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Employee engagement beyond the office: Fostering connection in a virtual world

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American businesses have put the effects of the pandemic behind them, except for remote work. According to research by Goldman Sachs, the share of employees working from home has stabilized at around 25 percent, which is below the pandemic peak of 47 percent but far above the pre-pandemic average of 2.6 percent.

The work from home (WFH) practice continues to be driven by the combination of improved remote work technology, the spur of the pandemic and a tight labor market that has compelled employers to accommodate candidates who prefer remote work.

As businesses adapt to this new normal, HR professionals are faced with a unique challenge: how to foster remote employee engagement in a virtual work environment. Building a sense of community and connection among remote employees requires innovative strategies and a keen understanding of the changing dynamics of remote work.

In this article, we will explore creative ways in which HR professionals and business owners can nurture employee engagement beyond the confines of the traditional office setting.

Redefining Community in a Virtual Space

We often think of a community as a group of people who share a physical place or a common interest. In the absence of physical proximity, it is essential to define for remote employees what community means in a virtual setting. Business owners and HR team members must challenge themselves to envision the virtual workspace as a vibrant community where communication, collaboration and camaraderie can flourish. This shift in perspective sets the stage for the implementation of strategies that will bridge the gap between remote team members.

Creating a Virtual Water Cooler

Establish a virtual “water cooler” space through messaging platforms or dedicated chat channels. This will allow employees to engage in conversations about current events, movies, sports and other casual topics, helping to foster a sense of camaraderie. Encourage remote team members to share non-work-related updates, discuss their hobbies or organize virtual coffee breaks to emulate the kinds of social interactions that occur spontaneously in a physical office.

Virtual Team-Building Activities

Traditional team-building activities are often associated with physical togetherness, but the virtual landscape offers abundant opportunities for innovative alternatives. HR professionals can leverage digital platforms to organize engaging activities that promote team spirit and job satisfaction. Here are just a few examples:

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Online Workshops and Employee Training Sessions

Offering virtual workshops and training sessions on topics unrelated to work can be an excellent way to engage employees with their fellow team members. This could include sessions on mindfulness, stress management, yoga, healthy cooking or creative endeavors such as painting. Such activities can contribute to personal and professional development while building a stronger virtual community.

Online Team-Building Games

Organizing online team-building games can be an effective way to enhance communication and problem-solving skills among remote employees. These activities not only break up the monotony of daily tasks but also help create a shared experience that can foster a greater sense of unity.

Online play facilitators such as or Outback Team Building offer virtual escape rooms, quizzes and dozens of other ideas for independent or hosted virtual team-building activities. Many are free for use by any organization.

Building a Culture of Recognition and Appreciation

In a remote work environment, employees may sometimes feel isolated or undervalued. Recognizing and appreciating their efforts becomes even more critical to maintaining a positive and engaged workforce. Below are some of the most effective strategies.

Virtual Recognition Platforms

Implementing virtual recognition platforms allows team members to celebrate each other’s achievements publicly. Whether through shout-outs during virtual town hall meetings or a dedicated recognition channel, acknowledging and appreciating contributions between team members fosters a culture of positivity and camaraderie.

Digital Appreciation Events

Consider hosting virtual appreciation events to recognize milestones, work anniversaries or successfully completed projects. These events could include virtual awards, personalized messages or even virtual celebrations with shared activities like online games or virtual happy hours.

For more details on how to enhance job satisfaction by building an effective employee recognition program, see our recent article on employee recognition programs.

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Embracing Transparent Communication

Clear, timely and transparent communication is the cornerstone of a successful remote work environment. HR team members play a pivotal role in ensuring that communication channels are open, inclusive and accessible to all employees. Provision must be made for two-way communication so that remote employees know they can be open and honest about their concerns without fear of retribution.

Holding Regular Virtual Town Halls

Hosting a virtual town hall meeting provides an opportunity for leadership to communicate key updates, share insights into the company’s direction, recognize accomplishments and address concerns. This fosters a sense of transparency and group connection, helping to make employees feel informed and engaged as partners in the company’s journey.

Interactive Feedback Sessions

Encourage HR professionals to facilitate regular feedback sessions where employees can express their opinions, concerns and suggestions. This two-way communication not only strengthens the bond between the workforce and management but also demonstrates a commitment to hearing and respecting every team member’s input.

Virtual Mentorship Programs and Buddy Systems

In a remote work environment, establishing connections between new hires and existing employees is crucial. Mentorship and buddy programs can help integrate new team members, providing them with the support and guidance needed to navigate the virtual landscape.

