Alaska Escape Rooms
Serious Games
Building teams for a positive workplace culture
By Vanessa Orr

laska Escape Rooms is an indoor adventure disguised by an innocuous storefront in downtown Anchorage. The rooms, plural, are named Raven’s Eye and Conjured Kingdoms. Each one-hour experience tells a story, inviting participants to solve puzzles and riddles and, in the process, choose whether to, say, imprison a villain or sacrifice themselves to rescue a damsel.

Since opening in 2017 on a wave of nationwide popularity for this new form of interactive entertainment, Alaska Escape Rooms has become a destination for date nights, bachelor and bachelorette parties, baby showers, and birthdays.

Its founder, Graeme Deishl, also wants customers to know that escape rooms are a business-to-business service. Companies can book time as team-building exercises. Indeed, Alaska Escape Rooms was recognized in 2018 in the Best Team Building Company category (since discontinued) of the Best of Alaska Business awards.

“Team building is the oil in the engine,” Deishl says. “Ninety percent of the time when you do team building, employees learn things about each other and gain more respect for each other. Fun is a great equalizer for breaking down office barriers.”

Whether employers engage Alaska Escape Rooms or other indoor entertainment for team building or as a reward for a job well done, the goal is the same: foster a culture that makes the company a welcome place for workers. This serves the further goal of retention and recruitment.

Understand Culture First
Across the country, recruiting skilled workers is a challenge. According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s January 2024 issue of Alaska Economic Trends, Baby Boomers are aging out of the job market. Consequently, there are approximately two job openings for every one person looking for work.

It’s especially important, then, for employers to reduce turnover. While a good wage definitely plays into keeping employees happy, building a healthy workplace culture can be almost as important.

“Everyone is struggling right now; workforce development and employee retention are big issues,” explains Emily Berliner, founder and chief operating officer at EBO Consulting, an Anchorage-based firm that provides recruitment and personnel solutions. “When clients come to us, one of their biggest expectations is that we understand their culture first before trying to find the right employee fit for them. And a healthy culture boils down to employees wanting to be at that workplace.”

One of the key signs of a healthy workplace, Berliner believes, is having people who feel appreciated and recognized for the work that they do. “Employees have been undervalued for so long that noticing their good work and establishing reward and recognition programs can go a long way,” Berliner says. “It doesn’t take a lot for a manager or supervisor to remind people why they are there and why they matter.”

She adds that a healthy work/life balance is also key. Younger employees no longer consider going to college, getting a 9-to-5 job, and dealing with excessive overtime to be natural.

“In today’s workforce, we’re seeing a lot of people who don’t want to live that way; the work/life balance mindset has become predominant,” says Berliner. “Things dramatically changed during COVID, but even in the past couple of years, we’ve seen that companies are recognizing that employees are human beings with lives and responsibilities outside of work.”

Today’s employees also look to leadership to set the tone, and Berliner says that some of the best organizations have strong leaders who are ethically driven and embody integrity, purpose, and the company’s values.

“While teams are having a great time, laughing from one end of the building to the other, they are also learning and practicing critical thinking skills.”
Graeme Deishl, Founder, Alaska Escape Rooms
“They practice what they preach,” she says. “A lot of leaders tend to silo themselves off, but it’s not a good experience when employees are scared to walk into the workplace or who have bad managers or bosses that don’t respect them. Leaders need to have a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be an employee in that environment; they need to be aware of what the company is doing well and not doing well, and right those wrongs.”
A Success Story
When customers call GCI for service, it’s not unusual to reach someone who has worked there for fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years. Employees joke that they are “newbies” when they have less than ten years on the job.

“People stay at GCI for a long time because they enjoy the work—it’s interesting and dynamic in a fast-changing, challenging industry that is growing all the time,” says Megan Webb, director of corporate communications. “They enjoy the people they work with, and they learn from each other. They also have a good work/life balance, so it doesn’t feel like they’re just grinding away.”

Benefits at Alaska’s first tech start-up, serving the state for more than forty years, include twenty-one days of vacation on top of two days’ worth of service time and six weeks of parental leave, plus a remote work-from-home stipend. And health insurance and 401(k) retirement savings, of course.

“We also make sure that our employees get the support they need in terms of upward mobility,” says Webb. “We want them to stay within the GCI family for the rest of their careers, so we provide career pathways and room to grow.”

GCI employees smile in their uniforms
GCI employees volunteering at Covenant House Alaska. Employees are given two days’ worth of paid leave to volunteer, individually or in teams, which GCI encourages to foster a sense of community purpose.


In addition to allowing employees to switch departments or fields of interest depending on experience and training, GCI also pays up to $3,000 annually for continuing education. For instance, Webb took advantage of this program to earn her MBA.

But the perks don’t stop there.

“GCI’s culture is all about keeping employees connected,” says Webb of the company’s distributed workforce. Of its 1,800 employees, approximately 70 percent are eligible to work remotely. “One of our big goals was building and maintaining a strong company culture, which can be difficult when employees don’t see each other face-to-face every day.”

