PKF O’Connor Davies goes virtual for large annual picnic

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In May, a few months into the coronavirus pandemic forcing the country into lockdown and restricting in-person gatherings, New York City-based Top 100 Firm PKF O’Connor Davies realized an alternative plan would be needed for its annual firmwide picnic scheduled for the following month.

“The picnic is usually in June, so sometime in May we got together on the phone and decided [on a virtual picnic],” explained Dawn Perri, chief human resources officer. “A lot of planning goes into it. We have had several Zoom team meetings. We planned to make it interactive, fun and engaging. Most importantly, we didn’t want to lose anyone.”

The picnic, which typically brings together most of the firm’s more than 900 employees from 12 offices to Travers Island New York Athletic Club in Pelham Manor, New York, would now be hosted over Zoom.

“The virtual picnic is more challenging, to make it exciting and interactive,” Perri explained. “In person, it’s so much easier to do that. We certainly overcommunicated, to try to make it fun and so no one was left out.”

For every other of the more than 10 years PKF has hosted the picnic, the agenda included a town hall address, competitive summer games, longevity awards to celebrate the longest employee tenures, and plenty of food and music. For Perri and chief marketing officer Kathleen O’Toole, who worked together to plan the reimagined picnic, the task of translating such an anticipated event into a Zoom meeting was tricky.

“The objective was connecting in one of the most challenging business environments — to connect and share information, and celebrate many things,” O’Toole said. “As contradictory as that sounds, what’s happening at our firm is worth noting. Dawn sent out clever teasing emails, promised the best picnic ever, and had us jumping higher.”

Perri’s invite emails included polling questions and a survey “to get everyone engaged,” she explained. “And we collaged together photos of former picnics to get everyone hyped up.”

A big objective for Perri and O’Toole was preserving the social fun of a large group gathering as people logged in from their home offices.

“Part of it was everyone was given a stipend to spend on their favorite meals, have them brought in or, if inclined, their favorite adult beverage,” O’Toole explained. “After [the event], people sent phenomenal pictures — they ordered lobster rolls, sushi, and we collected them to keep the spirit alive.”

One advantage the 2020 picnic had over prior years was that, without the usual travel logistics, it was very well attended, with close to 700 people logging on.

The picnic kicked off with an opening segment from managing partner Kevin Keane, followed by addresses from HR, marketing and IT leaders. Following those firm updates, which Perri and O’Toole deemed especially critical this year, the two-hour meeting segued into more of the “fun” segments the two had planned.

When CFO Anthony Capellupo took his turn to speak, they played a “prank” by not following the interview format they had promised, instead firing off rapid-fire questions, light-heartedly covering everything from “Jets vs. Giants?” to “Do you prefer to work with the MP or COO?”

Throughout, there was one “throwaway gimmick,” O’Toole shared, relying on the magic of Zoom to give the illusion of passing an object between squares on the grid. “We had beach balls sent to homes, and as you gave your speaking component, then you sent it to the next speaker as you finished, throwing it to the next speaker about to take the stage, who 'caught' the ball.”

Back in June, there was a lot of discussion of “Zoom bombers,” or cybercriminals, hacking into protected video meetings, which Perri and O’Toole used to their advantage for another fun surprise.

“At the bottom of the screen, a woman appeared on-screen painting,” O’Toole explained. “People started writing [in the chat], ‘Do you know we’re being Zoom bombed?’ We had hired someone to paint past picnics, with pictures of Travers Island. Within an hour, it was a beautiful painting, a scene from Travers Island. We watched the faces that went from shocked to curious as the painting started to reveal itself. People were really happy.”

As the painter finished her canvas, attendees were asked to guess what she was depicting, and the artwork was awarded to the firm’s longest tenured employee, who is celebrating 42 years with PKF. Other long-time employees were also honored with the firm’s longevity awards. Keane also recognized 20 to 30 people who had stepped up during the pandemic.

They were honored “for doing some supportive activity that extended beyond their typical jobs,” said O’Toole. “It added warmth, heart and sincerity to the meeting. People were really happy to be noticed, and to recognize their colleagues.”

The meeting concluded with a champagne toast to celebrate partners who had recently graduated from a leadership program.

While, like at many firms, Zoom meetings and happy hours have become standard, PKF is also working on creatively transitioning other upcoming larger gatherings onto the Zoom screen. The firm’s promotion day, planned for November, will warrant another virtual meeting, whether firmwide or by office.

“It’s another way to get everyone together, to have the family-like feeling during these virtual times,” said Perri, “to maintain contact and communication in the days we are not chatting in hallways or seeing colleagues in the kitchen.”

To achieve this connection, especially at the height of the pandemic, the firm was sending out newsletters with daily updates, jokes, shared photos of team members and their remote office setups, and recipe recommendations. The photos team members were exchanging of the food made with these recipes were so good that O’Toole said they are considering compiling them into a firm cookbook.

O’Toole and Perri have many more ideas for keeping employees engaged and connected, and the success of the picnic has given them the confidence to forge ahead.

“It was a labor of love — we had so much fun planning,” O’Toole said. “At the end we wanted to connect colleagues; a lot have become family and friends. It was the right thing to do at the right time.”

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