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RfH Working Session Recap: 2021 Employee Engagement Initiatives

March 8, 2021
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Last year, nearly 70 percent of survey respondents listed employee morale as their top challenge in our COVID-19 report. With a year of a pandemic under their belts and no definitive end in sight, HR teams continue to face the challenge of keeping employees engaged in 2021.

Resources for Humans (RfH) – a Slack community of over 11,000 HR leaders – recently hosted a virtual working session for members to share creative ways they’re keeping employees motivated. The workshop uncovered new ideas to inspire engagement plans around important workplace dates like Employee Appreciation Day, Women’s History Month, and more. Here are some of the session’s key takeaways:

Involve Your Employees

If you want your employees to participate, give them opportunities to tell you what they want. Whether it’s through input on company gifts or chances to participate in events, asking for feedback will help you prioritize what matters and give you insight into how employees want to be engaged.

I created a Google form just to ask, ‘What more do you want to see?’ And it was just a mix from so many different people. So I'm trying to balance that out with maybe an extroverted activity [paired] with an introverted activity monthly – and not too many activities, but also things that [employees] can just do on their own.” - Estrella Quiroz, Employee Engagement Specialist at The Movement Cooperative 
We gave employees the option of three different pieces of swag, and they could choose one and have it mailed to their house. We had sweatshirts, a really cool duffle bag, and a brew bottle for brewing coffee or tea on the go. I think people have really appreciated getting to choose their item.” - Maegan Steele, Employee Engagement Manager at Stitch Fix 

In fact, why not take it a step further and offer your employees a chance to take the reins by leading the events themselves? “People really enjoy that employee experience when it's another employee teaching something,” suggests Tiffany Suazo, HR Manager at Noah.

HR leaders who empowered employees to lead events found that it made them feel more deeply invested in the activity’s success. This approach also gave employees a chance to connect with each other by sharing personal hobbies or stories.

We've highlighted employees with after-work virtual events. Or they do a cooking lesson — we have some people located in India, Cairo, and even in New Orleans. People will do a class on how to make gumbo, that kind of stuff.” - Thomas Travis, Employee Experience Manager at Levelset 
“We do a monthly thing called Show and Teach, where it's show and tell, except you teach us something, whatever you want. The last one we did was learning how to quilt. So I made a patchwork from a quilt and then we all sent it to the person who taught us, and she put it all together. And now there's a company quilt, which is cool.” - Trav Walkowski, Partner & Chief Human Resources Officer at Employmetrics 
We're hosting Friday bashes where our employees who volunteer essentially run the bash and share something they're passionate about. For instance, we have someone that loves indoor plants, so she actually ran an hour-long Friday bash about different plants that you may have at your home and then ways to make sure your plant is alive and whatnot. It's nice because then our employees feel that they're participating, but they actually could be able to share some of their passions throughout the company.” - Anngiely Salvacion, People Generalist at SmugMug  
We have AMAs (Ask Me Anything) monthly, and the interviewer is our head of strategy. So she heads up a lot of the content for that...they're all pre-recorded actually so people [can] watch them on their own time. The first half are a bunch of really silly, maybe personal questions for the person, and then the second half are inspiring sort of questions.” - Meghan Kelly, Employee Engagement Associate at Stitch Fix 

Collaborate with Leaders

If you’re struggling with attendance, partner up with the leaders in your company to help set the tone from the top down. By making a point to attend and encouraging teams to do so as well, leadership can encourage employees by example and play a big part in building company culture. The message is clear – if your leaders care, you should too.

“Our CEO a couple of times a week does ‘Coffee with Amy.’ She's invited people into her kitchen and called it ‘Cook-Tails’ at night. They'll send you the recipe and stuff, and she'll just cook with her wife in the kitchen. Thankfully, I feel like our C-suite and leadership has been very open to what we're [asking] in order to really engage [employees] in this remote environment.” - Abbie Thompson, Director of People at Madison Reed
Our CEO does town halls, and he really narrows [it] down [to] each team, cycles through [them] every six weeks, and has an individual town hall with [each] specific team. We then have People Ops office hours in the afternoon. You can grab time with either myself or our Director of People Ops and just chat, whether it's a concern or just wanting to see a human face and talk about things outside of work.” - Madeline Fortino, Associate Director of People Operations at Levelset  
Having partners that are not on your team to be the first ones to start the conversations has been really helpful, especially if they are leaders, because people tend to like to hear from leaders.” - Meghan Kelly, Employee Engagement Associate at Stitch Fix

Have Fun

HR teams have really stretched their creative brains to plan fun and engaging activities and events for employees. In the past, some common tactics for virtual engagement shared in the RfH community were trivia games, BINGO cards, book clubs, swag boxes, lunch and learns, movie watch parties, and more.

