2020 has been a sea-change year for workplaces as COVID-19 sent businesses scrambling to adjust to remote work. Some offices that had offered flexible policies were prepared for this transition. But for most companies, remote work had been a rarity reserved for executives and salespeople who travel frequently.
Pre-pandemic, only 7% of U.S. workers had the option to telecommute. Now, 42% of the employable U.S. population is working from home full-time, with about one-quarter considered essential workers and one-third unemployed.
At Everlaw, our company culture had been built around in-person activities and interactions, as the majority of our team worked closely on two floors in the same building. Our leadership team felt strongly that face-to-face communication was critical to employees being efficient and productive. And so we were concerned that people working from home would miss out on the full experience of working on teams and enjoying the strong company culture that we carefully fostered.
Without in-person meetings, shared lunches, happy hours, and even spontaneous chats in the hallway, people would miss key touch points with co-workers to bond, brainstorm, and collaborate. And with new hires, we felt that in-person activities were all the more important to help them feel part of the team. Collaboration is part of our company’s DNA and personal interactions have always been a focus.
However, necessity is the mother of invention, and we managed to do a fairly fast about-face when the Bay Area announced shelter-in-place orders on March 16.
Cultivating Remote Innovation
Without the ability to do face-to-face communication and collaboration, we had to be creative in enabling connections and still making work fun. First, we had to quickly build an entire remote working infrastructure from the ground up. As a result, our plan was to act first and then fine-tune once everyone was home.
Within four days of closing the office, we hosted our first CEO-led “Ask Me Anything.” Also, in that first month, we launched new activities and created a “Virtually Connected” page on the intranet to promote different programs. We facilitated a learning and development workshop series after employees told us they wanted tips on prioritizing and adapting to change. We also created a drop-in Zoom room called “Snack Zroom,” which allows team members to connect with others for a few minutes, designed to replicate the casual nature of running into someone in the kitchen.
These programs allowed people to feel a sense of togetherness with their teams, and while nothing can fully replace in-person collaboration, it was a step in the right direction toward revitalizing the live interactions to which we had grown so accustomed.
Next, we wanted to ensure that employees could manage remote work long-term. We were particularly concerned about new hires, who don’t know anyone or understand how we operate. We typically fly new hires to Oakland for a two-week onboarding session.
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Since we couldn’t do that, we created activities that would help them build personal connections with staff in a fun, informal atmosphere. We hosted online chat rooms, organized a virtual trivia game, and introduced new-hire cohort check-ins at the beginning of each day. Each cohort chooses a name and the employee experience team designs a sticker through Etsy that represents each group.
Pre-pandemic, we had regular sales call blitzes and all-hands meetings. Employees would hunker down doing crossword puzzles together, eat catered lunches and celebrate birthdays and other events. These in-person activities were common and made coming to work fun. Consequently, we knew we’d have to come up with activities that replicated these social interactions in ways that felt organic in a virtual setting. We brainstormed ways to do that and came up with ideas that employees say are even more interactive and creative than what we had been doing.
One popular activity is the TED-style “Everlawyer Talks,” which feature employee presentations on a topic of their choice, from astrology, professional DJing, performing in bands, perfumery, and photography. These talks have enabled us to learn about our colleagues’ hobbies and passions in ways we never would have before, helping bring employees together and fight those feelings of isolation. Other activities and resources include:
- Ongoing Zoom background competitions, which give winners $50 to donate to the organization of their choice on behalf of Everlaw. We’ve hosted a virtual event for contest winners to discuss why they chose those charities.
- “EmPAWee of the Month” photo page, which features pictures of employees’ pets. Each month, there is a drawing for a team member to receive a pet portrait from a local artist.
- Movie Club for film buffs to share their love of movies.
- Virtual beverage breaks, where team members are randomly matched in pairs or foursomes.
Initially, we were concerned that employees wouldn’t be excited, given that they could easily skip activities that weren’t in the office, so we decided to find out if people were participating in activities and how they felt about them. So about two months into shelter-in-place, we distributed our quarterly satisfaction survey. We wanted to make sure we were providing online activities that employees felt were worthwhile but didn’t feel obligated to participate in, and that our efforts were making people happy at work. Our fears were unfounded. Employee satisfaction for social events 5% higher than indicated in the past two surveys, which were both pre-pandemic.
Plus, if an activity isn’t popular, we can consider it an experiment and try something else. And we’re still learning every day. For instance, we found it tricky to organize large-group interactions on Zoom, so we’ve encouraged smaller group activities, such as virtual wine tasting, a ramen cooking class, and an online “walking tour” of Prague. This enables people to maintain more in-depth conversations without the confusion and distraction of talking over each other.
COVID-19 has changed the workplace for everyone, and while the need to shift quickly to remote work pushed us out of our comfort zone, it has led to productive, creative, and unique engagements with each other. We don’t know what the future holds — whether we’ll be hybrid-remote or when it will be possible to return to the office — but we have learned skills and techniques that will help us stay connected and have fun and engaging interactions regardless of what the future brings.