COVID-19 changed the way we all live, work, and learn in unprecedented ways. When the pandemic hit the U.S. early in March of 2020, Convene had to shut down all of our locations, similar to many companies in the hospitality space. At the same time, we quickly pivoted Convene’s business model and strategy to be digital-first, launched new operating standards to ensure the safety of our team members and guests, and put forth organizational changes to the way we communicated and worked with each other from our homes. Every day in this new world has brought countless challenges, especially to our team of hospitality professionals who are used to working with their teams and serving customers in person.

In my role as Chief of Staff at Convene, I work closely with our executive team and oversee what I call the “3 C’s” at the company: culture, communications, and change. 

Convene has been named a “Best Small/Midsize Workplace” by Fortune Magazine for the last four years. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, our employee satisfaction scores have remained high; over the course of one year, our scores only dropped by 0.1 percentage point (4.1 out of 5 at the end of 2019 to 4.0 out of 5 at the end of 2020 using the Gallup Q12 measures). 

We’ve now been working in our constantly evolving COVID-19 world for nearly one year. Here are some of Convene’s recommended tactics for successfully keeping dispersed team members informed, connected, and engaged. 

1. Adjust your communications cadence—and then adjust it again.

What may have worked well for your team before COVID-19 definitely isn’t working now, and what may have worked in the early days of COVID-19 likely isn’t working now either. At Convene, we took the approach of communicating with our employees more often than we ever had before over the past year. Before the pandemic, we did large, half-day town halls once per quarter, but we quickly pivoted to an all-hands meeting with the entire company every week (starting in April) using our virtual meetings platform. Things were evolving too often to do anything less, and our employees deserved to know the most up-to-date information as soon as it was available. Which is related to the next piece of advice…

2. Communicate often, even when you may not have new information to share.

In times of crisis, stress, or immense change (all of which we’ve experienced a lot of in the past year), people can’t absorb as much information as they may have been able to before. Show your team that you are empathetic to all of the uncertainty they may be experiencing. Even if you don’t have every answer to every question, providing updates as to when you think you will know more (e.g., “We don’t have this information today, but we do expect to have it ready by X date”) is better than saying nothing at all. 

3. Create two-way feedback loops.

Making sure your employees have an easy-to-use mechanism to feel “heard” is a must-have, just don’t let their feedback get lost in the abyss. Show that you are listening and taking action on insights you receive. We’ve found that it works best to have dedicated Q&A time each week during our company-wide town hall (or sometimes hosting a Q&A-only town hall). It was a good way to set the tone for transparency and show the team that there was a platform to voice individual feedback and have it be addressed on a regular basis. We sometimes collect anonymous Q&A via Google Forms to organize it all by categories/themes, which has been best for longer-form Q&A sessions. For a real-time Q&A, we recommend using Sli.do to gather and display questions during a live event. 

Another feedback loop option to consider is opening up “office hours” with company leadership every month. You can use this as a time for individual teams to meet with their team leaders, or for the whole company to have dedicated 1:1 time with the CEO (or other leaders). It’s a fantastic way for employees of all levels or tenure to enjoy valuable time with company decision makers.

4. Find ways to “surprise & delight” your employees. 

While working from home certainly has its benefits, it’s also exhausting, lonely, and can be burnout-inducing. Convene is a hospitality company at heart, so we’ve spent a lot of time thinking of ways to ensure that our team feels supported during the pandemic. One of the ways we’ve done that is through “surprise and delight.” While this sometimes meant partnering with Caroo to send care packages to every employee’s home, we also did a lot of work to provide time and space for employees to unplug. A low-cost, high-impact way to do this was providing “surprise” days off for employees to focus on their mental health. When the murder of George Floyd took place last summer and re-ignited the Black Lives Matter movement, we gave employees a day off to focus on processing the news and get involved in their communities. We also implemented “Focus Fridays” company-wide (and went as far as to block everyone’s calendars for the full day) to give employees time and space to get work done ahead of the weekend.

5. Launch new or reinvigorate your existing employee resources and interest groups.

An Employee Resource Group (ERG) is a voluntary, employee-led group that fosters deeper community and supports a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. ERG’s are composed of people with similar identities and/or backgrounds and allies who support these groups. Fostering communities for your LGBTQ+ or BIPOC employees is crucial to forging connection during this dispersed time. At Convene, our ERGs have hosted meaningful moderated virtual conversations during the pandemic about racial injustice, coming out, gender in politics, and intersectionality. Several other smaller, more niche groups have been encouraged to be formed as well (e.g., parent support and recipe sharing, to name a few) to drive connection among our disparate employee population. We’ve also found ways to integrate these groups in our broader communications strategy by highlighting the group’s members and events in weekly all-company communications.

6. Don’t underestimate the importance of employee recognition program(s).

Employee recognition is more important than ever, and celebrating even the smallest of wins is important to keep the momentum going and your employees engaged. It’s recommended to have programs for both peer-to-peer recognition as well as more formal acknowledgement of employee contributions by their team leaders. At Convene, we created  a simple online form for employees to recognize the incredible work of their peers each week.It has become an effective way to consistently celebrate wins. More formal quarterly and/or annual award programs that require nominations and company-wide recognition are also important in showing employee appreciation (while supporting retention efforts). Even the simple acknowledgement of employee birthdays or work anniversaries goes a long way.

7. Encourage growth and development.

The same way Convene invested in our communications during COVID-19, we also invested in our Learning & Development programs, offering live and facilitated trainings to the company every week. This was important in showing our employees that we were invested in their future and wanted to support their personal and professional growth. Also, it may seem counterintuitive to conduct reviews in a world where all the goals that were set in 2020 likely went out the window, but it is also important to maintain the consistency of your annual and mid-year review processes and provide employees an opportunity to assess their progress and work on a growth plan with their managers.