Engaging Your Employees in a Virtual World

I led an interesting session yesterday at the Canadian Virtual HR Conference on how to engage your employees in a virtual world – see slides below. As with any presentation I deliver, I start by talking about the business climate we are operating in and what has been going on in the world of work. My talk was not about coming up with gimmicky activities for employees to do using video, or creating new branded swag to send out to employees. It was about getting to the root of what really drives engagement in the workplace.

We have been talking about the changing workplace what seems like forever now. I started working 20 years ago and I remember attending conferences and events that had topics relating to “the changing world of work”, or “the future of work”. The reality is we have been seeing changes in how we work for years, which have largely been fueled by technology and globalization. The fact is the world of work is now. The interesting thing about talking about these changes is that the arrival of COVID-19 has basically blown everything up and injected an enormous amount of steroids into our workplaces. Instead of dealing with the accustomed steady increase in change, we had to transform how we operate our businesses overnight. One of my earlier slides was Wile E. Coyote detonating a bomb, which is a very accurate depiction of what happened.

So, this explosion of COVID arriving on the scene forced organizations to shift to a completely virtual workplace. Physical offices turned into ghost towns and we all scrambled like mad to ensure our employees could remain productive while working from home.

I then shifted my talk quickly to employee engagement, specifically what it is. There is a plethora of research that clearly shows that organizations with higher employee engagement are more profitable, experience lower employee turnover, and have more productive employees. We still have an engagement problem as only 15% of the global workforce is engaged. COVID or not, engagement is low, and that’s a problem. We then dove into the key drivers of employee engagement — recognition, transparent communication, creating “psychological safety”, growth and development opportunities, and so forth. The interesting thing that I mentioned is that none of this stuff, and I mean NONE of it, is new. We already knew this.

My session reached a pivotal point when I asked the audience what the main ingredient is to improving employee engagement in this crazy world we live in. The answer? Communication. A few people immediately blurted out communication and hit the nail on the head. Communication is paramount, specifically a diversified approach that seamlessly integrates technology – consistent, transparent, and frequent communication. Think about it. We are now forced to work entirely from the confines of our homes where we can no longer get up from our desks and make our way to a colleague’s office or go have lunch with a few co-workers, engage in some friendly “water cooler” banter, or schedule an impromptu in-person collaboration session in one of the meeting rooms. We have our home desks, screens, and technology. That’s it.

I then provided 6 key tips to boost engagement in any organization. They are:

  1. One-stop-shop virtual wiki
  2. Diversify your communication
  3. Enhance employee connection – “socialize work”
  4. Boost your virtual employee supports
  5. Extreme leadership visibility
  6. Re-evaluate your HR tech stack

The key theme within these 6 tips is to positively impact the emotions of employees in all facets of their employee experience. Just like most leaders do in a traditional office setting, being deliberate with being visible while diversifying their communications approach (e.g. chat, video, collaboration sessions, check-ins, email) is vital. As a result of COVID, we are all dealing with a huge amount of change, and we’re each coping and adapting differently. Collectively, people have never been great at dealing with change, let alone dealing with significant change all at once, literally overnight. We are dealing with high unemployment rates and the financial challenges that come with unemployment, higher mental health challenges, family-related challenges such as domestic abuse, childcare, and eldercare, and the list goes on. While many of us have adapted well, many are really struggling. The HR Leaders have now been thrown into the spotlight and have been asked to work side-by-side with CEOs to lead organizations through this difficult time. The CFO was in this spot during the 2009 financial crisis. Now, it’s the CHROs turn.

The last employee engagement tip was about re-evaluating the HR tech stack. I can’t over-emphasize this enough. If there was ever a time for HR to step up their HR tech game, it’s now. We can no longer afford to not have fully integrated systems that we ask our employees to use on a daily basis. They need to talk to one another, provide a top-notch experience, and allow employees to do their best work. I provided a visual of how I view an ideal HR tech ecosystem. It’s broken down into 2 categories: a) social collaboration and b) HR technology. Social collaboration is all about how employees interact with colleagues and work together — Slack, Google Meet, Drive, ClickUp, Notion, and Zoom are examples of tools that allow for an optimal virtual social collaboration experience. The only mandatory HR tech tools that all organizations need are a) payroll, b) HRIS, and c) recruitment. Other niche platforms that focus on things like recognition, leadership, employee engagement, agile performance, etc…, while important, I consider them “nice to have”.

COVID has not been kind to us. I know this first-hand. Since the beginning of time, one thing that has remained a constant among humans is that we are resilient. Quite frankly, we need to be resilient in order to survive. The good news in all of this craziness during 2020 is that we have the ability to provide our workforces with an amazing virtual employee experience by using the right technologies and focusing on the right activities. Of course, we need to change and shift how we work and operate, but it’s not impossible.

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