The events of the last few months have changed the world of work forever. Remote working became the norm, almost overnight, for many employees. Businesses are now considering the benefits of implementing fully-remote or hybrid working models. However, as our time in lockdown has shown, remote and hybrid working can pose new challenges when it comes to keeping employees connected — both professionally, and socially.
The key to maintaining these vital connections lies in your employee engagement activities.
Employee engagement activities involve dedicating time and resources to the specific purpose of helping employees feel supported, fulfilled and motivated at work. They include set-piece events like away days, offsites and team challenges, regular activities such as yoga sessions or drinks after work, and always-on support structures like mentoring on in-office support networks.
How to maintain equal engagement for office and remote workers
Up until this year, anybody designing employee engagement activities could usually assume that the employees who participated would be sharing a space. That’s why so many employee engagement activities have involved physical activities that colleagues can participate in together. But, as recent events have shown, this may no longer be the case in the future. Many businesses are now considering hybrid or all-remote working models, where a large proportion of people are likely to be working outside of the office environment.
Much of the focus of these changes to the world of work has been on individuals finding the best way to be productive when working alone. However, it’s vital that this doesn’t come at the expense of a shared working experience. Employee loyalty and productivity depend on the sense that people feel they are being treated equitably. This is why it’s essential to design structures and activities for engaging employees that work in an all-remote or hybrid world, and which don’t discriminate between those based in an office and those continuing to work from home.
The key to this will be in how organisations foster team relationships remotely.
What is remote team building?
Remote team building is the art of building camaraderie, understanding and a sense of shared purpose and values between people who are physically apart – and may never meet.
Chronic skills shortages have pushed flexible working up the agenda for both employers and employees. Providing the option to work from home doesn’t just make for a compelling employment package, but widens the talent pool too — meaning that organisations can assemble teams with the right skills regardless of which city or country they’re in. Greater control over work-life balance also helps to bring more diverse groups back into the workforce, such as those who’ve taken a career break to start a family.
The benefits of flexible working have always depended on a workplace culture that knits distributed workers together around a shared sense of identity. And that involves designing employee engagement activities that can be experienced from anywhere. Workplaces are more productive when employees see friendship with colleagues as part of their motivation for doing their jobs, and when working together is a pleasure rather than just a side effect of being employed.
COVID-19 has put a new emphasis on remote team building. What was once a choice to work from home has become a necessity imposed on many people. Yet many of these people value the experience of working in the office, and the interactions that come with it. Remote team building is crucial to protecting employee health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. For people leaders, remote team building has become a central task of managing remotely – and one that piles additional pressure on managers. When businesses are able to establish effective employee engagement routines and structures, it can help to relieve some of that pressure.
Remote team building activities for the future of work
Workplace situations and cultures have always varied. As hybrid working or all-remote setups become more common, there’s even more variability in how organisations operate. The content and style of remote team building needs to reflect an organisation’s particular culture and values. However, the most important feature of these activities is that they make a shared culture and sense of belonging equally accessible to all employees.
What are some strategies to increase employee engagement? The following six activities can provide valuable building blocks for fostering this type of equitable employee engagement.
1. Create a virtual office
There is a huge range of collaboration and videoconferencing technology available to workers today. Managers and employees can choose between Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and Bluejeans when it comes to video calls. They can weigh the pros and cons of Dropbox, Box, WeTransfer, Sharepoint and Google Drive when choosing how to collaborate.
Despite all the choice, the most effective approach from an employee engagement perspective is to settle on a shared combination of tools that represents your virtual office environment — and that best works for your people. The most important factors when using virtual tools include:
- Bringing consistency to which tools you use for which purposes builds a sense of a shared experience.
- Creating an environment where employees can easily share content, speak and see one another may never replace the daily interactions in the office, but it allows organisations to bridge this gap
- Encouraging all employees to use this virtual office — even if they have chosen to work from the office — will be important to its success.
Fostering an equitable employee experience relies on creating a shared office environment, whether that office is a real one, or a virtual one.
2. Create a non-work-related chat channel
Often the most important forms of office engagement are informal: casual chats about subjects outside of work that help to form crucial bonds. It’s important to allow space in your virtual office environment for these types of interactions to continue. Nominate a shared channel such as WhatsApp or Slack, where colleagues can chat about non-work-related matters during and after the working day. Specifying this informal office environment not only helps to build a sense of community, but also ensures employees feel a sense of belonging to their organisation.
3. Turn online training into an engagement activity
Skills-building is an important part of career growth, and with the rise of top online learning platforms like Udemy, Coursera, LinkedIn Learning and Pluralsight, employees now have more choice than ever on how they learn. However, the fact that it’s easy to learn skills remotely, alone, can often obscure the important employee engagement benefits that come from learning them together.
Turn skills training into an employee engagement activity by asking employees to take turns hosting learning sessions. This could involve a book club-style approach, where one employee recommends a course from an online learning platform and colleagues later meet virtually to share their impressions of it and how they’d apply its key learnings. Alternatively, subject matter experts in the team could prepare their own hour-long sessions sharing their expertise. Learning together doesn’t just embed skills more effectively, it also helps to increase empathy and understanding within a team.
4. Virtual tea and coffee o-clock
As more meetings take place virtually, it’s important to create a space where employees can connect on a more informal level. Implementing virtual tea and coffee sessions, to mimic the time spent sharing a hot drink in an office setting, can help build in this time more consciously and slow the pace. Try to schedule them in a way that reflects this role, potentially as an extended group chat once a week with time for trivia, quick games and quizzes. One idea is to book-end the week with a virtual coffee session on Monday morning and a virtual happy hour to end the week on Friday afternoon.
5. Group fitness classes
Psychologists have long studied the powerful link between physical and mental wellbeing — and many traditional employee engagement activities build on this by encouraging colleagues to take on physical challenges together. This produces positive shared experiences, and immerses people in a sense of physical play that can encourage creative thinking.
In a more socially distanced, remote-first or hybrid world, these physical challenges may no longer work to engage all employees equally. However, group fitness classes can provide an accessible alternative. Yoga, pilates and dance instructors have all pivoted to hosting classes virtually. Signing teams up for a regular weekly session, for employees that would like to join, can add a new dimension to your virtual office experience.
6. Whole-company virtual experiences
In a remote-first or hybrid working context, traditional employee engagement activities like a sales kick-off, offsite or internal conference will become more challenging. Yet finding inclusive, whole-company ways to connect will become even more important.
Back in May, we held a 26-hour Zoom-a-thon to help raise funds for Global Foodbanking Network. It was an event designed to reinforce our company value of Be you. Be more., and to help maintain our employees’ sense of connection during the disorientating early months of lockdown. Our employees took turns to host a 30-minute slot on an ongoing Zoom call, and topics included the history of hip-hop, a photography lesson, and even a course on boat-building.
What we found was that our Peakons really valued the opportunity to do something together – and that this sense of shared culture had become more important as a result of no longer sharing an office. It gave our people the opportunity to embrace their creative sides, express themselves, and understand a little more about one another. It’s an experience that we’ll be applying more often going forward – and one we’d definitely recommend to others.