Mentorship Programs

Pairing experienced employees with newcomers helps to create a sense of belonging, accelerate onboarding and boost remote employee engagement. Through regular virtual meetings and check-ins, mentors can impart company culture, share insights, answer questions and provide guidance, fostering a supportive environment.

Buddy Systems

Implementing a buddy system allows employees to connect on a more casual level. Buddies can engage in virtual coffee sessions, allow remote employees to share experiences off-the-record and provide a friendly face to answer questions, making the virtual environment feel more personal and connected.

Prioritizing Employee Well-being

With the lines between work and personal life becoming increasingly blurred in a remote setting, HR professionals must prioritize employee well-being. Initiatives that focus on mental health, work-life balance and other challenges that can hinder remote employee engagement are particularly important in a virtual setting.

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Wellness Challenges and Programs

Launching virtual wellness challenges or programs, such as step challenges, mindfulness sessions or fitness classes, encourages employees to prioritize their health. These initiatives not only promote well-being but also create opportunities for employees to connect over shared interests.

Flexible Work Arrangements

Employees have widely varying needs for flexible work arrangements, such as flex time, extended hours or job sharing. Accommodating these employees through flexible work arrangements recognizes the diverse needs of remote teams for work-life balance. HR professionals can work with leadership to establish policies that allow for flexible working arrangements, acknowledging the importance of work-life balance.

Leveraging Technology for Work and Social Connection

Technology serves as the backbone of remote work. HR professionals can harness project management software and other teamwork tools to create social connections and enhance employee engagement. Popular collaboration tools for agile teams include Asana, Basecamp, Clockify, Convene, G-Suite, GoToMeeting, Hubspot, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Trello, TeamViewer, Toggl and Zoom.

Virtual Lunches and Coffee Chats

Using video conferencing tools, encourage employees to schedule virtual lunches or coffee chats during their break times. This informal setting allows team members to socialize, share experiences and build relationships, mirroring the spontaneous interactions that occur during in-person breaks in a physical office.

Collaborative Platforms for Non-Work Interactions

Utilize collaboration platforms not just for work-related tasks but also for fostering non-work interactions. Create dedicated channels for hobbies and interests, from fantasy football to virtual book clubs, providing employees with spaces to connect on a personal level. Employment engagement survey feedback can keep HR up to date on these non-work interactions, which helps to improve remote employee engagement.

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Encouraging Diversity and Inclusion in Virtual Spaces

In a remote work environment, the need to create an inclusive and diverse culture is just as important as in a physical office environment. Virtual games, team-building activities and other online interactions should include cultural connections to all groups and individuals. HR professionals must actively work towards ensuring that every team member feels valued, respected and included.

Diverse Virtual Events

Plan virtual events that help keep employees engaged by celebrating diversity and inclusivity within the team. This could include cultural awareness presentations, celebrations of international holidays or even virtual tours of team members’ hometowns. Fostering an environment that embraces differences can help strengthen the sense of community.

Inclusive Language and Practices

Sensitize employees and leadership on the importance of using inclusive language in virtual communications. HR professionals can lead initiatives to educate the workforce on the significance of inclusive practices, working to ensure that every team member feels acknowledged and appreciated.

Building a Virtual Employee Resource Network

Establishing a virtual employee resource network provides a structured platform for employees to connect based on shared interests, backgrounds or goals. Below are some ways in which virtual resources can bring remote employees together.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Encourage the formation of Employee Resource Groups that cater to specific demographics, interests or goals. Whether it is a group for working parents, fitness enthusiasts, employees who want to learn a language or those interested in specific technologies, ERGs can provide a space to keep employees engaged by sharing experiences and supporting each other.

Virtual Networking Events

Host virtual networking events where employees from different departments or different parts of the world can connect. Virtual networking facilitates cross-functional collaboration, breaks down barriers, reduces us-versus-them thinking, and enhances the sense of community within the organization.

Adapting and Evolving Through Employee Feedback

The remote work landscape is dynamic, and HR professionals must be agile in adapting their strategies based on feedback and evolving needs. The best ways to gather employee feedback include satisfaction surveys, team meetings, one-on-one meetings and exit interviews. Bear in mind that the best way to get truly honest feedback is to make sure that survey responses are anonymous.

