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Cultivating Employee Engagement Across a Remote Workforce

by Wally Alarcon - April 2020 12 min read

The coronavirus pandemic has changed what businesses plan and strategize for, at least in the short-term. Still, despite so much uncertainty blanketing the horizon, certain constants remain very much intact, some even growing in importance as remote working explodes. That’s the category that employee engagement falls under – already a critical driver for everything from improved culture and productivity to greater retention rates. However, when using remote teams, employee engagement quickly goes from important to indispensable.

Unfortunately, while most business leaders understand how important engagement levels are to their organizations, remote working creates more than a few detours for companies to navigate, especially during something like the COVID-19 crisis. Thankfully, given the time, effort, and attention we’ve devoted to employee engagement over the years, Embark finds itself in an enviable position – to be able to help other companies improve engagement levels as they migrate toward a remote model. And that’s exactly what we’re about to do.

 

Employee Engagement, Embark-Style

We’ve consumed quite a bit of bandwidth in the past discussing our thoughts on our company culture, people, and being the inquisitive, innovative kid in a somewhat staid and stoic classroom. And, as we said, this unique perspective has set us up remarkably well to absorb even the historically-massive punches that the coronavirus is throwing at companies.

Read Next: Tips for a Financial Close With Remote Workers

Zooming in on employee engagement, companies that have already developed an engagement strategy are much-better suited to maintain, even improve engagement levels as they suddenly find themselves relying on teams scattered across cities or even time zones. But that’s not to say that organizations starting from scratch are helpless, either. That said, let’s run through some of the key concepts, tools, and techniques we use here at Embark to drive employee engagement.

 

Management Buy-In

Like any other initiative, an employee engagement strategy will only take root and flourish when leadership believes in it. Think of buy-in from management as the most critical barrier of entry to improved engagement levels. Here at Embark, we're fortunate in that buy-in has never been an issue. Our C-suite is always looking for ways to improve the employee experience.

 

Team-Building Exercises & Experiences

Thanks to that buy-in from management, we have almost complete flexibility over anything that helps us take better care of our people, particularly if it includes something fun or memorable that also drives our culture. We've discussed our Third Thursday tradition before, where employees take control of the culture and engagement wheel to organize different activities and experiences that we, the entire Embark team, participate in.

If leadership was just going to squash those ideas due to any number of constraints – budget, time, effort, and others – our Third Thursdays wouldn't have a fraction of the impact, or wouldn't exist at all. Everything stems from the tone at the top, including employee engagement.

Obviously, during something like the coronavirus pandemic, it’s literally impossible to organize this type of event when your employees work exclusively from home. But under normal circumstances, when management not only promotes these mutual experiences but also participates in them, it has an immediate and powerful effect on engagement.

However, until the world normalizes a bit, a virtual happy hour can work wonders to relieve a bit of stress and strengthen bonds between coworkers. For something a bit more on the sedate side, a book club with virtual meetings is another productive get-together that can spark meaningful discussions between employees, maybe even a healthy debate or two. The point is, it creates a shared experience, drives interaction, and strengthens bonds, even when your team is spread out.

 

Everyone Likes to Compete

When trying to put together these types of experiences, whether in-person or remote, games are a great place to start. One of the most recent additions to our repertoire is something we call Embarkstagram Bingo. In a nutshell, it’s an easy play on good old fashioned Bingo that asks employees to submit a photo based on a topic in each square. When someone gets “Bingo,” they submit all five photos and win a prize. Not too shabby, huh? It’s also simple, easy, and keeps everyone engaged. If that doesn’t pique your interest, we have a few other creative ways to help you boost engagement as well:

  • “Office Olympics” – weekly challenges, both physical and creative, to engage a diverse workforce
  • “March Madness” brackets – March Madness is cancelled so create your own fun tournament
  • “Daily fun facts” in Slack – this could be trivia, a poll, picture submissions, or something else to engage the entire workforce in Slack and get a “non-work” conversation going
  • Funniest Slack joke of the day
  • Virtual team house tours
  • Movie night with running team Slack commentary
  • Virtual scavenger hunts
  • Employee baby pictures (guess the employee for a prize)

Do you notice a common thread in many of those? Yep. Competition. People like to compete as long as the stakes aren’t too high and everything stays on the casual side. Granted, there are roughly a million things you can do to build camaraderie and teamwork, even with remote employees, but these simple games and experiences can get the engagement ball rolling.

 

Teamwork, Recognition & Rewards

Coworkers are essential for greater engagement. Slack – more on that topic in a bit – is helpful in that regard by giving people a convenient way to shoot the breeze, whether about a project or just life. But to formalize the teamwork aspect of engagement, Donut’s platform has proven to be extremely beneficial in extending social networks across our workforce and just generally keeping everyone connected.

As we’ve written in the past, we use Donut to drive our Lunch Bunch, where we pair two or three team members who haven’t interacted through Slack to share a lunch or coffee break. Remote teams can use a similar concept with virtual lunches, connecting people that perhaps have only met briefly or not at all. As those social networks expand, so does a sense of inclusiveness, helping to negate a feeling of isolation when working remotely.

