From lockdown to lockdown: what our company learned about online staff engagement
Why aren’t online escape rooms enough for a digital get-together?
The shortest answer to that question is that people don’t want to play an online game after spending eight hours online already. Fair enough! But how do you engage your remote staff then? We see a return of offline events now that everything is opening up again. The events where everyone is together and that is how it should be. There is nothing better than talking, joking and interacting live. But since remote work is here to stay and most companies are hybrid, some even fully remote, you should also think about online staff engagement. This raises some questions: how do you engage remote staff online? What does work for remote staff engagement? And why should you do it?
Here in The Netherlands, we went through four lockdowns. During this time I was Chief People Officer of a company called Nmbrs, where we loved to be together. I also founded Locus Quest, which focuses on online staff engagement for hybrid and remote companies. Each lockdown taught me something different about online staff engagement, and I want to take you through what I learned from each one.
First lockdown: We are all in this together
At Nmbrs, the week after we sent everybody home in order to slow the spread of the virus, we had our first online drinks. RTL News even showed up to film it and the item made the evening news! After those first drinks, you name it, we tried it at Nmbrs: online yoga, online cooking classes, online book clubs and numerous online pub quizzes. Any shared experience was welcome.
There was a ‘We’re in it together’ feeling and a lot of understanding. When employees asked questions we didn’t yet know how to answer, we were honest about it. We were all just figuring it out together during those dire times of complete confusion as to what was about to happen in the world regarding the virus.
What I noticed during this period is engagement within Nmbrs actually skyrocketed. The ‘We’re in this together’ mentality and the open communication helped us engage with our employees on an emotional and deep level. It felt good! There was a lot of understanding of each others’ situation. Whether you were home alone, day in and day out. Or you had elderly parents in another country whom you were worried about. Or you were home with your three kids aged one, two and three. There was a lot of togetherness and love for Nmbrs which was supportive in every situation. The only thing was, we realised that having drinks in Google Meet with 100+ people was never again so much fun as it was the first time, when we made the evening news.
Second lockdown: Online events slow down. They are welcome, but you need the right one.
After summer, during the second lockdown, we became more sophisticated. We could see when our staff were looking forward to things and when they were a no-show. The online clubs, online sports, and online meditation dispersed. We played around with the digital drinks on Friday until it was a week-ending which was at least something to look forward to. We included a 15 minute company speech to strengthen the bond with our employees and be transparent about what was happening at Nmbrs.
Once a month Nmbrs offered an activity that most of the time was greatly appreciated. Like an online visit to Rome with an actual guide whom we could ask questions and direct around. At first, hesitantly, we were ‘online walking along’ through empty streets. But we got accustomed to it quickly, and the experience managed to feel special. We arranged a customised online bingo, an online whodunit and an online escape room. The latter was of such poor quality yet so well-received that Locus Quest actually emerged right there and then. I can do better, I thought. The Locus Quest team got to work and built our immersive online experience, The Dark Web, to help companies engage with their staff online. We soon found that personal attention went a long way. We started customising, noticing that people really appreciate seeing their company branding and values present within our online games.
As the world began to open up again people were making choices about attending online events, deciding what to show up for and what they would let go. The biggest reason for these choices was that employees seemed to think: after a full day working online, any online event better be worth my 30 or 60 minute additional online time. You had to do something special and it could not be every week anymore.
Third and fourth lockdown: Culture is important to engage your staff online and therefore customisation is key.
During the third and even fourth lockdown, however, people started getting tired and fed up with being online all the time. They did not want to do another online escape room. They would rather wait for the lockdown to stop and have a live event. Meanwhile, I noticed at Nmbrs that the team engagement went up whereas the company engagement went down.
I remember talking to a manager at Microsoft, stating: take the people that are working for Microsoft and those that are working for Google. Every morning, you log in from your home to be part of your team and have the stand-up. But what makes these companies different from one another? If you go into the office it is quite clear. But working online it is much more nuanced. You feel connected to the team, but what about the company? Then what exactly makes working for one of these companies different from working for the other? How do their staff stay engaged with that particular company’s culture?
The companies that were crippled during Covid were the ones built on culture. They took pride on being different, facilitating camaraderie and having more than just a nice team and state of the art code. The biggest question still is: how do they recover from this? Because this culture is what makes these companies special, fast growers and successful. I am determined to give those companies back their power.
For Locus Quest the third and fourth lockdown were our biggest selling periods. What we saw is that during special events, for instance the annual sales kick off, the Christmas party, or the celebration of a project realisation, we were able to customise the online events with our hosts and our online games. We tailored our games to suit those special events and make them memorable. That is what ties people to a company. The culture does, the stories do.
Our biggest discovery: companies need their own stories that define them, online AND offline.
As CEO of Locus Quest, I speak to a lot of people from hybrid and remote companies about their online staff engagement. At Locus Quest, we have been trying things out, putting our money where our mouth is. This is what we know: what works for one company will not always work for the next. It sounds simple but many companies think they can apply another company’s engagement solution without first understanding their own core values. It won’t work.
Custom made is key here. Companies need stories that define them, online and offline. If online events need to build and/or strengthen company stories as much as live events do, they ought to be tied to a company culture. And ideally combined with a shared internal know-how and past experiences. Each event, each get-together is an opportunity to make new stories or remember the old ones.
Recently, Locus Quest hosted a Techathon event with the full Nmbrs technical team. We divided them up into five random teams and gave them 48 hours to build a game of their choice from scratch. They presented their new games to the entire company to play for a week and have them vote for their favourite game. Five completely different games were built, but all had one thing in common: they all tapped into existing stories or inside jokes from Nmbrs. It is difficult to build entirely new stories online (although we hope to one day find the solution for that!). But it is easy to call on stories that are already there and therefore make them stronger. Its details like these that count and make online experiences memorable.
Our conclusion: we still don’t know everything about online staff engagement, but we have some answers and we want to help you find yours.
At Locus Quest we don’t claim to have one golden solution, but we do know this: when it comes to online team building, employees prefer their staff engagement solutions to be worth their online time. We gamify aspects of a company’s processes, such as their onboarding process (as we did with here for Visma with their customised onboarding game) or their customer support tickets (as we did for Talpa Network with our Tickethon). We see that employees get both a sense of accomplishment and belonging. On top of that they share a fond memory together. They are working and learning while they are playing, discovering company values and coming across their team’s inside jokes.
Another important conclusion is about using online events to sustain and strengthen the stories that are the backbone of your company culture as we did during the Techathon at Nmbrs. We know offline events are irreplaceable. But for hybrid and remote companies with employees scattered across different countries, or even continents, logistically it is difficult to bring their employees together on a regular basis. This is where online events can help. They offer an opportunity to have moments throughout the year where your remote staff can connect with your company’s unique culture and with each other.
Ultimately, employees want more out of their online events. It is not enough just to have them play an online escape room together. This is why digital drinks and online escape rooms alone just don’t cut it anymore.