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Virtual Employee Engagement: THE CULTURAL CONUNDRUM

June 4, 2021

By Camron Gnass, originally featured in SBAM’s FOCUS on Business magazine

Early in the pandemic, I was talking with a friend who sits in a very different kind of seat than I do in my role as a small business owner. He’s a CEO who employs thousands around the world, running a company with a long-established traditional corporate culture—the classic 8-to-5 work structure with office employees working on site every day.  

As the conversation turned to the new work-from-home business world we were all navigating, he asked me if I planned on keeping my staff remote after the pandemic ended. 

Without hesitation, and without much thought, my answer was no. I admitted I knew we could certainly survive the switch permanently. Since our first day of quarantine on March 16, 2020 (if you need a reminder, but my guess is you don’t), my staff has produced creative work as good as or even better than we have at any time in our firm’s 25-year history. 

But still, my gut—and my mouth—said no. As soon as we could do so safely, we’d be back in the office. Together. Even today, remarkably almost a year later, my answer stays the same. 

I know—it’s 2021 and the options for remote workforce tools and technology are vast and plenty. Why wouldn’t working from home work forever? 

Even with all the available apps and each tidbit of wisdom from every “Top 10 Ways To Make Working From Home Work for Your Business” article out there, is it truly possible to fully engage your employees, no matter where they work? Employee-to-employee or employer-to-employee: Can you really engage at a meaningful level, virtually? 

Gallup Definition of Employee Engagement:  

Engaged employees are those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. 

As my friend and I chatted that early summer day and my thoughts caught up with my gut reaction, my revelation was this: It’s about culture. 

I think about our old “water cooler” times—those impromptu discussions about food, people, trends, popular culture, hobbies and life in general…the sharing of exciting (or not-so-exciting) evening plans…and all those other seemingly wasted moments during the work day—and worry whether they can be replicated when we’re not physically in the same space. 

From the perspective of whether it’s good for the bottom line, some owners may like the idea of not having “wasted” time. But I argue those moments are critical to the bottom line because they contribute to the creation and strengthening of relationships and, in turn, culture. And if we really think there isn’t wasted time while working from home, well, ringing doorbells, energetic toddlers, and barking dogs are all worthy foes in the daily work-from-home game. The difference is that, unlike those times I mentioned above, it’s not likely to be a community-building experience. 

Studies are showing that employees working from home due to the pandemic are getting more work done and working longer hours than when they were in the office. But at what cost? How long can it last?  

Do we really think our crews are going to stay this productive, or will it wear off? Will they wander? Will they find the environment fulfilling, endearing, something they stay enthusiastic about? Or are they getting tired because they’re never able to officially walk away from work? 

When your living room is also your office, it’s hard to maintain a great work-life balance. And despite the evil-boss clichés we’re all assigned as business owners, we know that when our employees are rested and fulfilled in their personal lives, they’re able to bring more to their work lives. We also know that when they develop close bonds—or at least high levels of respect for each other—they perform better and stay in a job longer. 

culture: noun (Merriam-Webster) 

cul·ture | \ ‘k   l-ch   r 

The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization. 

Before this shut down, my staff would do seemingly silly things, like challenge each other to cracker-eating contests, back-alley wiffleball slugfests, “would you rather” questions and so on. It was on company time, usually while I was working at my desk in plain view. I never thought twice about it. I welcomed the moments they shared between heads-down, fully engaged creative sessions as ways for them to get to know and trust one another.  

That’s because when it’s time to critique each other’s work—an integral and crucial part of our process—there needs to be an understanding of each other before giving or even receiving criticism. Trust is only built through consistency. That’s true with your pet, your partner and with your coworkers or employees. And those in-office interactions are critical to building a climate of trust. 

Over the past year, we’ve been holding morning check-ins when we review what each person is working on, and twice-weekly “water cooler” video chats where work is not allowed to be discussed. Each of you have likely settled on some rhythm as well and it feels, for lack of a better term, normal?  

But can this really work long term? With so many life moments happening away from the camera? Especially big ones! I became a grandpa. And although a virtual smile while I’m sharing a picture or video with my team is nice, it’s certainly not the same as a genuine in-person congrats. 

Our work has been great—with the team I had before the pandemic hit. I’m lucky that we’ve been busy, and they have stayed with me. But my mind keeps going to the new employees (as I know I’ll have some) and I’m certain you will too! How can we learn their body language and nuances of reactions through video. Can we really build the same level of trust we need to give and receive the critical kind of feedback that makes our work great? Do businesses run better with deeper connections among its staff? Especially a small staff, or even teams within a larger employee base. 

I’ve had mixed conversations with people who are both enjoying being virtual and hoping they can do so forever and those who can’t wait to get back to their office teams. We also know plenty of our small-business-owning friends who are wilting on the vine without the persistent traffic for their goods or services that are an in-person must—and they need to be together immediately. 

Plenty of us, though, fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing there are elements of our businesses that are best done face-to-face while understanding employees’ needs and desires for more flexibility and freedom. 

My friend’s large company, which had long taken a position that they’d never consider a work-from-home situation for their employees—that it was too antithetical to their work and culture—has since (like everyone else) been forced to adapt to it due to COVID, and discovered it wasn’t as difficult or as bad for business as they’d always thought it would be. They also were forced to realize just how important the benefits of such a structure are to their employees, and that their employees’ productivity was equal to or higher than it was before the pandemic. They, too, will be returning to the office, but with a yet-to-be-defined flex schedule to give the employees, and the business, the best of both worlds. 

As for my own company, we’ll be back. We’ll be flexible. When the time is right. Virtual water coolers don’t have anything on those silly impromptu moments being had by adults. 

Camron Gnass became a small business owner over 25 years ago when, at the age of 19, he founded his creative agency. 

Camron humbly served on the SBAM board and is currently on its Leadership Council. He is also a member of the Michigan Celebrates Small Business board of directors. 

A firm believer in giving back to the community, Camron has taught in the Advertising Department at Michigan State University and is a proud co-creator of both the Capital City Film Festival and Lansing’s Beacon Soccer Fields, urban outdoor fields that are the first of their kind in the country. 

See his creative work at

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