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Together again: Reengaging employees IRL after a year of Zoom

Don’t underestimate the value of a good icebreaker.

Together again: Reengaging employees IRL after a year of Zoom
[Photo Source: NDABCREATIVITY/Adobe Stock]
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Over the last 15 months, Vermont—where my company is based—has often had the lowest rates of COVID infections and deaths in the country. On June 14, Vermont’s governor officially announced the end of all COVID-related restrictions thanks to our 80% vaccination rate—which felt like permission for life to return to normal. For our employees, who’ve been fully remote since March 2020, it presented a significant transition from remote work back to in person. We were committed to doing it in a way that bolstered engagement, reconnected colleagues, carried forward our greatest learnings, and built us back stronger. Here’s how we approached it.

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TAKE A BEAT TO LISTEN

Before we began planning our transition back to the office, we surveyed employees to collect anonymous feedback about what worked about remote work, what they missed about being in person, and what concerns they had about returning. Rather than a top-down fiat, we needed our process to be inclusive, considerate, and thoughtful. Our team is predominantly female—many of whom are also parents—and the survey results were clear: Employees appreciated the flexibility of working from home and reported fewer distractions, less commute time, and more time with their family. Yet, many also recognized the value of in-person collaboration. Our leadership team used the survey responses to shape our return-to-the-office reentry, as well as our new hybrid policy giving employees the choice of one day a week in the office.

RECONNECT WITH INTENTION

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It had been 15 months since our team had been together in person, and, with many new employees (some had just started when the pandemic hit, others were hired during the pandemic), we wanted the transition back to the office to feel purposeful. While we were returning in some capacity to in-person work, we wanted to mark for our team that it wasn’t business as usual. We designed a two-day, in-office convergence (in our business we don’t “retreat”) with a Zoom option to reconnect and reengage with both our company and mission.

CELEBRATE! YOU NOT ONLY SURVIVED, MAYBE YOU EVEN THRIVED.

After so much time on Zoom, being together felt energizing. One of the first things we did was acknowledge the challenges of the past year by awarding trail names—in the spirit of long-haul hiking—to recognize the skills each employee had exhibited throughout the pandemic. From our CFO who traveled with his family of six in an RV (“Still Married”) to our social media maven who often worked from her parents’ home in MA (“Critical Mass”), these names were both accurate and in good fun, but more importantly, they were symbols of our resilience—both as individuals and as a company.

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GET COMFORTABLE IRL

Most of us hadn’t been in a group setting in over a year, and we weren’t even sure if we remembered how to connect IRL—are business hugs still a thing? We dedicated a significant portion of our first day to ice-breaking activities that helped us get reacquainted. One easy exercise for a larger group is the sorting exercise. Divide the space into three areas labeled A, B, and C, and ask the group to sort themselves in response to a series of questions. For example: Comedy, documentary, or action movie; steak, lobster, or mac and cheese; individual sport, team sport, or outdoor sport. This exercise got people moving, revealed surprising personal connections (our product manager and digital manager both grew up in foreign countries—who knew?), and helped everyone feel more comfortable and connected face-to-face.

FOCUS ON YOUR SHARED HISTORY—AND FUTURE

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Once our team was energized and animated, we presented a detailed overview of our company’s origin story—complete with awkward selfies my co-founder and I took in the early days—to remind us all where we’d started and how far we’d come. Sharing this history grounded our newest members in our collective past, but it also served as an important reminder to our entire team of the challenges we’d encountered and our record of overcoming them. We also used the opportunity to share some high-level news (that had been kept a secret until this day) to let our team know that the future was bright with promise and new possibilities.


Sascha Mayer is the CEO and Co-founder of Mamava. Mamava, based in Burlington, VT, is the leading expert in lactation space design.