Humans are most definitely social creatures. While there are plenty of benefits to working remotely, it can be lonely. So it’s important to take extra steps to engage remote employees.
An MIT survey found 22% of employees often or always felt isolated from others when working from home.
While many companies have transitioned to a hybrid and remote workplace, employees are feeling more and more isolated, and companies are struggling to connect with them in a meaningful way. Virtual gatherings, happy hours and social events were necessary for much of 2022, but over time attendance at virtual social gatherings has waned.
We can’t overlook the importance of friendships at work. People who report having a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their job. And better engagement leads to increased productivity and retention.
Today many companies have started supplementing their virtual get togethers with periodic in-person gatherings that are held quarterly or annually to build up the team. And they work: Anyone who has attended an in-person all-hands meeting with hundreds of people from around the world in the same room knows that the social opportunities are invigorating and fun.
Let’s paint the picture. Imagine 100 people gathering in person. Some people arrive early, grab some coffee, and chat. Eventually everyone shuffles in, takes a seat and says hello to the people around them. There is generally a stage or screen, and someone welcomes the group, followed by a series of presenters sharing news, updates and recognition. At the end of the presentation, people don’t magically disappear. There is more chatting and networking. A young ambitious worker networks with the CEO. Others catch up with folks who they haven’t seen or spoken to in a while, or ask questions about a particular project.
These face-to-face meetings offer incredible value in terms of bonding and relationship building. But for remote or distributed teams, they only happen a few times a year, and come with a hefty price tag as well as the inconvenience of travel. So how can we replicate the value of these in-person social opportunities on a more regular basis?
The new trend developing is to add “social bookends” to more frequent or daily virtual meetings, allowing your team to get to know each other, have fun, and interact in the same way that you would face-to-face at an in-person gathering. Rather than relying on an annual in-person gathering, these regular social interactions can help to change the culture of your company to one that puts relationships and friendships at the forefront.
What is a Social Bookend?
What is a social bookend? It simply refers to the 5-15 minutes before the actual content of the meeting starts, where people organically break into small groups and chat – just like you would in real life. It’s a small chunk of time carved out for no other reason than to help your team get to know each other and grow closer. And to give time for individuals to assess and meet their social objectives.
One person’s goal may not go beyond a simple, “Hi, how are you?” But for another, it may be critical to get a few minutes with that VP whose support is crucial to securing a promotion. It would be awkward to send an “out of the blue” calendar invite for a meeting with that same VP, but “bumping into” them before a meeting is perfectly natural.
For company leaders, social bookends provide time for team members to identify shared values and understand commonalities. This is one of the core pillars of building relationships, and it’s not easily done if no time exists for it. Social bookends to meetings provide time for digging deeper to understand what makes your colleagues tick, what they value most both in and out of the workplace, and what you may or may not have in common. You will start to form bonds with certain colleagues, just like you would in real life. And thus, a potential new friendship can be born, allowing for potentially happier employees who work better together.
So how do you get started? Sometimes these conversations start organically, and other times your team may need a little nudge. You probably have a pretty good idea of how much interaction and engagement you would see at the beginning of any virtual meeting with your team, if you don’t just dive into the content immediately.
If your team is generally lacking in conversation during those first five minutes, try prompting your team with an icebreaker or conversation starter. This can be anything, work related or not. What’s your favorite vacation spot? What show are you currently binge watching? What’s something you have learned about yourself in the past month? The topic isn’t really important. But each one offers an opportunity to get to know your team better and discover potential shared values.
Or, try a small group activity or game. Some popular ones include Two Truths and a Lie, Rose/Bud/Thorn, or Would You Rather. It might take a few tries to find something that really resonates with the team and encourages conversation. What works for one company might not go over so well for another.
Prepare the team
Before you dive into these social activities, it might be helpful to have a conversation with your executive team about the goal. If everyone is in widespread agreement that building better relationships will help your team work better together, engage remote employees and have more enjoyment in their work, then you might not need to have a conversation ahead of time. But if you just start throwing conversation starters at the team without explaining what’s going on, you might get some odd looks.
Keep it short & sweet
HR leaders understand the importance of keeping things short and sweet. Take, for example, learning and development programs. One of the best ways to keep the attention of your audience for any topic is to break the content down into small digestible chunks. Social interactions could similarly be broken down into small, daily pieces that are integrated into your team’s interactions.
Use the right platform
In order to make social bookends work for virtual meetings, you need to use a platform that enables organic networking, movement and the forming and reforming of conversational groups, in addition to offering standard presentation tools. Putting people in rigid breakout rooms won’t work.
Leverage internal influencers
Every company has a few influencers whose opinion is valued and can go a long way to affecting the rest of the team. If adding in these daily social interactions is something that you need help with, leverage these internal influencers to help. Ideally, these people are already outgoing and social, and making fun conversation comes naturally to them.
Don’t wait until your next annual company gathering to start building a culture that values friendships and relationships. Over time, adding in these snacks of socialization to engage remote employees can go a long way to building a positive employee experience, no matter where your team is located.