Read Next: How Employee Recognition Boosts Embark's Culture

We place similar importance on employee recognition, from management as well as coworkers. Once again, we rely on technology for this purpose, using Bonusly to give Embarkers a convenient way to recognize their coworkers. Bonusly also provides a reward framework where people can earn prizes for recognition and a job well done. Remember, these rewards don’t have to be monetary, though. Something as simple as lunch with the CEO or company swag can go a long way in making a person feel important and appreciated.

Of course, a company can mimic these teamwork and recognition programs without using a designated platform. Donut and Bonusly might make such things more convenient, but are in no way mandatory. Many companies are looking for ways to trim overhead during the COVID-19 crisis, so it might not be a good time to invest in new technology. However, what’s most important is the idea behind the systems and not the systems themselves.

 

Constant, Fluid Communication

Of the many lessons that the COVID-19 crisis continues to teach companies, the perpetual need for robust, real-time communication across an organization is toward the top of the list. To put it mildly, things can go sideways in a hurry, and when they do, your people need to feel informed and connected.

 

Slack, Highfive, and Other Remote Tech

We use Slack at Embark for that critical real-time communication since it’s a convenient way for anyone in our firm to connect with the entire workforce at a moment's notice. This is an especially important ability for remote teams since it’s easier for the work-from-home crowd to feel isolated and disconnected. Because once that happens, disengagement isn’t far behind.

Therefore, this type of collaboration tool is imperative when employees aren’t in the same work environment. Although we happen to use Slack at Embark, it's certainly not the only game in town. Whatever platform you choose, make sure it allows leadership to instantly communicate with the entire team while also letting coworkers collaborate or even commiserate with some water cooler talk during particularly stressful times.

Similarly, video conferencing tools are indispensable as a substitute for face-to-face check-ins, department meetings, and weekly stand-ups. We really like the functionality and quality of Highfive, but Zoom is obviously another popular choice in the market. No matter the solution, we recommend that remote team members participate in these meetings through webcams rather than just audio. Yes, that means your people will have to fix their bed-head and brush their teeth, but being able to see each other’s faces, even if it’s purely digital, goes a long way in establishing a sense of teamwork and togetherness.

Also, whether a messaging tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams, a video conference platform like Highfive, Zoom, or Skype, or an all-in-one solution like Google Hangouts, these types of technology can actually improve teamwork in ways that even in-person meetings can’t match. You know how people tend to naturally splinter off into small groups when part of a larger assembly? Technology is the great equalizer, where cliques aren’t even possible. No one is left on the outside looking in, and everyone can concentrate on building relationships and strengthening the team.

On a related note, video calls can sometimes be a bit awkward and labored when only two or three people are participating. A larger group has a way of eliminating dead air and awkward silences, giving everyone a better opportunity to engage.

 

Other Tips for Improving Engagement

Digging a little deeper into builder greater engagement, we have a few best practices to keep in mind as well.

 

Don’t Dilute Your Efforts

Just like most things in life, it's better to be great at one or two things rather than mediocre at several. Start with the easiest things first, maybe something as simple as a daily trivia game, and build from it. If you bite off more than you can chew, you'll end up diluting your efforts with stagnant employee engagement levels to show for it.

 

Get Constant Feedback

In good times and bad, employee feedback is essential. However, if you're new to remote working, feedback is instrumental in identifying where you're succeeding, your pain points, and what your employees think of your efforts. Without an accurate and continuous pulse on your team, there's no way to uncover the best path forward, therefore, making it almost impossible to improve engagement levels in a significant way.

 

Invest in the Tools

As we said, if cash flow is down and your budget is tight, perhaps now isn't the best time to invest in new systems, even when those systems can be so beneficial to your company and team. However, use the opportunity to look for areas of improvement and research the best solutions for your specific needs. We mentioned how much we like Donut and Bonusly, so those are two vendors that provide a good place to start your due diligence. But ultimately, it's not about what we like here at Embark, but what works best for you.

 

Be Flexible

Exercises designed to improve employee engagement don't always fit too well, at least at first glance, in a schedule filled with departmental meetings and strategy sessions. However, even though there is no line item for engaged employees on a financial statement, we assure you it's just as important as any asset on your balance sheet. Much of this ties into the buy-in from management we discussed, where leadership must be flexible and recognize that engaging employees takes time and effort. And if you're diligent with that effort, the entire company will benefit from that flexibility and open-mindedness.

 

Some People Just Won't Respond

Remote working isn't necessarily difficult but usually requires a specific mindset. Some employees simply won't respond to your engagement efforts, no matter how hard you try. When this occurs, don't take it personally or as being indicative of failure. You can only do your best, kiddo.

 

Don't Be Afraid to Fail

Speaking of failure, the fear of falling short keeps too many companies from reaching for something greater. If you're new to employee engagement, remote working, or both, no one is going to think less of you if you misstep here and there. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Put in the leg work ahead of time and prepare as much as possible for every component of your engagement strategy. If something falls flat, just use it as a learning experience and adjust course.

Read Next: What are the Building Blocks of Embark’s Culture?

As firm believers in all things employee engagement, Embark is here to tell you that an engaged workforce makes all the difference in the world, especially when that world feels like it's spinning off of its axis. Invest in engagement when you can, always get feedback from your remote workforce, and never stop trying to improve. Just remember, you'll only get out of it what you put into it. And, yes, that's quite a few clichés packed into a single paragraph, but you get our drift. Now get out there and start improving your engagement levels – we promise you it's time well spent.

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