A virtual wine tasting conducted by a sommelier. Slack Q&As with co-workers. Monthly "watercooler discussions" via Zoom on topics such as time management, mental health and the war in Ukraine.
Artificial intelligence company Interactions is finding different ways to engage its 380 employees since the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the company's transformation into a completely work-from-home culture. In the last two years, "the longer we are [physically] apart, the more interested people are in seeing each other together again," observed Mary Clermont, chief people officer of the Franklin, Mass.-based organization that builds intelligent virtual assistants to manage customer experience for companies.
Building connections is important for retention.
A recent report from social platform Airspeed, Remote Work Culture Insights, found in a survey of 800 U.S. C-suite executives that 2 out of 3 executives believe their workers may soon quit because of how disconnected they feel. In addition, SHRM Online reported that more than 90 percent of executives said culture and connection are lacking for their remote team members, and more than 70 percent of 800 workers at remote or hybrid organizations said they don't feel like they are able to socialize enough when working remotely.
Finding the Secret Sauce
In the last two years, Interactions has learned what resonates with its workers who are located throughout the U.S. and India.
Like many companies during the pandemic, Interactions initiated a virtual happy hour in 2020, but only 10 people of the 130 who signed up for the BYOB Zoom activity interacted. An even quieter crowd tuned in for the second happy hour that year.
The company tried a different approach in 2022—it sent employees eight miniature bottles of wine for a tasting facilitated by a sommelier. Employees lingered an extra half-hour on Zoom after the event ended. When the event was repeated, about a dozen employees stayed on three hours after the activity ended at 5:30 p.m.
Lesson learned: Employees at Interactions like having a structured activity, like the company's Zoom dog show that has become an annual event. It's an approach that works particularly well with introverts, the company found. Additionally, structured activities can morph into informal socializing, such as a Zoom game show that extended into happy hour among some employees.
The company relies on its diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) team and employee ambassadors to conceptualize and lead engagement strategies, like its monthly "Real Talk" sessions—45-minute monthly virtual discussions on specific topics that team members and ambassadors take turns facilitating. Topics have included career development, mental health and current events such as the war in Ukraine.
"Being a small company without huge resources, we wanted to understand what people wanted to do about the crisis" in Ukraine, Clermont said. Employees heard firsthand accounts from a colleague who had family in Ukraine and from a co-worker who spoke of being a refugee during the Gulf War.
"It was a very lively, facilitated discussion," Clermont recalled, and hearing from co-workers made news of the war more relatable.
Other virtual engagement strategies used by Interactions:
E-cards. During the week of Thanksgiving, employees are encouraged to send co-workers thank-you cards, as well as show appreciation for one another's contributions in other ways throughout the year.
Blog posts and interviews. "We oftentimes get a lot of interplay with people who are excited about a post," Clermont said. "It really gives you a good indication of what people are looking at, what do they like."
As an outgrowth of Interactions' blog channel, an employee created a questionnaire to spotlight individuals at the company.
"It's a fun way to get to know co-workers," Clermont said of the biweekly feature. Employees comment on and internally share a co-worker's response to questions such as "What's a guilty pleasure?" or "What did you want to be when you were growing up?" and give suggestions on who they would like to see interviewed.
Games on Slack. During Hispanic Heritage Month, an employee created "Match That Batch," a trivia game in the Slack channel that challenged workers to match pictures of 10 Hispanic pastries from among a list of 10 pastry names such as churros, rosca de reyes (Three Kings bread) and habichuelas con dulce (Dominican sweet beans).
Engagement ideas come from the company's pulse surveys, employee suggestions on Slack and Interactions' DE&I team, whose charter is to plan and promote activities, education and social events with peers. The team, which meets monthly, is made up of one person from each of the company's 17 functions or departments; these team members are the best advocates for engagement strategies, Clermont said. The company surveys employees after each event to gauge the activity's value.
"Invite people in," she advised employers looking for ways to keep their remote employees connected to the organization and their colleagues. "Our highest-rated, most active bloggers are employees who our DE&I team invited into the events and planning of events. An invitation fuels a connection."
Other SHRM resources
Halloween Fun Without Spooky Consequences
, SHRM Online
, October 2021