Playing at work

Written by Geeta Nair | Updated: Oct 1 2012, 01:52am hrs
Tough times call for some out-of-the-box measures and that is what corporate India is doing to lift employee spirits and boost productivity. Several companies are turning to art, theatre and even firewalking as effective HR tools. Geeta Nair sits through some of these workshops and comes back impressed

Taking the boring out of business

Imagine moving away from boring boardrooms to a stage to learn about mundane management concepts; a stage where drama, music, dance and yoga replace uninspiring presentations. Evam, an art-based entrepreneurship group in Chennai, into its 11th year, has made all these possible.

Karthik Kumar and Sunil Vishnu stumbled upon this wonderful concept while conducting workshops for corporates. They discovered that these workshops were instrumentalparticipants discovered new things about themselves and found the experiences they underwent cathartic.

The duo realised that art, with its professed advantages to be therapeutic, could be used to train talent in the corporate world too. They were both aware that training exercises in the corporate world were extremely boring and uninnovative, which heavily relied upon sleep-inducing Power Point presentations. Also, that corporate life could be extremely stressful, with fear dominating their every step. They realised that theatrics and the stage could become very potent tools inorder to infuse some excitement into the mundane and drab corporate world. Even though they knew that it was a risk to invest their energy and time in a market that barely understood art, they dived in with their experiences and understanding of theatre to convince sceptical HR teams that their ideas had potential. Convinced that they could bring about some changes in the boring corporate world, Karthik Kumar and Sunil Vishnu founded Sideways Training in February 2011. They design and develop art-based management workshops using drama, music, dance and yoga.

The world is evolving and this is a different generation, so things have to be much more experiential. Also, the workforce is getting younger with lower attention span and corporates are looking at ways to reach out to them, says Vishnu. He adds, These workshops are non-hierarchical, non-threatening and comfortable. They are conducted in absolutely empty rooms and there is nothing in the rooms to remind participants of who is the boss and who is the subordinate. What happens then is that the participants natural behaviour comes into play, whereas inside offices people create a wall and are on the defensive. A simple process of acting puts diverse people together. The process of training and creating something for an audience is nothing different from what happens in any project in a company, he explains.

Using theatre as a prop, they have designed workshops to meet the specific needs of companies. For example, if a company wants to create a culture of innovation at the workplace, then everyone has to have an open mind and believe that they can innovate. A recent workshop saw 150 new ideas to solve a problem, where the ideas were finally narrowed down to three workable solutions.

Vishnu believes that most companies today want people to come up with ideas and solve problems. He suggests that companies also have to create a culture of innovation where people can give ideas without fear. For example, an idea box to help people post ideas.

If we go by the testimonials given by the corporates who have taken up the workshops conducted by Sideways, then it can be said that they have proven to be very useful. So business has been booming for Sideways over the past 20 odd months. They have had 100-plus workshops with 35 companies across industry verticals, from manufacturing to telecom to IT and ITES with companies such as GE, Google, KPMG, HSBC, Citibank, Cognizant, Polaris, HUL, Tafe and Airtel. Citibank used their services for team bonding, DE Shaw used them for getting effective feedback, the workshops at HSBC were for leadership development, Polaris used their methods for VP-level inductions, for Airtel it was about brand value internalisation, while Vodafone used them for encouraging innovation and problem solving.

The idea is not to make great actors or dancers. Everything we do is mapped to corporate concepts, says Karthik TM, who was part of the leadership team at Sideways. Using the medium of theatre, participants managed to shed inhibitions making them better sales people. In some cases, there were domain experts who failed to connect with people and customers. They discovered the reasons behind their failure after attending one of Sideways workshops. In other cases, there were tangible gains like innovation ideas.

Sideways has a team of people that conducts these workshops. Equipped with an artistic bent of mind, they have been in the training arena for a considerable amount of time to have become familiar with the ways of corporate world. So they boldly say we are are in the business of training, not in the business of boring.

Firing up feminism

She makes women walk barefoot on a bed of red hot burning coal, she makes them walk on broken glass, she makes them bend sticks with their throats. Firewalking guru Peggy Dylan is convincing women in the male-dominated corporate world that they have the power to dream and achieve whatever they want. As she goads women to walk on fire, Dylan is confident that these young professionals will discover their real potential. Dont let the status quo, the current beliefs popular in our culture orchestrate your future. Choose to influence your own destiny, is her message. She believes that there is no need to lose the feminine identity and turn all macho to make it in the corporate world.

Dylan loves telling women that they have the power and capacity to do remarkable things. This is not very different from the remarkable things Shaolin monks do. If they can do it, so can we, Dylan tells a group of women in promising careers from across the country who are attending her Femme Vital workshop in Pune for HR firm HR Anexi.

All the activities in Dylans workshops are about self discovery and Dylan says she is not out to create martial art experts out of these women. Dylan tells the group the key is to remain focused and confront the demons in the mind, eliminate all negative thoughts and let go of the past. So the firewalking exercise is more about discovery of the self, she says, adding that once women go through firewalking, it changes the way they think about themselves and go on to do astonishing things outside their paradigm.

