Employee engagement

Working in harmony: the rise of staff choirs

Staff choirs are a great leveler because the most junior employee can be the most talented and the most senior tone-deaf

Julie Andrews had the right idea, as she shepherded her seven charges into a choir in The Sound of Music. Singing in a choir makes you feel better. In fact, a recent study from Oxford Brookes University suggests choristers receive a bigger boost to their psychological wellbeing than if they were to sing alone or join a sports team. Apparently, it is all to do with the unique effects of moving and breathing in synchrony.

In fact, so great are the benefits of joining a choir – from building confidence and communication skills to creating a sense of collective achievement – that corporates are beginning to get in on the act. From City banks and law firms to NHS trusts, a new phenomenon is appearing: the workplace choir.

And as an engagement tool, the choir has enormous potential – both internally and externally. This much was obvious in choirmaster and broadcaster Gareth Malone’s BBC2 show The Choir: Sing While You Work, the second series of which aired just before Christmas.

With up to five million viewers tuning into last year’s final, the prime time series offered invaluable PR and brand exposure to participants. But this was not the only incentive. ‘We also recognised, from a cultural perspective, the potential the choir would have in cutting across organisational layers and functional silos,’ explains Chris Laming, communications director at P&O Ferries, whose choir went on to win the show. ‘Here you had cross-Channel ferry captains being taught the rudiments of a musical score by some of the most junior call centre staff. The whole exercise became a cultural experiment in which rank and authority was set aside for the common good and the power of the true team.’

So successful was the experience that the choir will continue. P&O Ferries has engaged the services of a professional choir mistress and accompanist, and internal concerts are planned for later in the year. ‘The programme encouraged the ethic of cross-functional teamwork and we have tried to capture that and celebrate our choir’s overall success to keep the feeling going right across the business,’ says Laming.

Not that pulling together a company-wide choir is easy. Laming describes it as a logistical nightmare, with all of the backroom work being undertaken by the corporate communications team. The board also had to be persuaded to take the risk and bear the costs of forming a cross-functional choir. ‘The costs were not insignificant as many of our choristers are seafarers whose contracts require them to be paid if we bring them ashore to do other types of work, and this was classified as work,’ says Laming.

The whole exercise became a cultural experiment in which rank and authority was set aside for the common good and the power of the true team

Admittedly, not all organisations will seek television exposure for their singing endeavours and building a choir aimed at achieving business objectives requires management time and financial investment. It can take huge powers of persuasion to convince colleagues and management that forming a choir is not simply a frivolous use of finite and expensive management resources.

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service also participated in the competition, and communications officer Sarah Dornford-May admits that some staff members were initially sceptical, asking what the choir had to do with their day-to-day business. She agrees that time and cost considerations also raised some concerns, given the on-going environment of public sector budgetary cuts.

‘The costs are always at the back of your mind when you do anything that’s promotional,’ she says. ‘But we really believed the benefits of this would outweigh the doubts and the cost was actually fairly small.’

Dornford-May believes the choir was a unique and compelling way of connecting with people both internally and externally. ‘As an engagement tool, it was really great. We opened a lot of people’s eyes – there are still many who think the fire service is like London’s Burning, with staff just sitting around drinking tea in between putting out fires. But we do so much more,’ she says. In particular, she thinks the programme was a great way of getting the service’s safety messages across. ‘After the show people would stop us in the street to ask us about our work,’ she adds.

In addition, the choir brought together staff who would never normally meet, from firefighters to equal opportunity officers, to contractors and volunteers. ‘Everyone was encouraged to participate and one in five ended up auditioning, which was fantastic,’ she says. Engagement was no doubt boosted by the fact that, far from more work, participating in the choir would also be fun.

Nor did the time and cost put off Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, whose choir went on to enjoy further successes last year, following its participation in the first series of The Choir in 2012. ‘In the short term, we wanted to show off the expertise and dedication of our staff through the TV series. But in the long-term we hoped to create a sustainable choir that would bring a number of benefits to the Trust and our patients,’ explains head of communications David Cocke.

But we really believed the benefits of this would outweigh the doubts and the cost was actually fairly small

Since the programme, the choir has performed regularly for hospital patients and the local community, as well as singing in concerts across the UK. It also released a charity single late last year, A Bridge Over You, the proceeds from which went to Macmillan Cancer Support and local healthcare charities.

Cocke says the choir has been a window into the Trust, and by extension the NHS. But it has brought considerable internal benefits too in terms of engaging with staff – ‘from bringing lots of diverse staff groups together, to boosting morale through the huge amount of positive media coverage they have generated’.

In fact, these choirs appear to have been particularly successful tools in securing media coverage for key brand messages. A good example of this is the Anchor Community Band, which was created to help build brand awareness, increase enquiries from potential customers and improve satisfaction for Anchor Trust, England’s largest not-for-profit provider of housing and care for the over 55s.

The band brought together residents and staff from across Anchor’s care homes and retirement houses to record and release a song See Yourself. Lyrics were inspired by direct feedback from residents and the music was composed in-house.

Mario Ambrosi, head of public affairs at Anchor Trust, says that people in the record industry warned them that there would be a 98 per cent chance of failure. But that wasn’t the point. ‘This was as much about bringing people together as it was about record success or failure. The entire organisation was behind us,’ he says.

That doesn’t mean the campaign didn’t have some tough targets – chiefly to deliver 30 million opportunities to see (OTS) spanning print, broadcast and online, as well as 10,000 views on YouTube. The campaign far surpassed expectation achieving nearly 60 million opportunities to see, with highlights including coverage on Daybreak, ITV and Channel 5 national news.

Some of that success could be ascribed to the sheer novelty of the campaign – or, as Ambrosi puts it, the power of a good idea. But a lot of work, including press releases, videos of experiences and photo shoots, went into publicising the band from the outset, so that the song had already received 10,000 views on YouTube by the time it was released. ‘It was an easy sell into national media in hindsight,’ says Ambrosi.

Ambrosi also ascribes success to making it credible or ‘true to what the organisation is about’. The song helped create a compelling brand story, shaped as it was by the personal and very real experiences of the residents who ultimately represent the business. ‘The most important thing was integrity,’ he adds.

This human element has also been a particular success of the Sainsbury’s choir. As another competitor in the 2013 series of The Choir, the retailer enjoyed considerable publicity just by being on TV. But it was the unique make up of the choir that helped convey a memorable and distinctive sense of brand.

‘This wasn’t Newsnight or Panorama,’ says Yvette Edwards, head of broadcast and corporate at Sainsbury’s. ‘People were able to speak for themselves – any attempt to media manage them would have been disastrous.’ As such, real and compelling stories could emerge, from the soloist who thought she might never sing again after her vocal chords were damaged in a house fire, to the drag queen or the ex-offender. Not only could this wealth of characters help demonstrate the diversity of what is a huge organisation but they could give the brand a face. ‘People relate to human beings,’ says Edwards. ‘These are the stories that connect people to our brand.’

The corporate choir is something of a latest novelty. The successful publicity surrounding the examples above may not outlast a fairly short-lived public interest in choirs largely generated by a BBC show. But there is something behind the choir idea: if a successful brand is about creating an authentic story then a choir appears to be a surprisingly good tool for delivering it. For employees too, a choir may just represent a more fun, meaningful and sustainable way of getting closer to colleagues than many other one-off ‘team-building’ activities concocted in a boardroom. Many of the singers will hope that their choirs last a long time yet.