Turn Employee Screen Time Into Authentic Connection

Guided meditations, costumed game nights and regular holiday celebrations are helping these seven companies stay more connected than ever — even in a virtual setting.
Written by Tyler Holmes
May 27, 2022Updated: May 31, 2022

Humans share an unlikely trait with the technology that surrounds them. Like the prized mobile devices, computers and smart watches that require a strong Internet signal to function, humans also depend on a web of social connections to sustain peak performance. 

But what happens when those in-person interactions transition from the office to a fully remote or hybrid work setting?

While many employees around the country have expressed feelings of detachment through a lack of water cooler run-ins and coffee bar catch-ups, others have embraced virtual interactions across platforms like Slack as a way to show off their most authentic selves. Zoom meetings have evolved into virtual happy hours, costumed game nights and guided yoga sessions, allowing interactions to occur naturally compared to forced coexistence during a standard video call.

At Classkick, Director of People Operations Joy Moore expressed that employees have now been able to proudly display who they are more clearly than ever before thanks to working in their own personal spaces.

“Where we lose physical proximity, we gain all the personality that comes from joining meetings from our homes with pets, plants, family, decor and interests on display,” Moore said. “Set aside time to celebrate and see the humanity, cultural contributions and vulnerability in those you work with and it will create spaces of comfort and belonging.”

And while he may not be able to wander over to a co-worker’s desk for an impromptu 10-minute break anymore, Marcel Digital’s COO Tom Kelly said he’s still found a way to connect in an unconventional 8-bit form, courtesy of digital interactive platform Gather.

“We moved from a world where you had to ask ‘are you free for a Zoom?’ for a five minute conversation to a world where it’s as simple as walking your little 8-bit character over to the desk of the person you want to speak with,” Kelly said. “It sounds like a small thing, but creating an easier and more intuitive way to connect has been a massive win for remote working.”

Reestablishing social connections in a newly remote workforce hasn’t been a seamless process, but as tech companies continue to charge full speed ahead into the future, innovation is helping to beneficially bridge the gap and cultivate even stronger employee connections. Built In Chicago caught up with Moore, Kelly and five other leaders to learn how they’ve fostered a culture of continuous engagement — no matter the location.

 

Kim Carten
Employee Engagement Manager • 8th Light, Inc.

 

8th Light is a software consultancy that serves a wide range of organizations, from startups to Fortune 500 companies.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

I believe there’s no shortcut to building trust, and that’s the foundation for making meaningful connections. We make an effort to create a safe space for employees to share about themselves, their passions and their concerns and we try to earn their trust by following through. Follow-through looks different for each circumstance and we’ve tried a kitchen-sink approach that gives our team plenty of opportunities to connect on their terms — whether that’s a Slack channel that connects people randomly for coffee-length virtual conversations, or another that matches people with pen pals.

I also try to surface and celebrate our team’s humanity. In the last three months, we’ve celebrated Black History Month, Earth Day and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with educational posts, resources to learn more and also meal credits to order lunch to support owners in these communities.

I think one key to my success has been leading by example — and when we have themed virtual events, I dress up and go all out. This can be vulnerable and uncomfortable at times, but it’s helped me connect with our team in a more honest and authentic way.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

After spending five years working for 8th Light in sales, finance and office roles, this year I transitioned to working on employee engagement and the employee experience full time. I have built established relationships with team members all over the world, and my new job turns shared interests into connections and experiences.

In addition to one-on-one chats, I also curate weekly Slack conversations called “What’s Up Wednesday.” I start by sharing a quote, question or call to action, and it can be hit or miss. But some weeks we have vibrant threads that help me understand what’s resonating and then I can act on it. Over the last year, we’ve organized a number of events that never would have happened otherwise — including People of Color movie nights, Eurovision contests and a Music League competition that exposes all of us to new favorite songs each week.

No matter what activities we do, we’re always looking for passions that bring us together and forge connections. We understand that not everyone will participate in everything, and it’s up to us to make sure there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

I think one key to my success has been leading by example — and when we have themed virtual events, I dress up and go all out.”

 

What kind of response have you heard from your team?

We measure our team’s response through participation, and I’m always inspired by what our team can do for each other. I am finding the events that include people collaborating as a team are more engaging and rewarding than the events that involve answering trivia questions on your own. By collaborating on a shared goal, you connect more with your team.