Dylan herself has been firewalking for nearly three decades and is convinced of its healing powers, its ability to make the firewalker empowered and ultimately result in a spiritual transformation. Dylans spiritual discovery started early after she lost her younger sister to leukaemia. Her inspirations came from visits to India and meeting with an Indian swami in her teens. Firewalking is an old Indian ritual that has been in existence for thousands of years and is still practiced in many temples. She borrows heavily from the wisdom of native Americans who walked on fire, as well as Tibetans who secretly practice firewalking. Numerous interactions with Peruvian Shaman mystics also reinforced her belief.

Her firewalking workshops are a contemporary interpretation of this ritual to make it relevant in the modern era. She introduced the tool of firewalking in her seminars and caught the attention of American corporates such as Microsoft, Coca-Cola and American Express, who used it as a way to bring in creativity and expand horizons of their employees. Along the way she created a special workshop for women called Femme Vital, as she realised that across cultures women felt powerless, ineffective and stifled by society, which she aims to check through her workshops. Dylan is an inspirational and motivational speaker too and her passion is to teach the science of human potential and help people uncover their untapped potential and explore abilities unknown. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, American Express and Max. Dylan is also founder of the Sundoor, the international fire walking school. HR Anexi, co-founder, Ashish Arora had attended one of her firewalking workshops in the US and decided to bring her to India.

HR Anexi is into employee engagement, consulting, HR outsourcing, learning and development, as well as executive hiring. Dylans workshops are part of their experiential learning practice and help participants overcome fear of the unknown. HR Anexi is also the partner of Sundoor School of Transpersonal Education in Asia and brings Dylans inspirational work and firewalk movement to India as they believe it can create a high energy organisation with empowered people. It brought together a group of women professionals and managers from across the country who are climbing up the ladder in the corporate world at the Lavasa International Convention Centre, Pune, for a three-day residential programme.

As the women open up, they tell her they are stressed out. Some are not happy about constantly playing the good daughter, the good wife, the good mother and the good employee. Others say they have to be submissive to the men. A few feel they miss being the women they are. It is universal and women the world over feel this, Dylan tells them. In America too, women are finding it difficult to balance family and careers. The world over too, women work harder and are more qualified. But men find it easier communicating with men, which explains the scarce presence of women in top management positions, says Dylan.

We are multitasking all the time. Somewhere along the way we have lost touch with our feminine self, says Dylan. She wants these women to get in touch with the woman in them and overcome all fears to be more confident. She tells these women that it is okay to be happy. It is okay to enjoy life, to take care of yourself, love the pleasures the body offers and not consider a womans body as dirty. She wants them to fight the conditioning that a girl child grows up with across cultures. Do not sacrifice your happiness for anything, she tells women, adding that happy women are more likely to raise happy families and lead more fulfilling lives.

From age nine to 12, women start thinking something is wrong with them and that they just dont match up and this is applicable to all cultures, she says. But biology has other plans. The Y chromosome has 39 genes while the X chromosome has 6,000 genes, which make it easier for women to multitask or think quickly, she tells the rapt audience. So first and foremost she encourages women to accept their bodies through an exercise called liberation through anatomy, where women are encouraged to talk about their bodies and shed inhibitions.

Kickstarting creativity

It is not the best of the times for the countrys second-largest motorcycle maker in the country. After a phase of furious growth there is a drop in numbers and a lull in the market. But when the ride gets tougher, it calls for some unusual responses. Turn to your creative sides for some out-of-the-box thinking to getting into the next growth orbit, is what Bajaj Auto Ltd MD Rajiv Bajaj is telling his team. As motorcycles sales start to dip and competition heats up, team Bajaj Auto has to come up with some creative ways to pull up the growth curve and evolve some new winning strategies for the future.

So Rajiv Bajaj turned to Christopher Hogan, an Australian artist and visual communicator. Hogan was invited to Bajaj Auto to be the artist in residence. He is famous in the hospitality circuit in Australia, Asia and Middle East where he is artist in residence at several spas and resorts in Maldives, Bangkok, Phuket and in Australia and is involved in projects in Dubai, Qatar and Shanghai.

His mandate was to create artistic designs and concepts for Bajaj Auto, study positioning of Bajaj brands and products, as well as conduct his Art Energy workshops for Bajaj Auto employees. Hogan says he sees bikes as something that has line, form, colour and composition, just like the abstract canvas he works on. Abstract art goes hand in hand with cutting edge corporate technology, says Hogan.

Since July this year, Hogan has been at Bajaj, nudging reluctant employees to dip into some acrylic paint and come up with abstract paintings at the corporate headquarters in Akurdi. Bajaj has around 8,000 employees, of which 2,000 are in Akurdi. In the next stage, these workshops will be taken to the other plants in Chakan and Aurangabad.

They bring me in to stimulate self expression and original thoughts, says Hogan, as he brings some colour into the workplace. He firmly believes art can change people's mood and stimulate creativity. In a corporate environment where people tend to confirm there is a loss of imagination and creativity ebbs away or is suppressed, Hogan aims to help them rediscover it. Rajiv Bajaj wants them to come up with new ideas, says Hogan. He has so far conducted 14 workshops for randomly chosen 220 employees across levels and functions till the first week of September.

The last of the workshops in this round was for the HR department. As Hogan enters the dull meeting room, the HR team in their uniforms is waiting in attention. There is pin-drop silence with seriously stressed faces staring at him. Hogan is used to this but he knows in the next two hours it would not be the same. Once they put a paint brush on the canvas and start playing around with colours, the group starts loosening the strings that tied them.