Talk Show, Virtual Clubs Keep Employees Connected During COVID-19 Pandemic

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek April 16, 2020
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Just Before Lunch
Welcome to the SHRM Online "Share Your Story" series, launched for HR professionals to share their experiences during the coronavirus pandemic.

This story, the fourth in our series, comes from Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify, an online training company headquartered in the twin cities of Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. 

Move over, "The Ellen Degeneres Show," "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" and "The Late Late Show with James Corden." There's a new talk show on the block: "Just Before Lunch," available exclusively to Axonify employees.

Airing from 11-11:15 a.m. every Thursday, it's a way for all the company's 180 employees to stay in touch while teleworking during the pandemic. It is hosted by JD Dillon, Axonify's chief learning officer, who worked at Walt Disney World for more than nine years.  Show host JD Dillon, chief learning officer at Axonify

He collaborates with the company's people and culture team members, who serve as the show's producers, to select a weekly theme. They post a casting call on Slack, the messaging platform the company uses, and typically invite three employees to participate in each episode. The show follows the same format every week: Dillon opens with a story from a customer or team member and then introduces that week's guests or activity.  

"Our first episode provided guests with the chance to highlight items of personal and professional significance from their home offices. One guest showed us his desk, which he made himself," Dillon recalled. "Another showed us the teddy bear that her kids got for her when she graduated with her second college degree. She also showed us the award she received for her five-year anniversary with the company."

The episode offered a glimpse, said CEO Carol Leaman, into employees' interests. One staffer showed the trophies he had won as a teen. "When you see personal things like trophies that they accumulated over the years … it gives you another layer of connection into those employees." Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify

Themes under consideration for upcoming weeks include a dance-at-your-desk challenge, a talent show featuring team members' children, and the unknown talents and hobbies of executive team members.

"Just Before Lunch" ends with a plug for the upcoming show and a tip for working from home. "It's a simple and fun way to give people permission to step away from their work for 15 minutes to learn about and celebrate one another," Dillon said.

'It Strengthens the Bond' 

Axonify employees are creating clubs on Slack that include a virtual walking group and online euchre tournaments.

It's intriguing, Leaman said, "to see different people from different areas from the organization—who may not have the opportunity to spend a lot of time together in person at work—connecting in these other interesting ways online. It strengthens the bond for when we go back."

Other social channels that have arisen at the organization since the COVID-19 shutdown include company coffee chats and virtual drink meet-ups on Fridays. 

"There's not necessarily a business purpose for those 10 minutes" around the online coffeepot, "but it's a way to build a bond," Leaman said. 


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Coronavirus and COVID-19


Lunches with the CEO have gone virtual, too. Hosted weekly, the hourlong meeting's agenda includes a business update, employee recognition and an "Ask Me Anything" session, during which employees pose questions anonymously to the CEO.

"I don't get any time to prepare answers. I have to just answer genuinely from the heart," Leaman said.

Some questions are lighthearted: What is she watching on Netflix? Who is her favorite professional wrestler on "WWE SmackDown"?

Others are serious. Many are regarding the health of the company or its customer base, or corporate strategies to help employees perform their jobs. One employee, for example, shared the difficulty of managing both her job and the needs of her 3- and 5-year-old children and asked about the availability of flexible scheduling.

The question-and-answer session, Leaman said, "has allowed me to delve deep into what we're doing from a corporate strategy … [and] the programs we are putting in place" to address employee concerns. 

She sees the pandemic as a watershed moment for the workplace, changing the way people work forever. She also sees a future at Axonify in which 50 percent of its employees will work from home regularly. The virtual social networks being forged will serve as a kind of connective tissue within the body of the company.

"I do think these cool connections … will in fact survive our going back to work."

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