Keeping Virtual Team Engagement Fresh: There’s Always Room for New Opportunities

What does team engagement look like in a virtual setting? While managing all of our new priorities and responsibilities, it is important that we not lose focus on taking care of our team. These are the people who need our support now more than ever as they work to create major changes in their programs and operations. According to Gallup, only 15% of employees feel “engaged” in their companies.  

Having a pulse on your employee engagement helps you understand if your employees feel committed to your workplace and like they have a sense of purpose or if they are simply putting in their time in order to receive a paycheck. Gallup’s research shows that “engaged employees produce better outcomes than other employees.”  

Since many departments have not experienced having full teams working remotely in the past, many of us are still figuring out how to ensure our staff are not feeling isolated but engaged and connected as a team as we experience the COVID-19 pandemic together. 

Following are examples of how various teams at ACUI member institutions have created more virtual engagement and recognition opportunities. These are not “one size fits all” events and activities. Before implementing these, you must consider the size of your team, their relationship and comfort with one another, and if you have a budget that you are able to spend for recognition and team development. It is also important to recognize that all of these do not have to be planned by the manager of your team. You can form a subcommittee who works on team engagement initiatives or even have the team members themselves take the lead on various activities. The important takeaway from these examples is that keeping your team engaged and connected is a process. It is a combination of coaching your members on how to propel forward and also cultivating relationships where they feel stronger as a team while recognizing and praising the individuals. It isn’t an easy process, but it is an essential one. 

A photo collage from the University of North Carolina–Wilmington thanking a student employee.

Virtual Celebrations 

Many teams are hosting virtual celebrations via Zoom. Some are creating a uniform virtual background for the occasion and some are including organized activities as well. One team at The University of Texas–Austin hosted a virtual baby shower for an employee. They created custom Zoom backgrounds and also had cookies delivered to her home from a local vendor. During the Zoom meeting, they incorporated semi-structured activities such as sharing links to their favorite children’s books and a “Guess That Baby” game. Someone asked the team for photos from their childhood in advance and created a Powerpoint presentation with the photos, then shared their screen with the rest of the group. Even though this was a very low cost event, it still was impactful to the staff member being recognized and allowed for the team to relate on a different level.  

Many teams are also recognizing their graduate assistants for completing their roles and graduating. These are happening via social media, such as the collage posted below or via Zoom celebrations. One team even hosted a celebration with a karaoke-style game with graduation-related songs! 

Snail Mail 

All team members may not feel comfortable sharing their personal addresses, but several teams have mentioned mailing birthday cards, handwritten notes of appreciation, or even treats or care packages to their employees. This is a safe way to let a staff member know that they are acknowledged and appreciated. It can also help with feelings of isolation to have some type of tangible reminder of their achievements. 

Creating More Opportunities to Check In 

One common thread that we have found is that many departments are hosting more check-in opportunities than when they were working together in person. Managers who wouldn’t typically meet with employees at all levels are having more formal and informal check-ins with staff from graduate assistants to assistant directors. Senior leadership members are creating more virtual office hours to hear from their employees and address their needs. This helps employees feel that they and their opinions are relevant and valued. Feeling supported from upper administration is crucial to sustained engagement and connection among employees. 

Intentional Social Programming

While working on campus, teams could often start conversations while passing by one another in the office or get a coffee to catch up. With our new reality, many teams are increasing social opportunities for their staff members. 

One team at The University of TexasAustin took part of their weekly staff meeting for “show and tell.” The only rule was to grab something from their homes to show and share with the rest of their team. This allowed their team to learn more about one another and what is important to them. This same team also had a themed staff meeting where they all wore silly hats. While neither of these events were very challenging and were only as personal as the staff members wanted, they served as a morale boost and allowed the team to deepen their relationships. 

It's Hat Day for a gathering of the University of Texas–Austin Student Programs Team.

Other teams are having virtual lunch meetings with no agenda except to catch up—which often include appearances from family members and pets, sharing quarantine recipes, hosting bingo or trivia for the team via Zoom, and utilizing their chat platform for more fun things (memes, articles, photos of pets or families). 

If your team is larger, you could do an event similar to University of Southern Indiana’s 4@4 Game Show. To learn more about how they are hosting this via Instagram Live, picking student contestants, and awarding prizes, see the Bulletin story “Games Shows as Engagement Tools Using Instagram Live.” Some universities are also highlighting the work of specific employees. At Clemson, they are publicly posting the many acts of service of their employees as a way to recognize and bring together the community. 

Virtual Community Service 

Another great way to connect with your teammates and also contribute to a greater cause at the same time is through virtual community service events. Case Western Reserve University has an incredible resource on their website with various virtual service activities. These are for people with various skills and talents and range from short-term to long-term. Operation Warm has another list of virtual volunteer events. Even if these are more individual activities, you could always encourage your team to sign up for an opportunity, allow them to do this during their work hours, and then debrief it as a full group. Volunteering allows you to connect with a community and have a greater impact but also helps you build skills such as communication, problem-solving, and teamwork.   

Teams should work together to find out what will work for them. We must recognize that we all have boundaries and not to expect our team members to want to spend all of their free time on additional Zoom calls, but there are lots of ways, both large and small to bring more connection and recognition to the staff who continues to propel us forward through the challenges. Although we may not physically be together, we can still maintain connection and continue to thrive in our teams.

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