The past three years have seen an unprecedented shift in the corporate world. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone who could work from home did so in order to stay safe and avoid spreading a virus that was new and frightening. Now, many business owners and executives are eager to have their staff return to the office, only to find that people have grown accustomed to the convenience of remote work and are hesitant to return to their old routines. However, chance meetings at the coffee machine or in the hallway can lead to valuable brainstorming and idea generating that is difficult to replicate in a remote setting, and it is in every company’s best interest to remove potential barriers to those collaborations.
Fortune 500 companies and small businesses alike have tried myriad strategies to incentivize their staff, from a private Lizzo concert at Google, to food trucks at Goldman Sachs, to games of cornhole and life-size chess at Microsoft. While concerts, food trucks, games, and short-term perks can be fun, they incur significant expense without improving the workplace beyond a surface level. In an age with changed attitudes towards commuting and work-life balance, businesses looking to develop a robust in-office culture must cultivate a collaborative, supportive on-site work environment.
There is a relatively inexpensive solution with an outsized impact: starting a company choir. Singing in a group is accessible to everyone, improves mood, has proven health benefits, and builds community. In workplaces around the world, company choirs are having a very positive effect.
Choir Is Inclusive
Initiatives related to physical well-being, social interaction, and “fun” are nothing new in the corporate world. Many companies offer specialized clubs and employee resource groups that cater to people with different backgrounds and interests, birthday celebrations in the break room, or happy hours at a local restaurant. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with these more traditional ways of getting coworkers to interact and build a company culture, they have their limitations. Cake, alcohol, and physical activities like running clubs, sports teams, and step challenges all appeal to limited subsets of people, and those with dietary restrictions or physical limitations may feel excluded.
Aramark, a Fortune 300 uniform, food, and facilities service company headquartered in Philadelphia, has a variety of employee-run social groups, with the Aramark Run Club among the most popular. Chief Compliance Officer Tamsin Fast, a lifelong violinist, sought to connect with her colleagues outside of an athletic setting. She took matters into her own hands in 2019, reaching out to colleagues to form a new musical ensemble called Aramark InTune. The company choir is open to both singers and instrumentalists. “Being part of Aramark InTune allows those of us who love to make music to bring our whole selves to work,” she shared. “After our first performance, I couldn’t believe how many people reached out to say how much our music affected them. Music is such a fun and easy way to enhance workplace culture.”
Everyone is born with a voice, so everyone can sing (whether they believe it or not). While people with a musical background may initially feel more inclined to join a choir, there are no barriers to entry. There’s no need to own an instrument or even know how to read music: any group of people can start at any level, from singing in unison to tackling arrangements with two-, three-, or four-part harmony. Many workplace choirs have a healthy mix of levels of experience, from trained musicians to individuals with some limited experience (such as singing in a church choir) to those who have never participated in any organized musical activity.
Choir Makes Employees both Happier and More Effective
The types of workplace choirs that exist are as varied as the companies that host them. Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas maintains an employee choir as part of their organization’s commitment to the arts. The hospital originally brought M.J. Gallop on part-time to lead the choir, and while his role has expanded in the years since, he continues to serve as the group’s director. “I think more employers should start company choirs,” Gallop said. “I think it’s good for the bottom line. It makes employees happy, and happy employees make for a successful institution.”
SIXT, a leading international provider of high-quality mobility services, also has a corporate choir. Guitar player, singer, and Director of Customer Relationship Management Jochen Quindel led a team-building sing-a-long at SIXT’s Annual Global Conference in 2010, and the event’s success inspired him to start the SIXT Academy Choir soon after. The choir rehearses at lunchtime, which Quindel maintains has a positive effect on participants which resonates throughout their workday. “Even if your morning was very stressful,” he shared, “members recharge for the afternoon.” Singing with others at midday is an effective way to replace the afternoon slump with renewed energy and an improved mood.
“If you sing in a choir, you bring in something very personal. You’re showing something, or part of yourself, that you normally would not show in an office environment,” Quindel continued. “Because choir members are bringing another aspect of themselves into the company, the atmosphere of the company is different. You are bringing part of your personal self in as well as your business self.” Even when cold weather or other circumstances may dissuade SIXT employees from coming into the office, Quindel shared, choir practice provides an effective motivator: the promise of rehearsal brings them in. “They plan their days around the choir practices,” said Quindel.
Sara Santoni of Jordans Dorset Ryvita, a London branch of Associated British Food, shared a similar story. JDR, a natural food company with the mission of “inspiring well-being by creating delicious products from nature,” has a strong dedication to health and well-being baked into its culture. In the past, like Aramark, they focused on physical initiatives like “fun runs” or step challenges. Then, they introduced a company choir in 2022, and the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
Santoni explained that the weekly rehearsals give people the chance to have fun, be silly, try something new, and support each other in a positive, relaxed environment. Unlike many company-sponsored events based on individual competition, singing in a choir is about working together in (literal) harmony to create beautiful music as an ensemble. “The end goal isn’t a medal,” she said, “but the pleasure of performing a song.” JDR participants’ feedback has been overwhelmingly positive: the choir has been “unbelievably energizing,” given them confidence, and helped them to feel engaged and uplifted. Said one participant: “Choir made Wednesdays exciting. I wanted to go into the office and looked forward to the session.”
