Company executives spend millions of dollars each year to keep employees engaged and motivated by hosting company parties, providing paid time off to volunteer in the community and hosting town hall events. The more employees feel connected to their company, the thinking goes, the harder they’ll work.
But it’s difficult to maintain a workplace culture that once teemed with social outings and team building exercises when as many as half of U.S. employees are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Spreading goodwill and encouraging camaraderie isn’t easy when people are isolated, hunched over laptops at dining room tables. Nor is it easy to connect when it’s impossible to have impromptu hallway chats outside the break room.
Companies, however, are devising new ways to keep employees engaged as the pandemic spreads, using electronic meeting spaces for after-hours cocktail parties and work-time coffee get-togethers, according to surveys conducted by the Pennsylvania consulting firm Energage for the Houston Chronicle’s Top Workplaces. Others are stepping up communications with daily emails.
“People are craving connection especially right now,” said Tracey Keele, a workplace culture expert at the consulting firm KPMG.
Smart companies are encouraging managers to communicate regularly and frequently with their employees, from formal meetings to informal conversations, and help employees navigate problems they encounter, she said.
One big challenge for employees is juggling work responsibilities with child care and at-home schooling. Managers should get extra training in benefit programs so they can suggest solutions when employees talk about the difficulties, said Keele.
A Houston company that provides medical second opinions, 2nd.MD, already required managers to have one-on-one meetings with employees every other week. About 20 percent of the company’s 260 employees were already working remotely.
The meeting policy helped during the pandemic to keep communication flowing, said Dustin Lee, vice president of human resources.
Companies also need to look for reasons to celebrate, said Keele. Make the most of good news and the chance to shine the spotlight on what’s important.
The compounding pharmacy supplier PCCA can’t have a company picnic this year. Ditto for the annual Halloween costume contest and party as two-thirds of its 300 employees in Houston are working from home.
Instead, PCCA sponsored a virtual scavenger hunt. More than 80 families participated, with employees, spouses and children running around to find the necessary items and posting photos.
To celebrate Halloween this year, PCCA set up a costume contest, but called it a “wig out” because it’s only from the neck up, perfect for online viewing. And the company added an online bingo game too, said Lizzie Harbin, vice president over human resources.
“We became deliberate about how to maintain culture,” she said.
Early in the pandemic, executives at TopSpot, an internet marketing company, came up with ways to keep the 121 employees working from home still feel connected. They found a way to showcase employee talent by hosting weekly remote classes that center on employee hobbies.
One salsa dancing employee led co-workers through a dance class on Zoom and an engineer made a presentation on his hobby of creating video games. One of the vice presidents taught a session of commonly used business terms.
“I like to think people appreciate it,” said Julia Masera, who leads recruiting and employee engagement.
Maintaining company cultures has posed new challenges for industries that have not traditionally had many employees work from home, workplace experts say. For many, the pandemic has forced them to adopt new management styles — along with some fun.
Successful companies have become more flexible with child care arrangements, allowing employees to shift work hours to accommodate home schooling and child care, said John Legg, who leads the career practice at the human resources consulting firm Mercer in Houston.
Frequent messages from executives also are important and employees don’t mind if the video quality is less than perfect, he said. Video shots with a cell phone works in an environment in which television talk show hosts work from home and use family members as camera operators.
“We found employees actually appreciate the low budget aspect of it,” Legg said.
Before the pandemic, Bill Higgins, president of the homeowners’ association management company Crest Management, liked to walk around the office each morning and check in with employees. It was his way to find out what was going on, give employees an informal opportunity to talk about what’s on their minds and remind employees about goals.
But when work shifted to home as the pandemic spread, Higgins came up with a short, zippy daily email headlined “Good Morning Everyone” to keep employees engaged and provide a gentle reminder to stay focused on customers.
Virtual water cooler
It’s part advice, reminding employees to wear masks and wash their hands, part advocacy, reminding employees to check in with their friends, and part personal. Higgins has given movie recommendations such as “Anne of Green Gables,” recounted a three-day epic game of Monopoly at his house, and highlighted his playlist from Janis Joplin to Johnny Cash. On Fridays, he offers a cocktail recipe.
“It’s water cooler talk if you were at the office,” he said. “You might be at home alone, but we’re working together as a team.”
The daily morning email has proven popular. Nearly all the company’s 90 employees open it every day. Employees reply with cocktail recipes of their own and favorite movies. Sometimes if Higgins is late sending out the email, employees ask where it is.