’s the main source we have set up for all the employees, along with information about prevention guidelines and remote working. We’re doing our best to just make sure that repository has all the information an employee needs to get what they want to find.
GamesBeat: We had our conference recently, and we had a speaker who talked about “gamer DNA.” They would study your gaming habits for a while and then figure out what your personality is like. From there they ultimately want to hook people up with the right job opportunities based on how they play and what their personality is like. It seems intuitively like something you’d think of if you’re a gaming company. I wonder if you see any of that. If you really want to get to know someone, it used to be that you’d meet them in person. But now, what if you play a game with them? Would you get to know them better through a tabletop game or Call of Duty: Warzone, seeing how they play a certain role? Is this a person your team can get along with? To me that’s an interesting possible substitute in these times, where you could glean more about people and where they’d fit on your team through recreational activity.
Hendricks: It’s funny, because I think that already existed in the company, even before COVID. A lot of guys play PUBG or Call of Duty or even Battlefield or League of Legends. There’s a lot of different groups that play different things together. We have a bunch of guys who play board games, and they’re always opening that up to other guys to come in, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons or whatever else. That’s something that we’ve always done as a company, and you’re right. It’s a lot easier when you’re right there physically with people and you get to learn about how they react. When you’re playing games it’s kind of like sports. You learn a lot about people, about how they react when they make a mistake or they do something well. But we’re doing a lot of things like that internally.
The weird thing is that’s happening naturally. In our Friday meeting, people will — let’s talk about where you were born, or something like that. One day one of the guys who lives up in Big Bear, where there was still snow on the ground when this thing started — we could see out the windows, and someone says, “Is that snow out there?” He took us for a tour around his house. It was really cool. It was 80 degrees over here and he had snow on the ground.
Everyone does their own things. Everyone is sharing a lot right now. I don’t know if it’s just because people are lonely and they’re more willing to open up. But it’s interesting. I’m learning a lot more about people in the company that I didn’t know before by going in on that thing on Fridays. I don’t get a chance to go to their houses normally, and now I’m in their house with them.
Mach: People talk about their dogs. Before we all went remote, we were already doing the taps on Fridays, and we already had socials and barbecues and board games and mentorships and things like that. People gravitated toward what they were interested in. But setting up more tools and more areas for people to find out about each other online has spawned a lot of interesting new opportunities that we never got to take advantage of in the office. Now we do things where everyone is getting to know their co-workers. We’ll have topics to discuss for socials. We’ll go down the line and ask, “Where were you born? What’s your favorite game? What are you playing now?” We don’t normally get the opportunity to do these things regularly in the office, where everyone’s doing their own activities. But because we bring everyone together for these big socials, we get to mix and meld and learn different things about different people.
Besides that, we also do a lot of surveys. They’re all anonymous and optional. But we do these surveys for employees where we ask them, “How’s your mental health for this week? Are there any activities you’d like to do digitally over the course of the month? Would you like to see something improve?” We get a lot of good feedback. We also have some surveys where we let people volunteer if they want to be a moderator for a club, or if they want to own an activity. We give them that opportunity, and we’ve been getting surveys where people give us a lot of information about their interests that we never knew. We’re able to expand on that because we have the tools to do it.
Hendricks: We’re using SurveyMonkey, but we’re using it for our playtests with our new IP we’re working on too. We just decided we could use it for our employees too. We threw something together when we started doing weekly updates on the status of COVID. When are we coming back to work? What do we know? That kind of stuff. We’re trying to keep people as informed as we can. Obviously, as you know, the information is gray and murky at best, so we’re trying to pull from as many resources as we can. States and localities all have different ideas about when it’s okay to come back to work. Where we’re at right now we’re still not an essential business.
But during that initial thing we pushed for surveys so we could get — where are people’s psyches at right now? We made them anonymous so people could contribute. We asked some pointed questions. How is your mental health? Are you lonely? We got some good feedback. Wouldn’t it be cool if you guys did this? We got a surprising number of returns on those the first time, so that’s super useful. We know we’re doing the right things. People are happy, or as happy as they can be in this situation.
GamesBeat: Are there policies that you have to put in place to be prepared for what could go wrong? I can think of things that can go badly when you mix private time with work time.
