Firms that rock

Corporations and the Big Four are helping staff channel their inner superstar in the latest bid to foster employee engagement.

Anthony D’Ugo, lead guitarist in the Toronto-based rock band Half Way to Disco, is kicking back on a red velour bench waiting to take the stage for an intimate concert on the second floor of the Hard Rock Café in the heart of Toronto. By the time the group’s set rolls around it’s just after 10 p.m. The house is packed, the beer is flowing, the lights are dimmed and red and white spotlights beckon. Looking cool and relaxed in a pair of blue jeans and a black tee, 46-year-old D’Ugo grabs his guitar to play alongside the band’s singers, keyboardist, bassist and drummer. Their six-song set, which includes covers of K-OS’s "Sunday Morning" and Metric’s "Breathing Underwater," has the crowd pumped — they’re dancing, singing and clapping to the beat. And when D’Ugo nails the legendary Eddie Van Halen guitar solo in Michael Jackson’s "Beat It," the volume cranks up to 11 with fans hooting and hollering.

Given the musicians’ electric sound and stage presence, you’d think performing is their full-time gig. But it’s not. D’Ugo — the kick-butt, take-no-prisoners guitarist extraordinaire — is an accountant and senior manager at Deloitte in Toronto. In fact, this motley crew of CPAs, HR reps, risk service consultants and recruiters all work for the Big Four firm, and came together to rock out in what executives see as a valuable employee engagement-building venture.

Operated by Toronto-based League of Rock, the program offers staff the opportunity to join a band, get coached by professional musicians and put on a concert at local venues after a couple months of rehearsals. More importantly, it provides an outlet for creative-minded employees to bond with coworkers, network with colleagues in other departments and take pride in representing their firm. Founded in 2007 by entrepreneur Terry Moshenberg and veteran drummer Topher Stott, League of Rock is a unique concept that’s gaining popularity with organizations across Canada, thanks in part to mounting research that shows an engaged workforce is a boon for employers.

A 2010 survey of nearly 370 Canadian HR professionals by Psychometrics Canada, for example, found that engaged employees are willing to do more than expected (39%), exhibit higher levels of productivity (27%), have better working relationships with colleagues (13%) and have more satisfied customers (10%). On the other hand, disengaged employees are more likely to have dysfunctional work relationships (29%), are less productive (25%), are reluctant to go above and beyond their duties (17%), plus 7% end up skipping work and 8% resign or are let go. (The low level of turnover sounds deceptively innocuous: what it really means is that these toxic people stick around the office to damage everyone else’s productivity.)

Moreover, employee engagement in Canada could certainly use a boost. According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace study, less than one-fifth (16%) of Canadians are engaged at work, 70% are not engaged and 14% are "actively disengaged," meaning they act out their unhappiness at work and demoralize their engaged coworkers.

It’s no wonder so many corporations (Unilever, BlackBerry, Scotiabank, Best Buy and Microsoft , to name a few) have signed on for League of Rock, at a cost of $15,000 to $100,000 a year or more, depending on the calibre of musical guests and coaches. They’re looking for new ways to foster employee engagement — methods they hope will appeal to workers who may have turned their noses up at traditional team-building activities. "A lot of approaches to engage employees have been based on sports — going to watch or play hockey, golf, soccer, football," says Mark Whitmore, Deloitte’s managing partner in Toronto. "League of Rock is unique in that it reaches those interested in music and more broadly the arts."

The program is structured so that everyone from a complete novice to a proficient musician can participate. "Music truly levels the playing field," says Moshenberg. "It’s a win-win for companies and senior managers — staff spirit is lit up, engagement is high, relationships deepen and creativity improves."

