For months now, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a halt to in-person socialising and team-building rituals by forcing workmates to hunker down in their home offices. But even in isolation, workgroups still depend on each other to achieve their common goals. They are turning to digital platforms for communication and camaraderie.
Our teams may look different these days, but they can maintain their cohesion and remain effective if they trust each other, said Tara Powers, owner of Powers Resource Center, a training consultancy based in Boulder, Colorado.
“The best way for colleagues to preserve trust, even when they are not physically together, is to continue connecting on a personal level using technology,” she said.
Powers and innovative company leaders described creative ways employees can use digital tools to stay connected in tough times.
Liven up digital meetings. Building relationships comes naturally in a physical office where colleagues are together 40 hours a week, Powers said. Conversations may come up as you sit next to your co-workers or run into each other in the breakroom. “But in our work-at-home environment, we have to intentionally create the time and space to connect socially,” she said.
One way to do this is by injecting some fun and education into online meetings.
Powers described two ideas that turn fun into productivity: a company quiz bowl and a 15-minute coffee-and-learn exercise. “A company quiz bowl is a great way to build camaraderie among members of a team or kick off a major project,” Powers said.
The quiz bowl can include a variety of categories including arts, science, literature, sports, current events, and even information about your company or firm. “It’s a great way to reinforce company values, products, and history,” she said.
Coffee-and-learn sessions are short presentations by co-workers on literally anything. From cooking to do-it-yourself projects, colleagues can have fun while learning something new. “This is another way to close the digital gap between teammates, and can be especially valuable for international colleagues,” Powers said.
At Shaynaco, a CPA firm with five employees in Gallipolis, Ohio, the employees consider each other members of an extended family, said owner Shayna Chapman, CPA/CITP, CGMA. Monday morning staff meetings usually include a healthy discussion about their personal lives. “We always take 10 to 15 minutes to talk about what we did over the weekend, and we enjoy sharing photos about things that are happening in our lives,” she said.
Plan special online activities. Amid the pandemic, Cherry Bekaert, an accounting firm with headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, was tasked with converting its 1,200 employees in 20 locations across the southeastern US and Texas to home-based offices. Through it all they have maintained personal connections.
“Our firm developed a lot of creative tools and digital outlets to help foster relationships so no one would feel alone,” said Cate Miller, senior manager, talent development for Cherry Bekaert.
One successful activity involves themed webinars.
“‘Mindful Monday’ is a great way to start the week,” Miller said. “The firm continues the theme on ‘Technology Tuesday’ and then moves into ‘Wellness Wednesday’,” she added. The webinars feature activities geared towards those themes, like meditation exercises, technology tips and tricks, and workout sessions. On Fridays, the firm invites speakers on a variety of topics. “We even fold in discussions around current events and what is happening in our communities,” Miller said.
Bond around food. Workplace lunches and dinners likely top the list of a team’s most beloved rituals. Powers described a client who proved that mealtime fun doesn’t have to stop just because everyone is not together at the office. The client sent a meal recipe to each member of his team and invited them to prepare it. He also shipped each person a bottle of wine and some fine chocolate, and they gathered in an online dinner party to enjoy the meals they prepared. “They turned a simple Zoom meeting into an experience,” Powers said.
Create digital adventures. When stay-at-home orders were issued, Cherry Bekaert managers realised if they wanted to maintain their internship cycle, they would have to modify it. So they converted their 12-week summer internship programme into a two-week online experience using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and TalentLMS, a cloud-based learning management system.
The main attraction was “Intern Island”, a digital adventure modelled on the Survivor reality television show, complete with tropical backdrops and digital competitions based on accounting practices. “We created a series of technical challenges for the interns to work on together as teams, and we pitted our different offices against each other,” Miller said. The interns were eligible to win prizes throughout the event. The final survivor standing won the grand prize — a conversation with the firm’s CEO.
In addition to the fun and games, the firm developed an online orientation process for the interns, assigned them coursework, and arranged digital meetings so the interns could connect with their assigned offices and get a sense of the Cherry Bekaert firm culture, Miller said.
Plan small surprises. Chapman wanted to thank her employees for their hard work and perseverance, so she ordered gift baskets to be delivered to their homes. Then she turned this simple gesture into a party. During an online staff meeting, she asked her team to show off the contents of their baskets because each employee received different surprises. “I assembled the baskets to reflect aspects of each employee’s personality,” she explained.
To create the special surprise, Chapman reflected on her close-knit employees who have worked together for up to 18 years, through marriages, births, and serious illnesses. She considers them among her dearest friends. “We have a history together just like a family,” she said.
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.