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Builders Conference / Culture / Philly Tech Week / Remote work

To increase employee engagement, learn the ‘art of intentional gathering’ and let people feel safe to be creative

Insights from a lightning talks session at the 2024 Builders Conference.

Lakia Elam gives a lightning talk at the 2024 Builders Conference (Courtesy Hannah Marks)

Following is a recap of one of the sessions at the 2024 Builders Conference, a daylong convening on building better innovation ecosystems. Notes for this piece were documented in real time on our community Slack — join here. Find other takeaways from the conference here.

Remote work appears here to stay, at least in hybrid fashion. That shift has created new challenges for companies looking to retain talent.

When scheduling a meeting, whether in person or virtual, always make the purpose clear, said Hannah Marks, a consultant whose experience in employee operations includes Discord, Lyft and time at startups. She described the concept as “the art of intentional gathering.”

“Determine the why and share the why,” Marks said, and be sure it connects to your mission or vision. Also, she advised, whatever your type of gathering, plan for interstitial time, or “white space,” to allow organic interaction between team members.

Interaction is key, said Lakia Elam, founder and CEO of Magnificent Differences Consulting, a partnership firm that specializes in human capital, because “communication is not just what we say but how we act.”

The culture you tolerate is what will be allowedAlyssa Vasquez Cultured Enuf

She stressed the importance of education on both sides of the manager-employee relationship. “As leaders, we have to educate our staff,” Elam said. “And as staff, we have to be willing to be educated.”

Leaders can increase employee engagement by centering care in their approach, she suggested. It’s also important to ensure directives actually connect with what’s happening on the ground, Elam said: “We have to be aware enough to know when we’re not living what we’re saying.”

That had been felt at Comcast, said Harvilla, an employee engagement specialist at the global media and technology giant. “Our virtual employees were feeling like they were getting left behind,” she said.

To help bring them back into the fold, leaders worked to mimic the in-person experience in a virtual setting. They set up “Culture Clubs” to connect people with shared passions, and created Teams channels with engagement opportunities, including one called “Beyond Screens,” where employees share mental health tips and tricks for self-care.

No employee engagement strategy should include surprise, said Wright, who after time at Spotify and other companies is now chief of staff at wellness company Noom: “Tell people what to expect and how they’re going to be engaged with.”

Wright is also cofounder of Highwire Improv, and he stressed the importance of embracing creativity and listening to employees. “Don’t ask for ideas if you don’t intend to implement them,” he warned. 

“We all have different styles of communication and different ways we like to consume information,” Wright said. “Let people feel safe to be creative.”

Creating an atmosphere of “psychological safety” should be the starting point for any staff engagement techniques, said Vasquez, who runs DEI firm Cultured Enuf. Measure how much or little people are interacting with any initiative, and use that to help determine whether it’s working for most employees or just a handful. 

It’s up to leaders to set the tone, she added. “The culture you tolerate,” Vasquez said, “is what will be allowed.”

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