After employees began working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company decided to remain remote, with 84 percent of their employees supporting that transition. To keep the staff connected, GCI created Red Van, an internal app based on Microsoft Office Suite Viva Engage, that enables employees to share time-sensitive information as well as socialize from their respective homes.

Using Red Van, Webb says, “They can see employees’ stories and have daily interactions. It’s like water cooler talk without coming into the office.”

Younger Workers Want DEI
Another method of team building is, well, forming teams—or as GCI calls them, business resource groups (BRG). These are self-organized networks among employees sharing special interests, aligning with the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals.

“We hired a consultant who showed us that this was an area where we could do better,” says Webb. “These BRGs are best practices for organizations that want to be more inclusive and provide a greater sense of belonging to their employees.”

Since GCI launched BRGs in 2021, employees have formed the Indigenous BRG, PRIDE BRG, BLACQ (Black Leaders and Allies Championing eQuality) BRG, and GWeN (GCI Women’s Network) BRG.

Rather than following mandates, Webb says BRGs chart their own path, building a community of allies and like-minded individuals who lead the effort.

Not only do these opportunities help retain employees, but they also help with recruitment efforts, according to Webb.

“Having testimonials from people who have been here a long time really attracts the next generation; it shows what we’re doing to continually adapt and improve,” she says. “It helps younger workers see the benefits of what we are doing in the areas of DEI and transparency and in making GCI the most attractive and best place to work.”

Lunch, Learn, and Laugh
While many employees appreciate the chance to socialize and learn, both inside and outside the office, employers can leverage these opportunities for more impact.

“Lunch-and-learns and internal training are good, but in my experience, tuition reimbursement and paying for advanced courses or certifications are a lot more enticing,” says Berliner. “Sometimes companies tend to overspend on appreciation events, when what people really want is something that will help them in their everyday lives. Instead of spending $2,000 on a company party, increase a $50 stipend to a $100 stipend so that employees can get a gym membership or take yoga classes. Sometimes you can do a lot more with a simpler approach.”

Organized team building can make ordinary training sessions more of a bonding experience. That’s why many of Alaska’s larger companies have worked with Alaska Escape Rooms for professional socializing, Deishl says.

Alaska Escape Room employees smile inside one of the rooms
The staff at Alaska Escape Rooms in downtown Anchorage is one of many statewide that offer a team-building package along with conventional recreation.

Alaska Escape Rooms

Deishl has observed that escape rooms not only help increase morale, productivity, camaraderie, and communication, but they can also directly aid in employee training. “While teams are having a great time, laughing from one end of the building to the other, they are also learning and practicing critical thinking skills,” he says. “In this wildly unpredictable world, employees are encountering problems they haven’t planned for, like COVID and logistics and supply issues, and they need to have the ability to pivot. Escape rooms teach players how to idea source, overcome obstacles, design and execute a plan, and think about processes.”

Deishl works with company leaders to ensure that the games solve specific company challenges, such as splitting teams certain ways to promote cross-department communication or using games to build bridges that do not exist in the everyday workflow.

Helpful Hints
During an escape room experience, players might get stuck, unable to locate the next clue. That’s when the game master pops in with a hint. Creating a positive workplace culture likewise needs outside assistance sometimes.

“If you have no idea what it means to create a healthy workplace culture, bring in a strategic planner or someone who works with processes and procedures to show you ways to strengthen your team internally,” says Berliner. “Implement these ideas throughout the year and see if it changes retention rates or on-time rates. If you’re comfortable with identifying ways to improve workplace culture, examine the pitfalls that are currently present in your business and look at ways to apply those solutions.”

“Employees have been undervalued for so long that noticing their good work and establishing reward and recognition programs can go a long way… It doesn’t take a lot for a manager or supervisor to remind people why they are there and why they matter.”
Emily Berliner, Founder and COO, EBO Consulting
She also advises clearly defining roles and responsibilities, documenting how each person’s role helps to achieve organizational goals. “If employees don’t know what their role is, or don’t feel like they’re doing anything to help the business, there is an emptiness to the whole experience,” Berliner says. “Trust, cohesion, communication, and priority alignment produce a better team.”
a group inspects an item in an Escape Room
Alaska Escape Rooms
And, without relying too much on the cliché pizza party, frequent praise is always effective. “It’s a big thing for people to feel like they’re having an impact on the business, which is why it’s also important to call out wins,” she says.

Fun and games have been so successful at improving workplace culture that Alaska Escape Rooms is creating “takeout” packages that can be played at a company’s site.

“Our on-site team-builder games will open up more opportunities for clients who may have already visited the escape rooms, or who have difficulty providing transportation to our site,” says Deishl.

He expects the first beta test of these games to take place this summer. Deishl explains, “We’ll come in with boxes and games, styled in different ways to keep their interest, that will enable teams to compete against each other, fight for resources, and double down on skill development.”