But for attendees seeking something to freshen up their engagement toolkit, our RfH members proved there is no limit to how creative you can get. Workshop attendees suggested daily prompts, photo challenges, pet happy hours, scavenger hunts, Virtual Olympics, company-wide talent show, and more! 

“Once a month we make sure to make an announcement for people to join [in on] an activity. Like last week, we all sent in pictures of our at-home workspaces. And then we had to guess whose was whose, which was fun...I think we love the game side of things, but [also want to] try to get to know each other better, you know, some of these people haven't ever met their team in person!” - Sophia Tessum, Human Resources Manager at ManyChat 
We had a ‘Picture Perfect’ competition. We got photos from different movies or from different actors, and we had to use the things that we have at home to recreate the same photo. We had to send these photos, and then people [decided] which photo is the best.” - Stela Malic, HR Consultant 
We have a lunch session that we do just at 12, just like an open Zoom call. [Employees can] come eat [their] sandwich or salad with us, and maybe we'll play Among Us or something silly just to keep people energized.” - Madeline Fortino, Associate Director of People Operations at Levelset   
[I’m thinking of] creating a Spotify [playlist] of powerful women, especially since we're all remote. So we can all just blast it really loudly throughout the month, the day, and just have a little party at your house for yourself.” - Tiffany Suazo, HR Manager at Noah 
“We [hosted] a happy hour for all of our dog parents. We did storytimes for kids, for folks who like me – parents that are tired and need our kids to go do something else. An employee read them stories, which was nice.” - Melissa Joseph, Employee Engagement Associate Program Manager at Clover Health 

If you want to run a game session with your employees, there are a plethora of tools available to help. Attendees recommended Donut (especially its Watercooler function), JeopardyLabs, Netflix Party, and Quarmega Trivia to name a few.

Create Safe Spaces 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) experts say it’s critical for employers to be thoughtful as they contemplate offering other diversity holidays. What a company does during Black History Month, Women’s History Month, etc. sends an important message to employees who want an inclusive workplace. With that in mind, HR leaders can work with employee resources groups (ERGs) or culture committees to plan activities that educate employees about culture and history. 

“Education is a piece of every ERG I've seen, especially as we're coming out of Black History Month and into a Women's History Month — it's a huge thing,”  - Sarah Gilman, People Operations & Culture Manager at Team Whistle
[We’re doing a] working lunch session with all of the women in our company to just appreciate everybody and uplift everyone, and also just talk about what can be improved in our company. So just a twofer to see how we can make sure that the women feel equally valued as the men.” - Tiffany Suazo, HR Manager at Noah 
We are inviting women with interesting stories to share them with us, or maybe with impressive careers to explain a little bit more about that. A majority of the time [this speaker] is referred to us by a woman that is in our network.” - Stela Malic, HR Consultant  
We're talking about Women's History Month and spinning up some listening circles to encourage dialogue around how the pandemic has had an outsized impact on women including caretaking, schools being closed, pressure to leave the workforce, and things like that.” - Eddie Keenan, People Programs Manager at Dialpad  

Whether it’s bringing in speakers or creating safe spaces for dialogue, doing something to recognize the moment and educate your employees shows your marginalized groups that you care.

Support Local Businesses

With Shelter-in-Place in effect in many states, HR teams also focused on methods of engaging employees while supporting local businesses that might be struggling. For many employees balancing work with caregiving, homeschooling, or just overall pandemic burnout, it’s hard to remember all the local business available to them. By presenting employees with work-supported options to engage with their communities, HR teams were able to keep employees engaged and “pay it forward” at the same time.

