Company Culture Matters: 7 Smart Strategies Businesses Are Using To Build Employee Engagement in Our New Virtual World

With holiday parties cancelled this year and teams missing in-person collaboration, businesses are going back to the basics when it comes to forging bonds and inspiring engagement

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The company holiday party is cancelled this year. Your employees haven’t been physically in the same room together for months. And although you’ve been pleasantly surprised at how efficiently your workforce pivoted to remote work, you’re starting to see warning signs that the company culture is taking a beating as the cohesiveness, spontaneity and energy that fueled the organization show signs of waning. So what do you do?

Every Human Culture Has Used Gifts to Forge and Strengthen Interpersonal Relationships

Go back to the basics. The human challenge to forge a strong bond across distance and language barriers isn’t new; in fact, it was the default state of the world before the development of rapid long-distance travel and the emergence of a dominant world language. Gifts given freely between kingdoms and cultures have been bridging this gap for millennia. And precisely because gifting is such an ancient human practice, we react emotionally to gifts before we respond intellectually.

In the modern era, business gifting has served the additional purpose of transitioning our relationships with employees, clients and partners outside of a purely transactional realm. When we send a birthday, wedding or holiday gift to a business colleague, we’re in the company of the recipient’s closest friends and family in doing so. And this importantly alters the frame of our relationship to communicate that we care about the recipient as a person, independent of work.

And that’s why companies are turning to gifts as a way of bridging the gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic: it’s what humans do.

Here are 7 smart strategies we see corporate customers utilizing to build employee engagement during the time of COVID-19:

1. Turn a virtual event into a shared experience

Zoom Happy Hours felt novel 6 months ago, but now they just feel a lot like work. You can change this by borrowing from theater’s “breaking the 4th wall” tactic: simply add a physical component to your virtual event. The physical component can really be anything – a game, a challenge, a bottle of wine – but it serves to bring people together because they’re all opening and touching the same thing at the same time. That’s important because as humans we’re programmed to remember experiences and how they made us feel, long after we’ve forgotten about “things.”

Many companies are leveraging this tactic to send gifts ahead of a scheduled virtual event, with “Don’t Open Until…” stickers to build excitement. It’s easy, and it doesn’t need to be expensive.

2. Break bread together, wherever you are

Sharing a meal together is the oldest form of community-building. For this reason, gifts of gourmet food and drink are an especially potent extension to a virtual event. But even in the absence of a virtual group event, just the fact that everyone will be tasting the same items brings a communal element to the experience.

3. Let your employees dictate the time and place

Working from home has created a new wrinkle for business gifting: finding our gift recipients. For legitimate privacy reasons, human resources departments aren’t giving out employee home addresses even to others within the company, let alone outside of it. And who’s to say an employee is even working from their home address these days? Remote workers are just as likely to be at their cabin or a family home as they seek solutions for juggling elder- and child-care responsibilities.

For this reason, the use of Private Gift Events – or Gift Redemption Portals – are the fastest-growing segment of the corporate gifting space. They allow recipients to verify their preferred address prior to receiving a gift, thus ensuring that the gift arrives at the most convenient time and place for them. This has also provided an unintentional upside for business givers: a dramatic reduction in time spent updating databases and re-shipping packages due to porch piracy and Return To Sender complications.

4. Provide choice (but not too much)

Thoughtful companies recognize that their employees may be experiencing very different issues this year. Employees with kids, for example, may have very different needs from those without. Wine or alcohol-related gifts may be perfect for some employees, but not others. So increasingly these private gift redemption portals offer the recipient a choice of gifts. The most common choices this year include:

1.) A family night gift – often game, puzzle or popcorn-themed

2.) A personal care gift – rejuvenation, detox or mindfulness themed

3.) A gourmet gift – savory or sweet, often including a permanent tool or accessory to serve as a reminder of the gift after the food has been consumed

Rule of thumb: a choice of three gifts says, “I care enough to curate a selection so you can choose what’s best for you.” A choice of too many gifts says, “I didn’t care enough to figure it out, so you choose.”

5. Avoid the marketing siren call

There are many appropriate times and places for corporate swag: new employee welcome gifts, product launches, company sales meetings, etc. But gifting isn’t one of them. Trust us, your employees understand the difference between gifts and swag. Avoid the temptation to put your logo on items you expect employees to keep. We know it’s hard, but you’ll be glad that you did, because the data shows that gift recipients view logoed items as marketing, not gifts. And that these logoed items are quickly “recycled.” Ouch.

6. Make it brand resonant

Often when companies are tempted to put their logo on a gift item, they tell us that it’s because they want the gift to be memorable. But ironically, only 28% of business gift recipients who received a logoed gift described it as “memorable” in the 2019-2020 Business Gifting Strategy Report. The real-world formula is this: “memorable” = “authentic.” If your gift authentically represents your brand values, your gift recipients will find it memorable. So rather than stamp your logo on something, take a moment to reflect on your values and select a gift that represents those values. And rest assured that your gift recipient will remember why you gave them that particular gift, and appreciate your generosity.

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