My favorite example of how this works was a Superheroes and Villains Academy virtual event. I got into costume and prepared an introduction to generate excitement. I had requested that all participants wear a costume, and on the day of the event our Slack lit up with photos of everyone wearing their costume as superheroes or villains. It was awesome!

As I gain more experience in my role, we are also looking at more formal partnerships to build out a support network. Even then, the roots of any initiative remains with our team. One of our newer team members has worked as a yoga and mindfulness instructor, and we’re using their professional network to schedule guided meditations and chair yoga sessions for the company.

 

 

Joy Moore
Director of People Operations • Classkick

 

Classkick is a digital notebook app built for in-person, online or blended learning.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

Real connection happens naturally. The key is to create spaces where connections can thrive. Spaces that are safe, inclusive and encourage people to be their authentic selves. Spaces where people feel comfortable connecting are the best places to work and being remote shouldn’t stop you. Where we lose physical proximity, we gain all the personality that comes from joining meetings from our homes with pets, plants, family, decor and interests on display. Set aside time to celebrate and see the humanity, cultural contributions and vulnerability in those you work with and it will create spaces of comfort and belonging.

 

Whats the most successful strategy or initiative you've employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

We love events like escape rooms and hackathons. We also have book clubs around DEI, professional development and other interests. We just had the first hackathon of the year and it was really exciting. Teams made up of people from every area of the organization got to spend time scoping and building a demo of a product feature. The teams could decide to build anything and then present it for competition. This made space for creativity and collaboration. It also allowed some people not in engineering to experience the process of product development.

Real connection happens naturally — the key is to create spaces where connections can thrive.”

 

What kind of response have you heard from your team?

Our Hackathon was very well-received. People are excited to compete again and are already discussing ideas. It was great for relationship and trust building. It was also a great opportunity to see each other’s creativity and skill at work. Everyone brought something to the project and even those that did not participate could witness the excitement and share in the experience of building something new.

 

 

A group of Accelerated employees in the office.
ACCELERATED DIGITAL MEDIA

 

Melanie Scheer
Director of People Operations • Accelerated Digital Media

 

Accelerated Digital Media is a performance marketing agency offering services in search, social and programmatic advertising.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

Remote work can sometimes cause individuals to feel siloed or experience FOMO, especially when their colleagues are in the office. At ADM, we try to be extremely cognizant of how our fully remote team members are feeling. We use Slack for more than just work chatter: We have several channels devoted to sharing things like new songs or pictures of our pets just to keep things lively. We always take a “camera on” approach to our video meetings so we all get face time with each other, even from far away.

Every other week, we host an all-team meeting where we discuss successes and opportunities across all departments, along with pertinent updates about what our vendors are launching. When we have a new team member join the team, we have them present an employee spotlight in one of their first meetings to introduce themselves more personally to the team at large, and everyone makes a big effort to ask questions at the end and reach out later about their shared interests. While having too many meetings can sometimes be an overload, it’s important to have a healthy balance of in-the-moment video chats and pre-scheduled team calls to keep everyone engaged.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

ADM has been deliberate in fostering a culture of inclusiveness, and we never want someone’s location to hinder conversation or engagement. Even though we are a small organization, we recognized that creating a culture committee was imperative in our pursuit of an environment where our whole team could feel connected.

Our culture crew is a mix of both local and remote individuals who meet monthly to plan a series of events and activities throughout the year that keep everyone involved. We’ve hosted virtual happy hours with games or educational topics, March Madness brackets, contests that encourage healthy behavior and celebrations to honor team members’ birthdays and milestones — just to name a few!

We recognized that creating a culture committee was imperative in our pursuit of an environment where our whole team could feel connected.”

 

What kind of response have you heard from your team?

After each virtual get-together, leaders make sure to check in with team members to see how they enjoyed the event. We also administer biannual engagement surveys so we can better understand how our team is responding to our culture committee events, as well as how they feel about their work environment overall.

For a recent example, we hosted a team Jeopardy game where we matched fully remote team members with other individuals with whom they do not work on a regular basis.  They had Slack channels where they were able to chat and plan their response while competing in the game. Many of the remote team members loved the fact that they were able to get to know some of their colleagues even better during this happy hour.

