How Olark Uses A "Daily Karma Bot" To Engage Remote Employees

Kimberly Bringas shares the strategy (including bots!) Olark has used to grow from 4 to 40 remote employees while keeping everyone engaged, productive and happy.

Employee Engagement Remote Employees

Creating a remote team might be one of the best things you can do for your business. It opens you up to a wider pool of talent and cuts down on infrastructure costs like rent.

If it’s done correctly, a strong remote culture can foster a positive work environment where employees feel empowered to do their best work without having to deal with typical office woes such as long commutes or distracting office interruptions.

Creating an engaged remote team requires consistent effort as well as attention to detail – you can’t just flip a switch and grant everyone in your org the freedom to work wherever they want.

The same goes for scaling a remote team.

Maybe you have a HQ and would like to start hiring remote employees. Without proper planning, it’s tricky to add remote employees and have them feel like they’re actually part of the team.

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Here at Olark, we’ve grown from 4 founders to 40 employees. We have one office in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the rest of our team is distributed all over the U.S. and Canada, plus we have a few internal contractors as well.

We’ve got a pretty good system in place to keep our remote “Olarkers” engaged and we’re constantly iterating on our processes. Today I’d like to share a few strategies that have worked for us, which might you be able to implement into your business.

Weekly Shout Outs

oLark Weekly Shout Out

Every Monday we have our “All Team” meeting. We open every one of these meetings with kudos. This is a chance for every member of the team to thank, praise or just outright brag about their team mates.

There’s the obvious benefit for the person who receives the karma shout out – it feels good to be publicly recognized by your peers!

I think these shout outs also benefit the karma giver too, because it forces them to reflect on the good things that happened during the week. Too often as a remote team it’s, “on to the next thing!”.

In this case, when you slow down and think about who did something that had a really positive effect on your work or your life, it helps you stay connected to everyone on the team beyond just the people you talk to daily.

Weekly One-On-One Meetings

This one is pretty self explanatory, but it’s vital for ensuring that every employee feels empowered and engaged, so we do weekly one-on-one meetings for managers and their team.

Each team lead has a check-in scheduled with everyone on their team. Meetings are based on the employee’s needs.. Each manager works to tailor the weekly meeting to suit that Olarker’s needs.

To support those team leads, we do our best to bring in experts on leadership and coaching and help our leaders grow as mentors and as managers too.

Daily Karma Bot

oLark Karma Bot

This isn’t Olark’s Karma Bot – but you get the idea 🙂

Our remote team uses Slack to keep in touch. In Slack we’ve incorporated a simple bot that lets any team member type a name and “++” to give karma to that person. For example, if someone types Kimberly++ I would get one karma point.

We actually took that one step further and created a “karma tornado” if you type Olark++. Essentially its just a karma randomizer. When you type Olark++, six random people will receive a karma point.

We realized we need a way to shout out the entire company on really good group projects, so this is what we came up with.

Karma is tallied throughout the year and culminates in ‘The Karmies” – our faux award ceremony at our Annual Retreat each year. More than just “Who has the most karma?” we find ways to slice and dice our karma data to find outstanding contributors.

For example, this year we gave an award for most under the radar – the winner had the most mentions in our weekly team sync, but the lowest amount of karma in Slack.

Speaking of our annual retreat…

Annual Company Retreat

oLark Annual Retreat

This one may seem obvious, but I’m still a bit surprised to learn that some teams don’t offer an annual all team event of some type. Even companies who work together in the same location should make time once a year to reflect, celebrate and plan for the next year.

It’s even more important to do this when your team is remote – and doubly important to do it in-person.

By nature remote teams spend a lot of time online and most employees never cross paths as part of that process. When they do, it’s in a Zoom video window with bad lighting or choppy audio (grrrr!). All of those interactions being filtered through a computer make it hard to remember you work with actual humans!

To counter that, we gather once a year in the summer when things are a little slower and we budget for all of our employees to come and bring their families too.

If you’re looking for inspiration on where to host a retreat, we recommend Estes Park Colorado (although it can be prohibitive for those prone to altitude sickness) and Traverse City, Michigan.

Mini Retreats For Teams

Our annual retreat yields a lot of good ideas. So many in fact, we realized some ideas would never see the light of day because we’d go back to work and get sidetracked with new priorities.

In an effort to combat that, we now give each individual team a small budget to host an in-person mini-retreat during the year.

Usually these happen toward the end of the year and team’s choose where they’ll meet and for how long. While there, they also review their OKRs and set OKRs for the new year. They’ll also revisit ideas from the annual retreat and see if there are any ideas that should’ve been prioritized but weren’t.

Employee Benefits

An oLarker enjoying some much needed parental leave

An Olarker enjoying some much needed parental leave with her husband and son

A key to keeping remote employees engaged is providing a system that ensures a positive work life balance.

Sometimes remote employees feel added pressure to stay connected because they don’t want to be perceived as slacking, or they don’t want to miss out on an important conversation.

The problem with feeling like you’re always on is that you can start to resent the job or your teammates – and slowly become disengaged.

At Olark we do everything we can to give our team the freedom to take time away, as well as the encouragement to take that time off without fear of repercussion.

That starts with a flex PTO and sick leave program, our 12 week parental leave policy and our vacation bonus. Our vacation bonus probably gets the most notoriety – we give each employee a $1,000 bonus for them to completely unplug for five consecutive work days.

Yes, we’re so adamant that we want Olarkers to take time off that we incentive it with cold hard cash! NBC News talked about Olark and other companies who are encouraging employees to unplug completely if you want to learn more.

Having a policy in place is one thing, but ensuring buy-in for these policies at the top of your business will ensure policy has staying power.

We saw that firsthand when our CEO took the time to respond to one of our co-workers emails about taking time to recover mentally. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Our CEO took the time to reflect on all of the comments we received on the Olark Medium, but the conversation went so much farther and wider than what’s captured in Ben’s piece.

It was exciting and humbling to see how one small act could advance a global discussion and it speaks to the power of buy-in from leadership.

When creating policies, make sure you have input and agreement from your leaders first and if possible, ask for additional input from your entire business. Doing so will ensure that new policies are encouraged and supported wholeheartedly.

Conclusion

These are just a few things we do to keep our employees engaged, happy and productive. My key takeaway is that there is no cookie cutter approach that works for every business. What works for us may or may not work for you.

Only through iteration, reflection and lots of tough conversations will you develop employee engagement programs that best suit your people. The key is to get started and course correct as you go.

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Kimberly is the HR & Culture Enthusiast at Olark. When she’s not busy putting the Human back in HR, you can find her practicing with her salsa team, exploring a new food place in Denver, or hiking on a mountain.