Regular Surveys and Feedback Sessions

Conduct regular surveys to gauge employee satisfaction and gather feedback on virtual employee engagement initiatives. This information serves as a valuable resource for HR professionals to identify areas of improvement and adapt strategies accordingly.

Continuous Learning and Development

Encourage a culture of continuous learning within the HR department. Staying informed about industry best practices, emerging technologies and evolving employee expectations helps HR professionals to proactively implement effective virtual engagement strategies.

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Checklist for Enhancing Remote Worker Engagement

  • Establish SMART goals. Every worker needs to know what is expected of them, as well as what to strive for. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
  • Encourage collaboration. Great players win games, but great teams win championships. The essence of coaching is to train a group to work together as a team.
  • Conduct regular surveys. Companies only think they know what is working, what is not, and what rank-and-file workers think of the company’s culture and leadership. The only way to know is to ask.
  • Recognize effort. The dynamic Texas founder Mary Kay Ash knew how to motivate remote teams. “There are two things people want more than love and money,” she said. “Recognition and praise.”
  • Schedule regular check-ins. Remote work is great for privacy and productivity, but too much isolation can have a negative impact on mental health. Regular check-ins are required to keep remote employees engaged.
  • Foster social integration. Many remote employees are not naturally outgoing, so managers should encourage team-building with virtual meet-ups on social media, as well as in-person social events.
  • Accommodate flexible scheduling. Flex scheduling is highly valued by many remote employees, especially those who must manage school-age children or are caring for senior loved ones.
  • Encourage autonomy. Autonomy is a key to remote employee engagement. Don’t tell workers what to do and how to do it. Show what you want and trust them to do it with their own skills and in their own way.
  • Don’t take shortcuts with onboarding. To think and act as a member of a team, a remote worker must first internalize the desired methods, goals and culture of the organization through effective onboarding.
  • Prioritize well-being. Remote workers will not know that they are valued members of the team unless this fact is demonstrated through initiatives and benefits that support their physical, mental and social well-being.
  • Have a regular virtual town hall. The town hall is an essential tool for fostering employee engagement. This meeting is an opportunity for leaders to report breaking news, review progress toward long-range goals, recognize outstanding performers and rally the troops as one team.
  • Keep meetings short. Remote workers will tune out meetings that drift into irrelevant topics. Publish an agenda before the meeting, and when those topics are covered, let people get back to work.
  • Record important meetings. When important information is being conveyed about project goals and desired procedures, creating a video record enables the review of marching orders exactly as delivered.
  • Create a remote resources library. Remote workers can access the employee manual, mission and vision documents, benefits, policies, forms, available development courses and much more.
  • Celebrate employee accomplishments. People work for money, but they go the extra mile for recognition. Workers don’t want a forced employee-of-the-month program. They will place a high value on genuine appreciation, so practice sincere recognition to keep remote employees engaged.
  • Remind managers to get personal. Without daily contact with managers, remote workers do not know how they are doing. A “thank you” or “happy birthday” note from a manager makes a strong contribution to enhanced employee engagement.
  • Make sure no one is excluded. When rewarding achievement, make sure that all participating team members are included. Nothing hurts more than being overlooked when recognition is deserved.
  • Create team connections. HR leaders are well-positioned to link together the disparate elements of a company team. Create this web between leaders, peers, mentors and newcomers.
  • Use a digital update channel. For centuries, every sailor cocked an ear when the bosun’s whistle blew and a voice called out “Now hear this.” Use chat, text and email to update remote workers in real time.
  • Support professional development. Employee engagement through investment in a remote worker’s career is a clear demonstration of the company’s commitment to the long-term success and well-being of a valued team member.

Nurturing Connection in the Virtual Workplace

As businesses continue to embrace remote work, the role of business leaders in building connections and engaging remote employees becomes increasingly essential. The strategies outlined in this article can serve as a basic blueprint for business owners and HR professionals looking to cultivate a vibrant virtual community.

By redefining community in the virtual space, leveraging digital team-building activities, prioritizing communication, investing in worker well-being and embracing technology, the human resources team can help ensure that remote workers remain connected, engaged and motivated. Through focused leadership efforts, human resources creativity and a commitment to employee well-being, any virtual workforce can thrive as a unified and connected community.

As we navigate the evolving landscape of remote work, it’s crucial to actively engage and connect with our teams. At Higginbotham, we understand the importance of building a supportive virtual community for your employees. If your organization needs guidance on implementing these strategies within your organization, get in touch with a member of our HR Services team. Together, let’s work to create a thriving remote work environment.

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