How to Increase Employee Engagement in a Hybrid World | SUBMERGE by HUBILO

The Great Resignation is a trend caused by the pandemic where employees are voluntarily leaving their employers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, four million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021. The reasons for the resignations vary, and include, according to a Harvard Business Review article, career stage, industry, work preference, lack of a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion)-focused approach and burnout. 

The latest SUBMERGE event by Hubilo on 17 November 2021 provided key insights into topics (e.g., Diversity and Inclusivity in a Hybrid World and Elevating Employee Engagement in a Hybrid Workplace) that drive the great resignation, which companies should improve upon to retain employees. During this event, Hubilo included sign language translation and closed captions, setting an example for all virtual and hybrid events. The event was expertly moderated by Rachel Moore, Director of Community and Social Media at Hubilo. 

Lenora Billings-Harris, CSP President and CEO at Ubuntu Global and international expert on the topic of diversity and inclusivity, opened the presentation with the question, ‘Why is it hard, uncomfortable and scary to talk about diversity, inclusion, bias or race?’ 

Most common answers to that question are: 

  • I might say the wrong thing.
  • I’ll be judged. (though people will likely be judged anyway)
  • I don’t know what to say. (concern about saying the right thing)
  • I might hurt someone’s feelings.
  • It doesn’t apply to me. (due to myths and misunderstandings about what diversity and inclusion are)

Lenora stated, ‘These are concerns about how to connect with another person. There’s a reason that we feel that way. We all want to belong and be included. We want to connect and engage. I encourage you to lean into this discomfort so you can break the culture of silence. As long as we keep being silent around these somewhat sensitive issues, the more we are going to perpetuate the exclusion in our workplaces.’

Why Is this Important?

Lenora said, according to research, ‘Our brain cannot tell the difference between physical pain and emotional pain. When someone receives a verbal or non-verbal message that translates to them that they don’t belong, that is equated to physical pain in our brain because it can’t tell the difference.’

DEI in the Workplace 

According to Lenora, ‘DEI gets confused with employer laws, which are government regulations, and are not what diversity and inclusion is.

‘Research has found that when an organisation is diverse and inclusive, it will hold on to talent longer. When the company has an inclusive and diverse environment and people feel valued and respected, they are more creative and innovative. Further, organisations make higher revenues than their competitors who are not as diverse and inclusive. 

‘Often, the word “equality” gets confused with “equity”. When we treat people equally, we are saying that all of us are 100 percent the same, and we are not. Equity is the right word to use, not equality. Equity recognises that there might be barriers; companies work to remove those barriers so that all employees can reach their highest levels of potential. Equity means that each of us may need different things in order to be most effective, and we are able to identify those different things based on the individual.’

Uncover Biases in the Workplace 

Lenora said, ‘Research found that supervisors are good at giving the right kind of feedback in the right way to their direct reports when their direct reports are very similar to them, either by gender, ethnicity or age. They are often not as good at doing that when their direct reports are different from them. That’s where it’s necessary to uncover some of the biases that exist, so that supervisors can be even better at giving feedback and keeping the best talent.’ 

Difference: Diversity vs. Inclusion 

Diversity and inclusion are not the same thing. According to Lenora, ‘Diversity is about broadening personal resources; inclusion is a one-on-one connection with each other and team connection. Biases inform behaviour: whatever the biases are, that dictates how a person is going to behave. 

‘People do have a tendency to focus on those biases that produce negative results; however, everyone has biases, and not all biases are bad. Unfortunately, a lot of information in the brain is stereotypical. If a person doesn’t do things to make them feel more comfortable around people different from them, then in a moment they interact with someone different from them, they tend to rely on those messages that they’ve gotten from long ago or those that came from media, movies and other places. 

‘So even when we are trying to be inclusive, it might not be. When it comes to inclusion and bias, intent is not enough. Even though we all want to interact well with other people, the intention can’t be seen because that’s in the brain. We can only determine things based on impact.’

Implementing DEI – Leaders Must Take the Lead 

Lenora shared tips for implementing DEI at organisations: ‘The organisations that do the best start at the top. They look at their business strategy, not diversity strategy—what footprint do they want to have, what markets to connect with, where do they want their growth to be—and then they identify what are the diversity initiatives that need to be put in place to make that happen.’

Four-Part Cultural Compass

As a leader, it’s possible to take a four-step approach to learn how to have conversations about DEI. 

