Nobody would describe the past year as fun and games, but that doesn't mean levity is out the window. With workers experiencing Zoom fatigue and overall burnout one year into the pandemic, employers know they need to remain creative to keep everyone feeling connected, productive and safe. This week, we turn to Jessica Pecoraro, vice president of workforce law and compliance at Thrivent, a financial services company with a workforce of 6,250 headquartered in Minneapolis. Pecoraro reflects on a year of COVID-19 challenges, why she thinks Thrivent employees have embraced old-fashioned fun from clubs to bingo, and why these lighthearted additions likely will endure when the pandemic ends.

Q: What words come to mind when you think about the past year?

A: Frenetic. Change. Adaptation. Nimble.

Q: You didn't get much of a warning before having to, as we love to say now, pivot.

A: I had worked with Thrivent for over a decade, but I didn't come onboard until 2019. So I had one normal year and then all of a sudden I'm leading the company's coronavirus task force.

Q: What was your messaging to employees early on?

A: We didn't anticipate working at home for a year. We thought it would be about six weeks initially. So early on, it was very much about helping employees with practical setup: I don't have the internet connection I need, the chair I need, the monitor I need. We took really practical steps. Come pick up your office chair — we'll put it in your car for you. We assisted in getting them internet service. We also put in place safety measures and protocols to keep the business going. I remember our very first action plan included information on what it means to socially distance. We were explaining what that meant. It's second nature now.

Q: Obviously, six weeks turned into six months and …?

A: As we got news about how the pandemic was escalating, we knew we'd be in it for a longer haul. People started saying, I have increased expenses, additional child care needs, elder care needs, that I really didn't anticipate. Last fall Thrivent introduced a COVID-19 support package for our employees that includes a flex work program, up to $750 in cost assistance to help them pay for unanticipated expenses, and access to health and wellness services so they can take care of themselves and their families. We're also taking steps to encourage meaningful connections by giving leaders and their teams a stipend for a team-building event. These are intended to give people an opportunity to come together and have fun.

Q: Speaking of fun, bingo! I wouldn't pick this as the ultimate employer response, but it definitely worked for you.

A: We did a whole program about virtual spaces for connection and bingo was one of those things. Participation has grown to 3,560 people! We've got at least 40 games scheduled at different times. For every person who joins, Thrivent will donate $25 to charity. To drum up extra excitement, we've sent participants a bingo package to their home with a T-shirt, bingo card, daubers and treats.

Q: Were you surprised by the positive response?

A: I was really surprised. But people are craving a connection and an outlet for fun. We wanted people to just have a good time and relax and enjoy each other.

Q: What other fun virtual events have you created for employees?

A: We've hosted an online murder mystery, book clubs and a random acts of kindness week, where every day was a different day to inspire kindness. We've got support networks with employee assistance representatives talking about preventing burnout and about 11 different interest groups online from recipe clubs to one for horse lovers to runners. The running group alone has over 400 people.

Q: And yet, how do you keep people from still working too much, as it's harder to delineate work life from home life?

A: If anything, we've had an increase in meetings because we're not having that casual encounter in the hallway. When we do have meetings, we try to have a clear purpose and outcome for them: Who should attend and why? How long does this meeting have to be? And to give employees increased flexibility, we introduced a Flexible Work Program, with options like job sharing, adjusted work hours or a compressed workweek.

Q: Will we ever return to the pre-COVID workplace?

A: We don't have answers yet but we are looking at options that meet the needs of our workforce and will keep people safe. Before 2020, our policies allowed for flexibility but most people were at work. We have seen more proof that you can be productive at home. We've told employees that we want them to come back when it's safe. Right now, it will be at least July before we even consider changing our work scenario and it will be a tiered return.

Q: As people return to the workplace, do you see keeping the fun and games alive online?

A: I want to make sure we continue to foster these connections. What's been really nice to see is the level of gratitude employees have for the support they've received. Everybody is coming from a place of, wow, I can do my job from home safely and effectively and I am supported. It's that shift to gratitude.