Ideas to keep your people engaged and connected while working from home

If your organization is like many others these days, your people are finding themselves working in a very different “normal.” Some may be enjoying the change and flexibility of working from home, while others may be desperate to get back to their workplace. Despite the wide range of situations people find themselves in, there is one struggle they have in common — staying connected with their co-workers, their teams, and their bosses. The connection I’m talking about is more than just communicating updates and instructions with email or even video chat. In fact, there is much more at stake than just making sure people know what to do.

Connection drives trust, collaboration, and motivation

Studies related to “positive psychology” and employee engagement have shown that feelings of connection and belonging are critical for employee and organizational success. These feelings are the foundation for trust, collaboration, and motivation. For example, studies by Stanford psychologist Greg Walton show that merely telling people that they’re collaborating on a task will boost motivation and job satisfaction.

I was curious to learn how companies were addressing this challenge with the limitations of virtual platforms. I decided to do some interviews and research to see what I could learn and share. I not only heard about some very creative approaches, I also learned more reasons why it’s so important to make sure people feel connected during these difficult times.

Some people shared how the current situation has made them rethink how they do things. They find themselves reassessing their priorities, like their time with family and kids. They realize they need to slow down because their life was too busy before all this happened. This new pace makes them wonder if they even want life to go back the way it was.

People are seeing the very “human” side of their colleagues. Apologizing for interruptions from kids and pets is the new normal. There is more understanding and patience as everyone tries to manage their home life with families.

People are being more real and sharing how they’re feeling because this crisis makes it more socially acceptable to do so. Talking about their challenges helps people realize that they’re not alone. It creates a bond from mutual “suffering” that builds trust and rapport.

What can you do to ensure that your people feel involved and connected? Here are some ideas to try. Be sure to consider the personalities of your people. Are they quiet and reserved? Are they more extroverted? Also consider the culture you’re trying to promote. Is it more casual and fun? Is it more serious and low-key?

Ideas to stay connected and offer support

  • Set up virtual water cooler time, coffee hours, or happy hours for teams or groups. Pick a common topic for people to discuss. Break into smaller groups to make conversations easier.
  • Have managers offer virtual office hours to make sure everyone’s questions are getting answered.
  • Have food delivered to each team member and enjoy eating together during your virtual meeting. Everyone loves free food and not cooking.
  • Utilize numerous ways to share updates, feedback, ideas, and challenges from one-on-one meetings, group meetings, companywide meetings, emails, intranet sites, etc.
  • Use surveys to ask your people how they think the company is handling the crisis, to ask for ideas on how to make working from home easier, and to ask how they’re doing. Encourage participation by entering answers into a raffle for prizes like pizza.
  • Offer coffee chats with executive leaders so people get a chance to ask them questions and to feel connected and heard.
  • Send employees gift packages from local companies. Everyone likes surprise packages and feeling like someone cares about them.

Ideas to get to know your colleagues

  • Get a glimpse into people’s nonwork lives by asking them to share five pictures to help others get to know them. These could include family, hobbies, favorite vacations, etc. Consider setting a time limit if needed. Have every team member share at the same meeting or rotate and have a few share at each meeting.
  • Go back in time by asking people to share two or three pictures from when they were younger. For example, everyone brings their sixth-grade picture or high school graduation picture. Mix them up and have a contest to see who can guess which photo belongs to which colleague.
  • Have some fun by picking a theme for choosing pictures to share. One meeting could be photos of pets (live or stuffed animals). Other meetings could focus on pictures of dishes they cooked, something interesting they found outside, something unusual and unique to their home, etc.
  • Have a newer or larger team that’s still getting to learn each other’s names and faces? Try a game of BINGO. Compile everyone’s photos and use a service like BingoCardCreator.com to create your custom cards.
  • Get a tour of people’s homes or workspaces. Learn more by having them share their favorite room or feature of their home. What would they change?
  • Take advantage of your group’s expertise by having team members share a virtual “teaching” class related to one of their hobbies. It could be a class about cooking, crafts, bike repair, woodworking, magic tricks, etc.
  • Discover hidden talents by asking team members to share their musical, comedy, or performance abilities. Enjoy some live entertainment or a pre-recorded event. You may be surprised at what some of your team can do!
  • Put up a map and have people mark where they live. Use a map of the city area, state, country, or world, depending on the group. In Zoom, people can use the annotate function to put an arrow that shows their name. Otherwise, the host can mark it on an image or slide they share on their screen.
  • Have a virtual potluck where each member enjoys a favorite dish they made and shares their recipes. This is fun and helpful since people are cooking more meals at home.
  • Ask people to submit their favorite recipes they’ve tried or relied on while cooking more from home and compile the recipes into a “Quarantine Cookbook.” Get the kids and grandkids involved by holding a coloring contest where the winning picture will be the cover of the cookbook.
  • Do a virtual book club where people discuss a book as they read it at the same time. The group decides if they want to nominate their favorite fiction or business book or choose something no one has read before.
  • Learn each other’s favorites. One week could be sharing a few of your favorite movies, favorite books, favorite songs, favorite recipes, favorite sports, favorite apps, etc.
  • Dig deeper by having everyone take a personality or strengths assessment or have them review a past assessment. Ask each person to share a couple of insights from their report. Now that it’s harder to read people’s body language on virtual platforms, it’s even more important to know (and remember) co-workers’ personal styles, strengths, and preferences.

I would like to thank the following people for sharing ideas from their organizations:

  • Jeff Palkowski, MHRM, SHRM-SCP, PHR, senior human resources specialist–­workforce relations at University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Tammy Wacek, SHRM-CP, PHR, senior human resources business partner at NeuGen
  • Sheree Yates, SHRM-CP, PHR, senior director of human resources at Educational Credential Evaluators Inc.
  • Jay Stephany SHRM-CP, PHR, HR generalist at Network Health WI

Tina Hallis, Ph.D., is a speaker, author, and founder of The Positive Edge. Her mission is to share the science of positivity to improve the quality of people’s work lives and the quality of company cultures.

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