  1. Understanding: As an individual leader, you first must learn about groups that are different from you; not just different by race or gender, but also by generation and ethnicity. Read books, watch videos and listen to podcasts. 
  2. Knowledge: Be willing to be the other. Go to places where you are the only one so you can get a sense of what it’s like to be the one who is different; this will give you a better sense of what this is like in your organisation. For example: visit places of worship, attend cultural events, explore museums and study language and arts. 
  3. Acceptance: This stage is when you are ready to talk to people who are different from you. Don’t expect people who are different to provide your entire education. Go to them after you’ve gotten some information, and ask informed questions. 
  4. Behaviour: After following those steps, you’ll be better equipped to be an ally and advocate, and you’ll have more courage to speak up during moments when uncomfortable conversations around diversity and inclusion come up. Actively view situations from a different ‘viewing point’.

Audience Q&A 

How do those from marginalised communities stand up for biases or injustices that they may see at work while still protecting the sanity and status of the company?

‘First and foremost, you do need to take care of yourself. When you are in the midst of somebody saying something that’s inappropriate that doesn’t land well with you, there are four steps to follow, and they are called STOP.

‘S: Stop. Tell the person what they did to re-identify the behaviour (what they said or did). 

T: Tell them how you feel; not your opinion, but how you feel (e.g., angry, hurt, rejected)

O: Options. Give them new options (e.g., ‘In the future, I would prefer you do/say…’)

P: Positive results. What’s in it for them to change their behaviour? 

‘Most important, remember positive intent. Most people didn’t intend to be offensive.’

If you don’t know where your company stands in regards to DEI, how do you bring up the topic without potentially alienating your higher-ups? And if your company has no DEI effort, where do you start?

‘Find champions who you know understand what’s going on and also support that additional things need to be done. You can do that by simply starting conversations. Not starting with everything that’s wrong, but rather asking questions: how are you treated, are you included in your team meetings, does your supervisor give you regular feedback? Then each champion can begin to infiltrate within their own groups, something that they can do at their own level.

‘If there’s no support at the top level, it does make it difficult to percolate up, but it’s not impossible because you can have control in your own work environment. So you start there, and then hopefully that leader’s gonna realise “we do better when we are more inclusive”, and that leader talks to another and eventually it can percolate up.’

How do you make DEI feel authentic within a large company? 

‘DEI really becomes part of the culture when the leaders recognise that every company’s location is different. There are two things to do:

  1. Connect DEI to business results; that way, people know that their efforts towards DEI are connected to the success of the company. 
  2. Look at where the issues/barriers are at your location and identify what initiatives you may need to take; don’t assume that every place is the same.’

How do you measure your company’s diversity and inclusivity efforts?  

‘That directly ties to engagement. When you do your employee engagement surveys, make sure you have questions on it that are very specific to diversity and inclusion. Get together a task force to look at the engagement questions. 

‘Every people leader has to understand that inclusion and diversity are part of engagement. It’s about how you connect with all the people that you are responsible for.’

Elevating Employee Engagement in a Hybrid Workplace

The next presentation was by Phil Simon, workplace-technology guru and award-winning author at He spoke about employee engagement in the hybrid world, highlighting some of the trends caused by the pandemic. Phil stated, ‘In the early days of the pandemic, people started experiencing burnout at work. How does that make sense when working from the comfort of our own home, saving time commuting? But over the past 20 months, it’s become obvious that we are wasting a tremendous amount of time “at work”’.

Phil covered four areas of recommendations to implement change. 


2. Communication

3. Management 

4. HR/policy 


‘Employees are overwhelmed because they are using many apps at work. According to Okta Business at Work Report, the average number of business applications used per customer is 88.

‘What to do? The answer is not more technology, but the answer involves technology. What can companies do to use technology in the right way? 

Hub and spoke model 

Phil recommends choosing an internal collaboration hub, a general use software designed to promote effective internal communication and collaboration. All organisation conversations, decisions, documents and institutional knowledge should exist in that hub (e.g., Slack, Google Workspace, Microsoft Teams, Zoom). By consolidating all communication in one hub, the company will minimise multitasking and time wasted searching for documents.

Next, connect as many spokes as possible to the hub. Spokes are other applications specifically designed for a purpose (e.g., creativity or content creation tools, CRM applications, project management tools). As a result, all information exchange, status updates and notification will be in one place, improving the organisation’s collaboration and communication.’