 

 

A group of Elevate employees during a team outing on a boat at Lake Michigan.
ELEVATE K-12

 

Heather Sonenshein
Training Specialist, Talent Development • Elevate K-12

 

Elevate K-12 is an education technology and social impact company creating teaching and learning opportunities for teachers and students.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

To continue to feel the connection in a remote world, it takes time to plan activities to make sure we feel the company’s virtual warmth and culture: schedule a virtual lunch, send celebratory notes, collaborate more or just share some funny personal stories with your team. These are all things that would often happen organically when we were in the office together, and now just take a bit more planning and reflecting. Just because our surroundings and physical locations have changed, that doesn’t mean the connection does.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

One of the ways we create connection and inclusion at Elevate K-12 is through our FUNvengers activities. The FUNvengers is a committee of team members who plan virtual events for the entire organization, such as talent shows, trivia games and themed celebrations around various holidays and occasions. We love any reason to come together as a team and have a good time, from Earth Day to Mother’s Day to Pride month and everything in between!

Just because our surroundings and physical locations have changed, that doesn’t mean the connection does.”

 

What impact has this initiative had on Elevate K-12’s workforce and culture?

Our culture is about our people — who they are, what they do and how they do it. At the end of the day, we all care deeply about students and teachers and that’s what drives our actions. Our culture and value of human connection starts with our founder and CEO, Shaily Baranwal, who is spirited, honest and very personable.

Each one of us is unique but we all share the same values, whether we’re working in person or remote. Our culture is motivating, invigorating and inspiring. I can now say I wake up so excited to start the day — challenges happen, of course, but we attack them with positivity, grit and teamwork. If the culture is strongly demonstrated within a company, it can travel distances that reach the moon and stars.

 

 

A group of Avaneer Health employees on a video call.
AVANEER HEALTH

 

Dan Sanders
SVP Security, Service Delivery and Tech Ops • Avaneer Health

 

Avaneer Health is a member-based, secure and open network supporting utilities developed for and by the healthcare industry.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

In a hybrid workplace that includes remote and in-person team members, you need to put effort and focus on building connections and staving off isolation — which can happen easily in a remote environment.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

Connection is created with seven practices.

The Practices of Connection

  1. Praise each other’s work publicly. Use email and team video calls to be open, supportive, inclusive and uplifting.
  2. Normalize disagreeing with each other publicly and respectfully. Use radical, kind candor about challenges and differing viewpoints with the goal of coming to an understanding and to resolution when possible.
  3. Build products that align with each person’s values. Engage each person’s passions and align them with the company’s vision and goals at every level. Discuss them, connect the dots and recognize team member excitement.
  4. Together, choose which projects to prioritize and which to not prioritize. It’s important to give all a voice to be heard and be open about business choices.
  5. Give team members autonomy over their work. Leverage passionate accountability, which gives team members ownership of actions and outcomes.
  6. Trust team members to set their own schedules and manage timelines and outcomes.
  7. Respect people’s off hours — including completely disconnected vacations. It’s important to not push for more unless there is truly no other choice. If so, then overcompensate for that time as a return.

Engage each person’s passions and align them with the company’s vision and goals at every level.”

 

What impact has this initiative had on Avaneer’s workforce or culture?

When focusing on ruthlessly attacking isolation and building connections, we have seen passionate engagement to help drive to launching our network and solutions. Our teams hear every Friday during our whole company call — called our Fri-YAY Team Meeting — that “we are in this together and your contribution is critically important. We need your awesomeness to be successful.” Team members use the Fri-YAY Team Meeting to call out achievements for the week, celebrate team members that have gone above and beyond to unite the team around the shared goals.

 

 

A group of Inspirant employees during a team outing.
INSPIRANT GROUP

 

Jennifer Guisbert
Director, Learning and Development • 10Pearls

 

Inspirant Group is an end-to-end consulting firm that strives to set its clients up for success through comprehensive business, technology and talent strategies.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

Relationship building through meaningful communication is the cornerstone to creating real, human connections in any workplace. Remote teams who exercise thoughtful and purposeful communications can easily replicate the personal interactions that are organically created in an in-office environment. Founded as a remote-first company in 2017, Inspirant Group finds meaningful ways to add relationship building to day-to-day interactions.

We set time aside in each meeting for informal “catch up” conversations. These small glimpses into everyone’s personal lives are a great way to build relationships. We also include icebreakers in every large team call. The ownership of planning the icebreaker changes each week and it really brings out the creativity in the group. This quickly becomes everyone’s favorite meeting of the week because it builds true connections among the team.