Joining a company choir can be especially beneficial for those who are new to the organization. “I joined JDR 18 months ago as a fully remote employee,” Santoni said. “There are so many people in the company whose names I might recognize, but who I don’t work with on a daily basis. It was so refreshing to meet them as individuals and connect through music.”
For new and not-so-new employees alike, striking up a spontaneous conversation with a coworker can be challenging. A choir provides a common platform where a diverse array of employees from across the company can interact, learn, and form relationships. “There have been a number of work relationships that have sprung up from the choir,” said M.J. Gallop of Houston Methodist. “Rarely does an administrator interact with a nurse, or a nurse interact with a researcher, as peers. One of the magical things about the choir is that it gets people talking in a professional setting who would not otherwise do so.”
Choir Has Significant Health Benefits
It’s difficult to overstate the power of music. The physical and mental health benefits of making music, and of singing in particular, are well documented.
“Study after study shows the health and well-being benefits of singing,” says Grammy-winning choral composer and conductor Eric Whitacre. “We know that singing together in a group reduces cortisol (the stress hormone), releases endorphins, and causes a sense of joy and euphoria.”
Kira Willey, a music educator and choir director based in Bethlehem, PA, is the founder of Choir & Company, an organization that helps build community through song by hosting guided singing experiences as team-building events. “When people sing together in a group…their collective heart rate lowers, and it alters their stress response in a positive way,” Kira shared. “It is beneficial to your health to create music with other people.”
In addition, singing with others releases oxytocin—known as the “love hormone”—which creates feelings of attachment and bonding, making it an incredible team-building experience.
Choir Can Help with Your Company’s Recruitment, PR, and Community Involvement
The prospect of a company choir can be an effective tool for recruiting new employees. When it comes to attracting talent, extra benefits never hurt. Musically inclined candidates will be particularly excited, and even those without a musical background will appreciate the fact that a choir exists. The presence of a company choir shows that the firm supports employees by providing social connection and a creative outlet for artistic expression.
Mobility services provider SIXT hosts periodic welcome days for new employees, and their choir is always part of the presentation. Right away, those new people feel like part of the company—and at least a few of them typically join the choir following their welcome day.
Looking beyond the internal to the external, company choir performances also provide unique opportunities for public relations and community outreach. Performing at local festivals or sporting events is a great way to build goodwill within your community and put a human face on the company. Businesses can get noticed by pitching a human interest story to a local paper or posting choir-related content to corporate social media accounts.
Company choirs often generate positive exposure for the business. For example, the Houston Methodist Employee Choir performs six times per year at events that have included Houston Astros games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Aramark has also done an excellent job of leveraging the PR opportunities that Aramark InTune provides. A dedication to hospitality is a core part of their brand, and the choir facilitates a company culture in alignment with their values. Recent examples include an allyship event with Ukrainian groups in which the choir sang the Ukrainian national anthem—in Ukrainian—and a performance of “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman to celebrate Pride Month in June. The choir has even developed a following within the company itself, and many of Aramark’s Employee Resource Groups have requested performances at their events.
How to Get Started
The first steps to starting a company choir are to secure a space, determine a budget, and publicize the opportunity. If the prospect of launching a permanent choir seems daunting, consider committing to a limited period of time, such as weekly rehearsals culminating in a performance. Holding a one-off singing event is another good way to get started.
Involving senior leadership can go a long way towards a choir’s greater success. Sara Santoni shared that at JDR, the CFO and head of IT are in rehearsals singing alongside the other participants. Seeing high-level executives “let loose” in rehearsals helps people feel as though they have license to be themselves more often, both during rehearsal and each day at work.
When it comes to rehearsal frequency and timing, there is room for flexibility. Lunchtime can be an especially effective time to have rehearsal, since it energizes people for the second half of their day and discourages them from eating lunch at their desks. If it’s not feasible to have everyone take a break from work at the same time, scheduling practice after work gives participants something fun to anticipate throughout the day and helps them to avoid rush hour traffic.
If you don’t have a musically inclined employee who is ready to organize a choir, you can also bring in a professional. Craig Lees and Declan Davies lead the Workplace Choir Company, which organizes one-off singing events and ongoing choir programs around the world. They create customized arrangements of popular songs to suit any group and offer no-obligation “taster sessions” to help businesses get a sense of what they have to offer. Impressively, every company that has arranged for an initial session with the Workplace Choir Company has requested that they return.
Kira Wiley shared a particularly inspiring story about someone who was “dragged” to one of her team-building events, a charity benefit in New Jersey. “What am I doing here?” she remembers the woman complaining. “I thought I was going to a concert! You mean I have to sing?” She left the event with an entirely different attitude, telling Kira, “This is not at all what I expected. I thought you had to be a ‘Singer’ with a capital ‘S.’ I don’t really sing, but you made it so fun. I can’t believe we pulled that off!” The conclusion, according to Kira? “I think that once people experience the joy of creating music with others, they ‘get it.’” All it takes is a commitment to one session to see the benefits that a company choir can provide.
To bring people into the office, workplace leadership needs to facilitate the building of community. Colleagues are the key piece that make people happy in a job: as the saying goes, people don’t quit jobs; rather, they quit bosses and company cultures.
A company choir affects positive change at a deep level. Unlike other incentives, group singing experiences don’t just create a fleeting sense of enjoyment. A choir can help make life at work better—and that’s what gets people back to the office.