By: Ben Bisbee, Creative Strategy Coach and Author;

The Unashamed Guide to Virtual Management: Tips for Engaging Virtual Employees

-According to Global Workplace Analytics, 4.7 million employees now work from home at least half the time. Virtual or work-at-home employment, among the non-self-employed population, has grown by 173 percent since 2005, nearly 11 times faster than the rest of the workforce or the self-employed.

The virtual workplace is on the rise, but how do you engage with employees that are in different states or time zones? The new book I co-authored with Kathy Wisniewski, The Unashamed Guide to Virtual Management, gives advice on more than 80 topics, including ways to engage virtual employees.

We dedicate an entire chapter of the guide (and an entire podcast episode) to the importance of hosting opportunities for employees situated in different states and time zones to engage with one another in a nonwork-related environment, such as birthday parties, baby showers, and happy hours.

I believe there is very little that can’t be fairly well replicated in the virtual landscape just because it is so well defined in the stationary one.

Virtual managers can still create experiences for their employees. Here are some tips we believe are useful for engaging employees across the virtual space:

Avoid forced engagement. I worked for a virtual small boutique organization and on your birthday, everyone would go around on camera and say something they thought was special about you. It was horrible. It was a literal nightmare. It was the opposite of what you want for your birthday. What do you do when it was someone’s birthday that you don’t think highly of or don’t know well? We were forced to manufacture words in front of the person on camera, which was so much worse than having everyone sing “Happy Birthday” to you.

Personalize the experience. Rather than endure the excruciatingly painful birthday example given above, take 10 minutes to have a team meeting online and ask everyone to bring their favorite non-alcoholic drink to use to toast the person who is having a birthday. This allows people to personalize the experience and provides time to ask the person being celebrated about any special plans. You can also let people share what drink they brought, their favorite birthday memory, their favorite age, etc. It’s a cool experience that gives employees the gift of hearing someone else’s story and sparks further conversation.

Find the secret sauce to a successful event and replicate it. Most of the time, the successful components to an event are the moments of connection between coworkers. Host a virtual happy hour or ice cream social where everyone goes around sharing stories and telling about their beverage of choice or favorite ice cream flavor or toppings. Do an employee chili cookoff where employees share their favorite recipes or secret tips for making the best chili. In a virtual world, you can take the happy hour model and broaden it to make it more universal and more inclusive. It doesn’t have to be complicated or feel shoehorned in. It can be culturally relevant within the virtual landscape.

Make it inclusive and memorable. From an inclusion perspective, a virtual happy hour can engage everyone by stating you are welcome to include an alcoholic beverage or not without having to invite people to a bar to participate. It’s a great way to create community. There’s a freshness that gets brought to the table that you can’t do or would be weird to do in a stationary setting. Having everyone stand in a circle and tell about their favorite drink (or vegetable or ice cream flavor) would be weird to do in person, but it’s not online. It feels collegial and fun and it works. This guide provides the opportunity to inspire managers to think as differently as they want to without having to think they can’t think differently at all.

Make the event casual. At a typical employee event, employees come and go as they please. It can be just as casual in the virtual event where someone pops on, participates for a little bit, and then pops off. This is an elective element of employee engagement and is a simple way to build community amongst your teammates. It also proves you have an interest in building community that reflects “traditional” experiences that just happen to be set to a virtual landscape.

To learn more, purchase the book, or to listen to the authors discuss various aspects of virtual management on their podcast, visit

Ben Bisbee, Creative Strategy Coach and Author

Ben Bisbee is a multisector professional with more than 20 years of experience building successful and award-winning community and development programs for organizations of all shapes and sizes. He is a nationally recognized author, speaker, and problem solver, who serves as chief vision officer at Rhinocorn, a design house for nonprofit innovation and advancement projects. Considering himself a social technologist, Bisbee is quickly becoming known for his work in virtual technology and methodologies, helping to build strengthened relationships between humans and the technology they use to work, play, and engage.