27 October 2023

Beyond the job title: building community with a talent show

Employee engagement is an elusive term. You want to maximize it in any initiative that revolves around the people – be it a mutual project, a presentation delivery, or an after-hour team building activity. But how exactly do you measure engagement? 

The sheer participant numbers are a good metric, but they alone won’t give you the whole picture. How ‘engaged’ were those who attended? Were they truly interested, or is their attendance only cordial? Is the event really helping create bonds and build teams, or simply providing short-lived collective entertainment experiences?

These were just some of the questions that Maria Glyadelova, Creative Producer at Exness, had to find answers for as she was leading the preparations for Exchella – the company’s big Summer Festival featuring a mesmerizing talent show. Taking months to organize and prepare and spanning across several company offices, the event offered employees to become headliners and showcase their skills – just not the ones they’d put on a resume for a trading company job.

Exchella ended up becoming more than a platform for these skills, but a collective jumpstart to revitalize long-forgotten or well-hidden talents. Looking back, we only have one more question to ask Maria: how did it all turn out so well?

At Exness, we emphasize the importance of work-life balance for a reason. Hard work feels more rewarding and purposeful when you know it’s there to support whatever you love, enjoy, and strive for after you’ve clocked out."

Maria Glyadelova Creative Producer

Putting the people behind the wheel

That’s exactly what we wanted to focus on when coming up with a concept for Exchella: giving creative people a platform to showcase their hobbies and hidden talents, making them the driving force behind a community event’s atmosphere.

The inspiration for such a bold idea came from our own Culture Expo during the Exness Week 2019 corporate event, where different Exnessian nationalities became ambassadors of their cultures through dances, songs, standup, and other creative performances. Despite its relatively small scale and charmingly cliché presentation, the event garnered a lot of positive reaction, serving as an entertaining and bonding experience for everyone involved.

Exchella was designed based on that experience, but bigger, better, more inclusive, and most importantly – more engaging.

Conditions, fears, and expectations

Scaling such an event up to 3 locations and giving all employees the opportunity to participate required upping the stakes significantly. The first place winner on each location would take home tickets to the Coachella 2024 music festival – or any other music festival of choice within the EUR 10,000 cost limit. Second and third places get EUR 2,000 and 1,000 worth of travel, accommodation, and/or concert tickets of choice.

Tempting as the prizes were, back then we didn’t know if they’d be enough to motivate many people to step up and perform in front of a big crowd – let alone to have their performances be judged. So we split the contest between two rounds and lowered the entry barrier by making it a family contest, with spouses being able to compete for the main prize, and children having a dedicated prize pool in the ‘Kid Superstars’ category.

The first round was de-facto an online screening stage on the company’s intranet. Employees could vote for their favorite contestants to determine ten favorites who would enter round two and compete on the main stage with professional judges deciding the winners based on specific criteria.

Or, at least, that was the idea.

Calm before the storm

The big reveal was met with silence. The announcement pages teasing the prizes and inviting people to upload video recordings of their performances only had a few reactions, but nobody was actually submitting any content for days and even weeks at a time. We almost started writing an early post-mortem of the seemingly failed project. What went wrong? Was the announcement poorly communicated? Did it barely reach any people? Were the prizes unappealing or the conditions too intimidating?

Answers started appearing as we set out to directly contact colleagues who we knew had talents outside of work fit for a contest like ours, hoping their participation would encourage others to follow suit. While some indeed felt shy, others told us they simply needed time to prepare and realize their vision, treating their demo reels as serious production pieces. There was even a case of a high-ranking manager questioning the ethics of competing for a prize against her subordinates, but we were happy to convince her that she’d only be leading by example.

This painful period of inactivity that we thought would be a premature end of our talent show turned out to be a great lesson in patience. Several weeks after the initial announcement drought, the creativity floodgates opened, and candidates started filling the company portal with amazing footage. Acrobatics, dance choreography, impressions, magic tricks, comedic skits, visual art, a plethora of music videos, covers and original songs, and even feats of strength and martial arts demonstrations were all put on display one after another. One employee even boasted a paragliding stunt on camera. This influx of content creators was followed by record-breaking corporate Portal activity metrics, as employees rushed in to like, comment and vote for their colleagues.