It’s important to keep in mind that there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to building relationships. Don’t be afraid to try new things and ask your team for their contributions, approaches and feedback. Creating a rich culture within a remote workplace is everyone’s responsibility.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

Inspirant Group has always prioritized personal relationships, even beyond one’s immediate project team. Buddy chats were instrumental in my onboarding and are a great way to get to know the other team members — called “Unconsultants” — from outside of my practice group. These chats paired a new team member with a veteran, no matter their role in the company. I loved that it provided new people with the opportunity to talk to members of the leadership team one on one. How often do you get to have face time with the CEO as a new team member?

As Inspirant Group has grown, we have modified our approach but never lost sight of how important these connection points are for our team members and to retain our strong company culture. Today, we have Groupies: Small groups that include cross representation of different practice areas, new team members and veterans. While the dynamic has changed somewhat, the opportunity for fellowship remains the same.

It is important to point out that none of these activities are forced upon team members. We encourage our team members to connect in ways that work for them. There is no better way to reduce engagement than by making it mandatory.

It’s important to keep in mind that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to building relationships.”

 

What impact has this initiative had on Inspirant’s workforce or culture?

Coming to work as your authentic self is a tenet at Inspirant Group. Putting into practice thoughtful, purposeful and meaningful communication contributes to a foundation of trust that helps people feel comfortable being who they are. The opportunities to share remotely creates a strong sense of community. People find themselves sharing silly videos, GIFs or an inside joke creating a casual family feel.

I am always amazed at the close connection that develops over time and is strengthened when we meet in person at one of our all-hands gatherings. I can walk into a meeting room and see someone on the team, who I have only connected with remotely — sometimes for months — and immediately feel comfortable and ready to deepen my knowledge about who they are and what they are passionate about.

Building these types of relationships through a combination of remote and in-person communication allows our teams to build trust over time, speak candidly, seek creative solutions and lean on each other to enhance each other’s ideas. Work should be fun and fulfilling, and the Inspirant Group’s ability to prioritize relationships allows our teams to unleash their best potential.

 

 

A group of Marcel Digital employees during a team outing.
MARCEL DIGITAL

 

Tom Kelly
Chief Operating Officer • Marcel Digital

 

Marcel Digital is a website development and digital marketing agency.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

Embrace the change and empower our team to take advantage of the opportunity.

We are a company that prides itself on our authenticity and accountability. We were one of the first agencies in Chicago to close our office in the early stages of the pandemic. Since that moment we have worked tirelessly to over-communicate and understand the needs of our team to be able to quickly evolve as the world around us changes. 

We are taking a “test and learn” approach that applies to both people and technology. We try new things, keep what works and lose what doesn’t. This includes piloting new technologies that have truly changed the way we work and created new points of connection between team members. We also created a layered approach to getting together in person: to work, to socialize and to further our philanthropic efforts in the community.

This is all easy to say, but takes a lot of hard work coupled with a willingness to stick together to navigate it as a team. I am incredibly proud of the work done to this point and looking at our rate of growth coupled with our high tenure and low staff turnover is a true testament to what we have achieved to this point.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

One of the standouts initiatives was the introduction of a platform called Gather, discovered by Jinny, our head of admin. 

Gather is one of many emerging platforms that creates a more natural, fun way to connect throughout the working day. We moved from a world where you had to ask “are you free for a Zoom?” for a five minute conversation or try to use Slack’s less-than-impressive video capabilities to a world where it’s as simple as walking your little 8-bit character over to the desk of the person you want to speak with and immediately being able to speak with them. It sounds like a small thing, but creating an easier, more seamless and intuitive way to connect has been a massive win for remote working.

Plus we have a little 8-bit office dog that follows you around which I class as a win!

We have worked tirelessly to over-communicate and understand the needs of our team to be able to quickly evolve as the world around us changes.”

 

What kind of response have you heard from your team?

Overall, very positive, and as a recent example, I’d like to share what one of our web developers, Casey Jordan, had to say:

“A few weeks ago, the dev team had to put in some extra time to meet a deadline on a project. In order to get our questions answered and code reviews done as efficiently as possible, we sat at a virtual table together all week as we worked. While still having all the flexibility of working from home, we were able to communicate and collaborate as if we were in an office together. Not only did it make us more efficient but it made for a much more enjoyable experience being able to work with each other in that way.”

 

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