Marco Radunz, a corporate event planner in Burnaby, BC, would wholeheartedly agree. After meeting Moshenberg at a trade fair in 2011, he hired League of Rock for a Royal LePage event that focuses on building referrals and networking among the real estate firm’s sales agents. "We had great involvement by two teams of 20 realtors from across Canada, rewriting the lyrics to well-known rock songs, rehearsing and then presenting their show to an audience of 300," says Radunz. "It was hugely beneficial in terms of networking, as well as a lot of fun for the participants and the audience. Given the key purpose of the event was to build strong cross-Canada referral ties between agents, we certainly benefited from having League of Rock there."

The Big Four accounting firms are also keen proponents of the program. Deloitte got on board five years ago and has continued to invest in it because it encourages staff at all levels and from various areas of the firm to connect.

"Each band has a mix of employees from across the business, allowing people to meet colleagues they may have not had the opportunity to meet otherwise and collaborate in a meaningful and impactful way," says Whitmore. While it’s difficult to quantify the return on investment for this kind of employee engagement program, the C-suite’s backing speaks volumes. "The fact that we have supported this event for years and plan to continue is the best indicator that we believe the investment is worthwhile," says Whitmore, adding that several of Deloitte’s partners have participated in bands, and he’s even made a "cameo appearance" with his bass.

The bands go through 10 weeks of rehearsals (Deloitte provides rehearsal space at a professionally equipped studio, along with pizza and beer during jam sessions to sweeten the deal), culminating in a performance for 600 of their colleagues, friends and family members, who vote for their favourite group. The winners then compete for Team Deloitte at the Big Four Battle of the Bands — a huge concert in October that sees groups from PwC, KPMG, EY and Deloitte face off  in front of more than 1,500 fans for the title of supreme rockers.

Raj Kothari, managing partner and national asset management leader at PwC Canada, attributes the popularity of Big Four Battle of the Bands — an idea that was conceived when two partners from Deloitte and PwC were sharing their passion for music over drinks — to the variety of ways in which people can participate. "[It doesn’t matter] whether you’re a rock star at heart, someone who enjoys listening to music or someone who’s out to support a friend or colleague," he says. "What makes the program so compelling is its inclusive nature in a non-boardroom setting. It adds colour to our firm’s culture and reminds us that we’re all unique people under our black suits."

Assistant assurance and advisory manager Vivi Wang, who signed up for Deloitte’s League of Rock when she transferred to Toronto from the Halifax office last year, says the program has been a good opportunity for her to branch out, meet people and do something fun with coworkers outside of the office. Not ready to make her debut on stage, Wang landed a gig as Half Way to Disco’s band manager, and is responsible for coordinating the musicians’ schedules for practices and shows and managing ticket sales and promotions. (Ticket proceeds go to charity: in the past five years Deloitte’s League of Rock has raised more than $100,000 for the United Way and the Big Four showcase has been used as a rallying tool to help each firm raise millions in their overall annual United Way campaigns.) "We’ve had tremendous support from partners, colleagues, friends and families. It’s all for a good cause, but it’s also a great way to engage everyone and build relationships," says Wang.

The program definitely struck a chord with Half Way to Disco’s bassist, David Tang, senior consultant in the firm’s enterprise risk services practice. "Getting to go up on stage in front of a packed house lets you experience what it’s like to be a rock star — even if it’s only for one night," he says. "It also let me see the other accountants in the office in a new light. Anthony is a perfect example. The first time I saw him shred that solo from ‘Beat It,’ my jaw dropped to the floor."

For D’Ugo, who joined League of Rock three years ago when his business travel schedule allowed him the time to make rehearsals on Thursday nights, the program has not only given him the chance to get back to his musical roots — he has played the guitar since he was 12 and was part of a band until he had to put it aside to concentrate on accounting courses and work at 24 — but also to interact with colleagues from other departments and schmooze with partners. "There’s pressure to network when you’re a senior manager, and there’s a perception that golf is how you do business. I don’t like golf. This has really expanded my network."

He credits the program’s success — and the fun he’s had jamming with Half Way to Disco, which, incidentally, was last year’s victor at the Big Four Battle of the Bands — to the firm’s pledge of inclusion. "Supporting the program is obviously a big commitment," he says. "But the executives love it and so do we."