The hype was real: as the news spread across the company, the contest became known even among those who are usually frugal when it comes to paying attention to official news. Even the skeptics were on board, anticipating the outcome of the screening stage.

From individuals to communities

With Exchella itself still months away, our goals for it have already been partially achieved: people were dusting off their long-abandoned skills, or making their active hobbies public in the workplace. Apart from uplifting and diversifying company culture, this had a transformative effect on people’s perception of each other. Faces, voices and names that previously invoked purely work-related associations now belonged to signers, artists and performers, creating a multidimensional image of each individual instead of just a person with a job title.

The shift of perspective was both horizontal and vertical, as managers were getting a more human connection with their subordinates. After being taken aback by the sheer volume of talent on display, one manager even jokingly claimed “I think you guys should all quit and start looking for producers!”

This approach had a significant positive impact on employees whose cultures and backgrounds promote a more reserved approach to socialization at work, figuratively ‘loosening the ties’ and allowing them to creatively and officially express themselves at a level not usually seen among colleagues.

We were witnessing communities form and bond right then and there, as dancers joined other dancers for collective choreography, and musicians united into duets or even whole bands for a better shot at the prize. We encouraged and helped them in this process, seeking out solo performers and providing them with suggestions for cool and fitting collaborations. But that wasn’t the full extent of our assistance.

As voters determined 10 finalists in each office, preparations had gone underway for the big shows at Exchella.

Fair rules and helping hands

From there on, we accompanied our finalists almost every step of the way, helping out with the concepts of their performances, setting up audio, visuals, light, props and overall assuming the role of producers to ensure quality of delivery. After all, they already became local superstars within their respective Exness offices, and deserved to be treated as such. We wanted to bring their personality to the forefront, to let their stories be heard, and to humanize them in the eyes of colleagues who maybe didn’t have a personal connection with the finalists. By way of brief but cool interviews with each of them, we shed light on their backgrounds, aspirations, struggles and dreams, reminding everyone that we’re all just people united under one Exness umbrella, all with unique personal journeys that shouldn’t be swept under the rug – even when other responsibilities occupy most of our time.

We also had to make sure that attendees who don’t perform on stage would stay busy and interested. Apart from full-on cheerleader groups bringing that extra spark to performances, visitors were free to attend multiple workshops and purchase handmade wares, with all profits going to charity – a win-win-win situation for all sides involved.

As much as we loved everyone’s vigor, only a few winners had to be chosen, and this time, we had professional judges do the job. Knowing exactly the types of performances at each location, we did our best to select judges accordingly, inviting local guest stars including singers, artists, producers and dancers who were able to give proper evaluations to corresponding performances. In order to keep the contest fair for everyone, judging criteria were introduced as guidance, taking into account the performers’ stage presence, technical abilities, appearance, creativity, audience reaction, and overall impact.

But no judge could accurately predict the effect that Exchella would have on Exness culture, community and sense of belonging.

Newfound passions

Exchella was planned as a one-of event, and we aim to keep it that way: unique, unforgettable, and wonderfully impactful – and not just for the winners.

Today, it’s not uncommon to hear newly formed Exnessian bands performing on an office rooftop on a chill Friday evening. There are dance groups that have persisted far beyond the duration of the talent show, having formed a professional choreography class. There’s a whole opera show being prepared by a motivated contestant. There’s even a newly engaged couple born out of an on-stage proposal.

How do you measure this kind of employee engagement? You can’t, but you can definitely feel it all around the company, having witnessed people rediscover the joy of creative self-expression outside the realm of work. And yet, it has an amazing effect on work itself, with new bonds and connections formed naturally between people working in Exness.

Maybe it’s a bit cliché to say that the real prizes are the friends we’ve made along the way, but these are the prizes that Exnessians will cherish for a long time.

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