Don’t Mistake Digital Engagement for Employee Engagement: Why Zoom and WebEx Won’t Keep Your Team Feeling Connected

Many companies have adapted impressively in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The pivot to and nearly sole reliance on digital platforms like Zoom and WebEx have helped many organizations to barely skip a beat since the first shelter-in-place restrictions were imposed.   A recent study we conducted on engaging employees in a post-COVID environment confirms this observation.  Ninety percent of our respondents stated that they could do at least half of their work remotely and a full 40% said that all of their work could be done remotely.  This is certainly not true of all jobs in all industries—but a surprising number of roles “converted” to digital platforms practically overnight.  Up popped virtual team meetings, remote team dinners, and the standard live in-person meetings and conferences transformed into online experiences.  So is that it? Is remote work a sustainable solution and will it be the new normal? More importantly, can employees feel as engaged in this new work environment?

The ability to work remotely because we can doesn’t mean that doing so will yield the same level of employee engagement or a highly satisfying employee experience. I’ve heard many employees say they’ve traded their “shower, dress, and drive” routine for longer days filled with endless Zoom, WebEx or fill-in-the-blank platform meetings. Refitting dining rooms, spare bedrooms, attics, and basements into quasi offices/classrooms has produced new challenges in boundary setting. Where many of us now work is where we live, sleep, eat, and relax. And when these worlds intersect, it’s hard to tell where one ends and one begins. 

This new environment begs a lot of questions about how to engage employees.  While these digital tools and technology enable a constant flow of communications that support day-to-day operations, there needs to be more and different ways to connect with and engage your teams. What kinds of things might employers consider?  We propose that there are a number of tried and true drivers of employee engagement that—regardless of the current state of the world—can deliver the results you’re after. 

  1. Ability to do meaningful work: One of the biggest drivers of engaged employees is the sense that their work means something. Consider your organization’s mission and values. How can you remind employees of the reasons their work is important and is making an impact? What can you do to remind employees that now (more than ever?) the work they do is vital to keep the organization strong. 
  • One client chose to send a postcard to all its employees. On it was the company’s mission statement and a brief thank you for continuing to deliver on the mission statement despite the current challenging conditions. The result? A small, low-cost example that reiterated what the company stands for and how employees help to realize its vision.
  • Another client chose to end the weekly team call with a slide that showed the company’s tag line—and spoke about how the work employees did that week helped advance that cause. A small gesture like that can focus on employees on the reason they do their work.
  1. Relationship with your manager: Many studies have shown that employees feel engaged at work based on how strong their connection is to their managers. No surprise there.  This is particularly true for employees who are based out of their homes and do not go into a brick and mortar office; a manager often is the company for those employees. How can managers keep those relationships strong? Our survey points to two solutions:
    • “Micro connections matter” –In addition to the typical meetings you may hold every day, be sure to reach out with individual “micro” connections to your employees.  Short personal check-ins to let your employees know you’re thinking of them, you’re available if they need you, and that you value their contributions. These aren’t the blanket group messages that go to an entire team—instead, it’s a brief email, text, phone, or instant message that conveys your care for each team member individually.
    • “Understand their unique situations. Demonstrate to your employees that you get their situation. Maybe one employee has young children who need supervision with virtual school. Maybe another employee is a single parent trying to juggle the demands of family and work. Yet another may have sick or ailing parents who need care. And any employee may be impacted by knowing someone who has been affected by COVID-19.  Managers don’t have to solve these unique situations, but showing empathy for what employees are going through will go a long way in helping them feel understood.
  1. Compensation and benefits: Our survey suggests that about a quarter of respondents have experienced a change in their compensation—ranging from reduced bonus opportunities to fewer hours up to and including being furloughed.  Most managers don’t have the latitude to make decisions about employees’ compensation. But they can communicate company decisions clearly and be prepared to answer questions.  Many organizations also have employee assistance programs as part of their benefits package—and this offering can be valuable to employees during the pandemic. Communicating what is available to assist employees can positively impact employee engagement.
  1. Ability to advance and develop: Engaged employees seek opportunities to develop and advance their professional growth.  Although many companies may have suspended hiring or promotions, that doesn’t mean that you cannot provide learning and growth opportunities for your employees.  Is there training that employees can take to build or expand their skills? Can you give out “special assignments” to employees during the pandemic? If team members have additional capacity because they cannot fully perform their day-to-day responsibilities, can they use their skills and capabilities to do other work for you or the organization? 

There are no clear-cut proven strategies for engaging employees during COVID-19—yet. Starting with the traditional engagement levers is the first step.  And the most valuable resource for understanding how to engage employees is—of course—your employees. Don’t be afraid to ask them what they want and need.  You may not be able to accommodate all of the suggestions, but you may find that some ideas are completely doable and will strike the right chord with your employees to boost their engagement.