Hendricks: We follow the same rules as we do at work. Harassment, all those normal HR-related issues are still in place. We don’t tolerate anybody putting anybody down, any of that kind of stuff. We’re all very jovial. We poke fun at each other all the time. I think we’re pretty mellow. We haven’t run into anything yet. But HR is obviously heavily involved in all the decisions on communication with our employees to make sure it’s following all the local statutes and guidelines, so we’re not crossing any lines.
You’re right, though. It is a fine line. You’re trying to be personable with people. You want to get them to feel comfortable with each other. But you have to be almost standoffish at a certain point. It’s tough. But I think we’ve found a good balance.
Mach: Video is optional, as Brad was mentioning earlier. We want to see people’s faces, but we don’t force people. We try to create a lot of options where there might be some people who are a bit shyer, or some of the activities they like aren’t necessarily as social, but they still want to be a part of something. We give them many different ways and different places, so that way they don’t feel like we’re pigeonholing them into one way of communicating. We’re always open to adding more avenues of communication.
GamesBeat: As far as ways to amp up the fun, I’ve seen a couple of VR companies talk about — if you have meetings in VR they can be a lot more fun than Zoom. I don’t know if anyone’s been veering off in that direction to try to make the environment more immersive.
Hendricks: That would be awesome. You can see my VR stand right here, and I have another one over here. I just don’t think a lot of people have VR at home. We’ve dabbled in VR as a company. It’s just very expensive for a lot of people. But I agree. That would be a lot of fun. I just don’t think a lot of people have it. We have a bunch of kits at work, but not enough to disburse to 120 people.
Mach: Some people get a bit of motion sickness, things like that. What we try to do with our social gatherings and activities is make it as inclusive as possible. If someone wants to use a video or someone wants to type in the text box, they can choose either one. We try to make it fun, and we have some Fridays where we do things like show and tell, things that are fun, but we try to make it inclusive such that people aren’t limited by lack of technology.
We have a lot of fun, quirky other activities we do. Even the pub quiz that we’re doing tonight, we’re doing a quiz where we’re doing a general kind of Jeopardy quiz with everyone, and we’re basically using pencil and paper on a webcam or typing in a text box. That way almost everyone can participate.
GamesBeat: People have mentioned Battleship as a good game to play with two players, without having to reach through a screen and grab a card. I don’t know if there are many games that have been created for this kind of situation.
Hendricks: Back to the spin-the-wheel thing, it’s funny, because for some reason or another, I’ve won at least every other time, and I keep telling Kitty to take my name out, because it keeps landing on me. I think it’s rigged. I don’t know. Most people who’ve won once say the same thing. If it lands on them again they say, “I already won, let everyone else win.”
Mach: We even have some people who’ve never won before, and they say, “You know what, this will go better to someone else, so I’ll give it back and double the prize pool.” People can pass their gift to someone else.
GamesBeat: Any other interesting things to mention today, ways to keep people entertained?
Hendricks: We’ve got the digital clubs. We’ve got the weekly meetup. We do the company update, and we’ll probably end up doing one more before this is all over with. That’s more of a general company-wide update. We’re performing all of our meetings that are done normally — we used to do stand-ups as a company, scrum planning, sprint planning, whatever. All those things are happening normally. Everyone is doing a hell of a job, and we’re still on track with all of our projects, which is amazing. We’re trying to keep people motivated, keep them engaged, keep them from going nuts.
Even the people who have families at home that are super busy, those people need time away from their families. They’ll close the door and come to beer Friday and have a good time. You’d be surprised how people need that. I’ve had a lot of people sending me emails saying, “I appreciate you guys doing this. I need this hour or two away from my family.” It’s sad and it’s cool at the same time.
Mach: We’re trying our best to make sure that new people and veteran employees all get to meet each other. It’s not a normal situation where someone starts at a company. They’ve never gotten to see anyone at the office face to face. We do our best to send out the newsletters and update people about new hires coming in, where they can come and socialize with them, what clubs and things they can join that are interesting.
We’ll do Squirrel Spotlights for people who want to participate, little stories about them. “Hey, did you know that so-and-so loves to knit, and they’re also part of this club, and they run this activity this weekend? Be sure to check all of this stuff out!” We send a lot of regular updates out on top of the social clubs and directories. We’re giving people as many channels as possible to find information and communicate and engage.