We do a [challenge where] anyone at the company can read any book that they want about anything, any genre — all they have to do is fill out this form that's in Slack. For Black History Month, we did a challenge within the challenge of celebrating Black authors. So if that was specifically the book that you chose, not only do you get reimbursed for the cost of the book, but we did an additional donation for each book that was read to different Black-led non-profits depending on what city you're in.” - Julie Leveque, Employee Engagement Manager at Levelset 
Concerts [have] gone over really well because someone can tune into [them] on Zoom while they're working, and people really enjoy learning about a new musician. Usually at our budget level, it's not someone super well-known, but it's someone typically local. We pay them, but we also allow them to open up a tip jar at the end as well. People at our company are just really open and excited to share financially with them.” - Maegan Steele, Employee Engagement Manager at Stitch Fix 
We've found a lot of success at just creating a calendar of events going on at the community, and that's how we tested out a new resource guide [for specific groups like parents].” - Thomas Travis, Employee Experience Manager at Levelset  

The Challenges:

Avoiding Zoom “Burnout”

If you’ve ever wondered in the last year and a half of this pandemic, “am I burning myself and my team out with too many Zooms?” The answer is most likely yes. A New York Times article even reported that people usually feel lonelier and more anxious and disconnected after a video call than they would after an in-person communication. 

Now here’s the dilemma: HR teams want to keep employees engaged, but sometimes the latter just doesn’t want to spend more time looking at their computer screen, even if it’s for something fun. With that in mind, RfH members suggested carving time out of the workday for activities that are varied to fit people’s personal preferences. For example, if an employee is more introverted and not interested in a virtual happy hour, give them the option of a virtual movie viewing so they still have a chance to participate.

“A lot of our people have told me that while they appreciate the events, they’d just rather close the screen and get back to their families. What I'm trying to do more is incorporate an activity in our weekly all-staff meetings. Maybe it's one round of trivia or a virtual concert that's 10 minutes. And then the events that I do plan, I try to give them like a month's heads up and provide room for different amounts of varieties of activities, because everybody's so different.” - Estrella Quiroz, Employee Engagement Specialist at The Movement Cooperative 
“When we do some of the events, we actually just log off earlier and use that hour [or] hour-and-a-half that people would normally work to do our events. Then that way they're not having to stay on extra.” - Tiffany Suazo, HR Manager at Noah 
We've been doing activities that people can do to literally go outside. So we've done scavenger hunts where they have to show a picture of somewhere that they walk to.” - Nahiely Gomez, Human Resources Manager at Quorum  

Engaging a Distributed Workforce

When you have a distributed workforce, it’s even harder to find a one-size-fits-all solution for engagement. Our working session attendees didn’t have perfect solutions for this challenge, but many recommended trying different activities to keep programs mindful of time zones and personal preferences.

Sometimes, they said, even something small like giving praise or acknowledging an employee can make a huge difference, whether it be through a presentation, a recorded video, or just in Slack.

We've done a bunch of curbside pickups of swag or some fun stuff for the holidays, but we have some mandatory forensics engineers that need to be at the office. So we'll have members of the people team like myself and some of our founders stop by the office just to say hello and really recognize and appreciate the fact that they have to be in this 50,000 square foot office space.” - Buck Bracey, Manager, Community Relations & Chair of DISCO Cares
A lot of our engagement events were kind of tailored to our Bay Area folks. So now we're going to start having...two events in different time zones, and hopefully that will encourage more folks to participate. A lot of it's just scheduling. It's not perhaps that they don't want to [participate], it's just too late for them.” - Anngiely Salvacion, People Generalist at SmugMug  
[We’re doing an] appreciation wall in our Slack channel...And our leaders are going to lead it as well as our I&D team. We marked it on everyone's calendar saying, ‘This is the hour you send a note, whether it's somebody in the company, someone outside the company, just your commitment is to send out one note of gratitude to somebody else.’”  - Nahiely Gomez, Human Resources Manager at Quorum
We're going to create a digital PowerPoint [or] Google Doc where people basically can go in and share their feedback with different teams. So we might have one Google Doc for one team, another for another team. And basically everybody in our states are able to go and share any wishes or any compliments for that specific team.” - Ashley Waldemar, Human Resources Manager  
We found that if we do a couple of different things and at different times we've had more success than one-size-fits-all trivia or things like that. So for employee appreciation, our leadership team is recording virtual hug videos where they say nice things about their teams.” - Shanie Pollard, HR Generalist at Sentry.io  

How you engage with your employees will look different based on your company size, location, and so on. But the most important thing HR leaders said to keep in mind is not to get discouraged.

One thing for us in terms of maintaining a consistent engagement was really just consistency. It can be frustrating at first and demotivating when only one or two people show up. But then that one Friday, when you get 15 or 16 people, depending on the size of your company, it shows that there are other people who are willing to engage.” ” - Catherine Miller-Barrington, Office Manager & Events Specialist at GURUS Solutions.

Those are just some of the insights shared during a recent Resources for Humans virtual working session. If you haven’t already, join the over 11,000 HR leaders that make up our Slack community.