ALLY MCBEAL, SPIN CITY and all those other workplace dramas that crowd our television channels are hoaxes. In reality, working life is far more mundane. For the average person, one-third of their life is reduced to a few dull maxims: the office is where they work; their colleagues are the people they work with; management is who they work for. Clear and simple, with little talk of the company being like family and the office a second home. But all that may be changing. Increasingly, companies - particularly multinationals operating in Hong Kong - are aware of a need to recognise employees are human beings with feelings and social needs, as opposed to robots prepared to slave their life away. This change in attitude comes at a time when job dissatisfaction is on the rise. A recent pan-Asian survey shows Hong Kong employees feel less loyal to their bosses than any of their Asian counterparts. Only 21 per cent of Hong Kong workers questioned said they feel 'truly loyal' to their employers (truly loyal being defined as 'wanting to and willing to stay' with the company), compared with 51 per cent in South Korea, 49 per cent in Taiwan, 45 per cent in China and a regional average of 38 per cent. The main reasons for the widespread dissatisfaction appear to be pay freezes, job insecurity and other symptoms of the economic downturn, but employees also lack a sense of belonging in the workplace. It is no coincidence that Hong Kong also had the highest proportion of employees who did not feel 'part of the family' at their organisations. 'In a typical Hong Kong firm, two people might work next to each other for a year and still know nothing about the other's personal life,' says Christine Woo, associate director at Asia Market Intelligence, the market research firm which conducted the survey. Tim Oliver, chief executive of CIGNA Worldwide Insurance (Hong Kong), is trying to change all that. Since joining the firm last July, Oliver has been working to implement his vision. Entitled 'Great Place To Work', his project attempts to instil a culture of unity and employee satisfaction in the company. 'An organisation should realise that its only real asset is its people,' says Oliver. 'My goal is to create an environment where people want to join and want to stay.' One of the key aspects of this is creating a sense of togetherness within the company. When Oliver first joined CIGNA, he noticed there was no unity between its various divisions. 'I wanted to create a mechanism to bring all the internal functions together,' he says. Most firms host an annual party. At CIGNA, which has about 400 employees, a volunteer committee also organises company-wide social events every few months. Past jaunts have included camping, war games and boat trips. Workmates are encouraged to send company-provided thank-you cards to one another and there are small birthday parties every month, which also serve as opportunities for Oliver to present employee-of-the-month awards. A semi-annual conference, along with the quarterly Great Place To Work magazine, informs the rank and file of management direction. Not everyone is crazy about the idea. 'The company has spent a lot of money on activities which only a few people are interested in,' comments one unappreciative CIGNA employee. Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, one of the largest advertising firms in Hong Kong, also has a club to arrange social activities, including karaoke contests, bowling and mahjong competitions, a flea market and subsidised holidays. Employee Martin Wong (not his real name) believes these activities are unnecessary and not conducive to creating a unified workforce. 'If employees are interested in these activities, they will organise it themselves,' says the 25-year-old copywriter. 'And they don't really promote interaction, because everyone just sticks with his or her own group.' Oliver, on the other hand, insists that the vast majority of CIGNA employees are happy, not least because of the Great Place To Work initiative. Based on the results of 'weather cards' - forms which workers fill in every day to indicate whether they are in a 'sunny', 'partly sunny', 'rainy', or 'stormy' state of mind - Oliver claims that 85 per cent of CIGNA staffers are either satisfied or very satisfied, a figure which he says has risen about 20 per cent since the programme was implemented. But do these social activities generate greater productivity? Steve Cheung, administrator of the sports club at HSBC, certainly thinks so. 'The morale of the employees is improved. They are happier and more motivated to work,' he says. Cheung's full-time job, working in a team of five, is to organise an array of social and recreational activities at the 14,000-strong corporation. This encompasses everything from photography, cooking and yoga classes, to larger events such as internal sports competitions (nine were held last year, with almost 2,000 participants), and even company-wide gatherings such as the annual sports day. Cheung - along with the HSBC management, which allows a $2 million budget for such activities - would probably be ecstatic if all HSBC employees responded as enthusiastically as Sherry Chow (not her real name), a 25-year-old financial services executive. 'You really feel that the company respects and cares about you,' Chow says. One major positive for Chow is the opportunity to meet people from other departments, colleagues she might never have encountered otherwise. Some people even meet their 'other half' through sports club activities, according to Chow. But are these extra-curricular activities essential to a company's profit margins? Sharon Foley, a visiting scholar at the department of management at Chinese University, believes programmes such as CIGNA's are attempts to create a 'corporate culture'. Citing research conducted at the University of Chicago, Foley says: 'A strong culture is neither always valuable nor always irrelevant. Value is contingent on market competition.' According to the research, a strong corporate culture is most valuable when market competition is intense, when it can provide a competitive advantage through motivating employees to work harder and for longer hours. Ping Ping Fu, also at Chinese University's department of management, thinks Hong Kong firms could do worse than focus more attention on seeing employees as people. 'I could be wrong but I don't think that companies try hard enough to create people-centred working environments,' she says. 'If they did, I'm sure the percentage of loyal employees would go up.' Nonetheless, it appears the day when company-organised activities are the norm in Hong Kong is a long way off. In fact, few job seekers expect, or even look for, such perks. Eliza Wu, a consultant at Gemini Personnel, one of Hong Kong's largest recruitment agencies, says 'no one really asks for these things', with most job seekers focused on salary, medical plans and similar issues. Most prospective employees in Hong Kong would prefer a higher salary to social activities. And in Wu's experience, few companies mention such benefits in their recruiting efforts, even if they have them. Wu says one firm that promoted its annual trip drew a decidedly positive response from prospective employees, who 'felt that the company really cares about people'. 'I think it's a start,' she says. Macy Kwok, director of recruitment consultancy Robert Walters Hong Kong, agrees that although the general attitude of local staff favours money and training over social interaction, things are slowly changing. Increasing numbers of employees, particularly those educated overseas, are seeking companies that offer social events. But the question arises, when our company and colleagues become the centre of our social lives too, what happens to the distinction between work and play?