Working from home used to either be a luxury or common practice for most companies, but as the pandemic has carried over into 2021, some companies have found employee engagement and productivity have increased since moving operations to work from home.

Cox, which employs more than 3,000 people across Arizona, has had many employees working remotely full-time since the pandemic began in March 2020. Cox has had its customer care team working entirely remotely since mid-March 2020, and have developed ways to keep their employees connected.

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Joel Winnant, director of Customer Care for Cox, leads a team of over 200 Arizona employees as part of a 500-plus Arizona team of Customer Care specialists that work with customers to address technological support, billing and product concerns, said the company’s efforts have helped employees stay connected while working remotely. Over the last year, Cox has built and executed an engagement strategy to boost morale, combat loneliness and improve collaboration and productivity.

“It’s been pretty cool to watch the creativity of this team identify ways to keep people connected and engaged,” Winnant said. “I’m not the most creative person, but I empower the people who are and they basically made a menu of things we’ve done over the last year that keep people happy so they can do their job effectively. With everything that’s been going on outside of work, people have needed a little more live engagement in their lives, so I’m glad we can provide it.”

Those engagement ideas have included cooking classes where teams Zoom together with a local chef; home office tours where team members give tours through their unique home-office setups; Zoom talent shows where teams bond over unique talents previously unknown; and celebrating the team with desserts or a funny JibJab video.

Initially, Winnant said the first priority when employees began working remotely was keeping the business operations running, which meant everyone basically had the same workstation at home as they had in the physical building, and after that was established, the team could then use that technology to create fun ideas.

“In our office, there’s over 500 employees and it’s a very high-energy, social culture; you’re feet away from your leaders and your peers in the office, so you were connected with folks all the time,” Winnant said. “That’s why this such a great place to work is the culture that we build, and that’s when the conversation came about asking ‘How do we maintain this? We have relationships already built in the building, people know each other, how do we keep those relationships going when those people are not right in front of you 40 hours a week?’”

So Winnant raised the concern to his leadership team and collectively identified what efforts they did well in the office and determined ways to translate those efforts to a remote setting. “Leveraging technology like Microsoft Teams has been a blessing for us to be able to say, ‘What does this technology do and how can we apply it to connect people together?’ And that’s where it started.”

Across social media and online, Zoom challenges and Zoom background mishaps became relatable, shareable content for those working from home to continue to feel connected to others. And Cox came up with several ways to keep employees connected through Zoom activities so all employees could feel included and comfortable, and participate as they wanted to.

“The first thing is the leadership team needed to show a little bit of vulnerability and humility to be able to model that behavior to let people know it was ok to express yourself this way,” Winnant said. “It started with the leadership team doing things and afterward it was whoever wanted to be involved and we identified as, most people want to, they just need the permission and license to do it. So we found the engagement increased after we did that.”

Cox would usually schedule meetings to touch base and would incorporate some of the activities into that structured time. If it was a bigger event or activity, the team would inquire who was interested and based on the interest would schedule how much time they needed to allocate for the activity.

“It started a little slow for a few things because everyone was just getting used to being home, and I think because of people’s cravings to want to be connected and be part of the team and maintain the culture you saw people continue to participate in these things. And some of them didn’t require time from us, some of them were videos they would send and things like that.”

The activities tended to be led by leaders of each team in small groups, and Winnant said a lot of the ideas would originate from a supervisor who suggested the idea and after it was approved, would do the activity successfully and more people wanted to do similar things.

Making employee engagement a priority is part of Cox’s commitment to work/life balance for employees and is part of health and wellness that translates to an employee’s mindset and performance.

“We’re big believers in health and wellness and work/life balance. If we’re not balanced, we can’t take care of our customers the way we’re committed to doing so,” Winnant said. 

“For the mental health of our employees, we wanted to determine how to connect with them because the pandemic has created some risk for isolation. So we assess that as a risk and said ‘let’s do this for our folks’ and in doing so, it translates to better performance for the customers, and a better customer experience. We’ve noticed that because they’ve stayed connected with their peers and the company, they do a better job connecting customers with the services and servicing them because we’re all in this together.”

Winnant said he thinks some of the techniques and activities Cox has used while employees have been working from home will be implemented in some ways when the company returns to the office. 

“Hopefully they’re in person; that’s our optimistic hope. We’ve done a lot of these things when we were all here a year ago, and so I think the way we do it and how we include others, I think without a doubt, I would commit to that being something that carries on well past the end of the pandemic and we get everyone back in the building,” Winnant said. “I think one of the beauties of working for this company, I’ve been here for 10 years, is that we firmly believe in the culture that we’ve created and take care of our employees.”