This model has advantages beyond effective collaboration. According to Phil, ‘One of the advantages is listening to and measuring employee signals (who is dominating the conversation, are managers unresponsive, which employees are disengaged, etc.) because these tools come with analytics tied into them.’

Phil emphasised, ‘Technology alone will not solve the problem; it doesn’t fix a dysfunctional culture.’


Phil said, ‘It’s recommended to conduct writing workshops to teach employees how to write more effectively. When people write clearer, companies can reduce the number of messages, frustration and employee overload.’ 

In addition, ‘Companies can codify the rules of communication. For example, Gitlab has an internal employee book with every possible question employees might have. This approach has minimised the number of duplicate or irrelevant questions at the company.’ 

Another suggestion is to ban internal email, the ‘reply all’ option and late-night messages.


According to Phil, ‘companies must first recognise that all employees’ jobs are not created equal. As an example, see computer scientist Paul Graham’s blog post ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’. Managers have a day schedule consisting of meeting and after meeting, whereas a maker (e.g., creative jobs, coder, web designer) needs the days to be unplugged so that they are able to enter a ‘flow’. People don’t do their best work when they are constantly being interrupted.’

Phil shared an example of Asana, which banned meetings on Wednesdays because they know their employees need to work dedicated hours. ‘Establish core work hours to accommodate employees who are working across different time zones.’


‘Invest in employee training. Tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Zoom all give us a far greater ability to customise our notifications. They can be customised by person, time of day and channel.’

According to The Guardian, 70 percent of employees strongly agree with the statement, ‘I am more likely to be loyal to a company that offers me employee benefits that are personalised to my needs’. Companies are becoming creative by giving their employees choices, customising benefits to make their employees happy.

Other benefits include sending surprise physical gifts, mandating time off and vacation, giving a week off for burnout recovery and investing in purposeful travel and events or reimbursing employee co-working expenses for those who can’t work from home. 

Audience Q&A

Technology can make us feel like we are on the same footing (e.g., ‘we all have wifi’), but how can we break this assumption and be more understanding to all employees as they work out of different environments? 

‘Have empathy. Not all employees live in areas with high wifi, not all have dedicated workspace, some are caring for elders or children. Some people having access to these tools doesn’t solve every problem.’ 

IT departments are often the decision makers or even the procurers of the tech that companies use for employee engagement. What’s your advice for them to consider to prioritise effective engagement? 

‘Everybody should be responsible for collaboration. We can’t say we have a collaboration department. You want people at the table with knowledge of the technology, so you need to have the IT and business departments speaking the same language to avoid the IT divide.’ 

What are your recommendations for communicating work style preferences? 

‘Collaborative platforms have status updates. Employees can use OOO, place a red icon to indicate that they are on a call and don’t want to be interrupted, etc. Such integration often happens automatically. A large part of it is cultural, but there’s no law stating that the platform needs to be relentlessly engaging.’

In conclusion, Phil said that there is an opportunity for companies to take advantage of this pandemic crisis and fundamentally redefine how people work. We might emerge from this much more satisfied. The work legacy of COVID-19 will be that our personal lives used to revolve around work, but after 20 months of not having to do that, we wanted the opposite: we want our work life to revolve around our personal lives.’

To conclude  

Lenora’s presentation was very helpful as an introduction to the topic of DEI, and it helped to clarify key differences between the definitions of diversity, inclusion, equity and equality. Most helpful was her discussion about how to implement DEI initiatives, specifically her recommendation that organisations need to review their business strategy rather than their diversity strategy and also that they must start at the top, having their leaders learn how to approach conversations about DEI and advocate change. 

Phil’s presentation highlighted that we should be careful about spending time on inefficient tasks at work because they eventually cause burnout. The hub and spoke model is a practical solution that can help companies centralise their communication and collaboration in one place. Furthermore, he highlighted the importance of culture and that technology alone will not solve a company’s problems. Simple activities, such as changing an app’s notification settings or indicating a ‘do not disturb’ status can significantly improve personal workflow and well-being.  

The first step of any change is awareness, and I’m very grateful to Lenora and Phil for introducing and clarifying new definitions and concepts that can be used individually and can also be integrated into a company’s business strategy. 

To conclude, this event was educational and provided information on how to be champions in the workplace for DEI initiatives and creating a hybrid workplace. I look forward to the next SUBMERGE event, ‘Secrets to Engaging and Retaining Memberships’, coming up on 25 and 27 January 2022. You can sign up here. See you there! 

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