As many have become remote workers seemingly overnight, and with some degree of social distancing guidelines likely to remain in place, engaging employees virtually is something businesses can no longer damn with the lazy, halcyon wish of, “Oh, we’re already doing that.” It’s time to own it. Now.

Necessity is driving platform adoption. The number of daily Microsoft Teams users has doubled over just four months, and now exceeds 44 million. However, it’s important to remember the difference between simply being on a platform and utilizing it effectively. Superficial usage statistics can be deceiving, and it is far more difficult to capture employees’ attention from afar than it is in person. From setting up and maintaining a home office, to teaching and caring for children, to anxiously tracking COVID updates and absorbing the financial consequences of an instant recession, distractions are everywhere and there is a war for employees’ attention. To cut through the noise and reach them, we need to ground our approach to virtual engagement in deep humanity.

In other words, empathize with your people by remembering they’re people. That requires making it less about the platform (with apologies to Slack, Jabber, Quip, et al) and more about offering support and generating an emotional connection. Think about what your employees really need right now, and help them get it by employing a “jobs-to-be-done” framework. That is, consider what jobs employees would “hire” a platform or communication channel to do for them. Start with the basics. Things like:

  • Receiving inspiration and motivation to persevere
  • Connecting with key customers and stakeholders
  • Reviewing up-to-date insights on the state of the business
  • Disseminating information to others
  • Maintaining effective working relationships (while also fighting isolation)
  • Sharing and receiving feedback

Think utility and what’s in it for them, rather than clever tactics. It’s okay to be playful, but try not to get gimmicky. Strike the right balance. If your office’s April “chili cook-off” is coming up, grab the adobo because you’d better believe your people will want to still hold it remotely as a means to maintain a sense of normalcy. A virtual happy hour now and then? Absolutely, but watch out for “forced fun,” which rarely works regardless of the channel.

Consider the old advertising adage that seven touchpoints are needed to get someone to pay attention to anything. Think of how you would sequence those touches for your people. Think of who among your leaders they need to hear from, and what you want to feel in regards to what they say. Make it bidirectional. Ask for feedback, do more pulse-checks, pose questions. And lastly, and probably most importantly, plan for a great deal of failure. Even at its best, employee engagement is hard to earn (according to Gallup, only 35 percent of today’s workforce is highly engaged). In today’s environment, we all have license to try things and make mistakes. When things return to normal, your organization will be better connected, more engaged, more technologically advanced and more collaborative based on the experiments you undertake today.