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The fact that employee engagement is critical to an organization’s success is a mantra for companies competing for talent and customer relevance. We need our people to feel aligned with our purpose; engaged people care about the company and the work they do. Seems simple enough.

In the early startup culture days at Rakuten Kobo, we could rev up that sense of common purpose pretty easily by sharing our progress in weekly town halls and holding casual events. When energy got low, we could roll out the drinks and snacks, turn up the music and voilà! – instant engagement.

That worked as a startup, and when we could see each other in real life.

But once you get bigger as a company (and add a pandemic on top if it), what comes next? Engagement is no longer as easy to generate. You can’t force fun. Especially not when your entire work force has been forced out of the office by COVID-19. The same is true of belonging. That’s why work is better and easier if the workplace, virtual or otherwise, is engaging, lively and a little fun. It’s harder to pull off, but that only makes it more worthwhile when you do manage it.

So where do you even begin?

We started with what we knew our employees needed the most during COVID-19: safety – not just physically, but psychologically, too. Anxious, stressed-out people don’t work well as a team.

Our first step was making sure everyone knew they had a secure job that wasn’t going anywhere because of a pandemic. As an e-book company, we were confident that our financial performance wouldn’t suffer, and communicated that regularly. We reminded them they were having a meaningful impact in our customers’ lives. (We were one of the lucky companies, because digital reading in the pandemic rose quickly and stayed that way.)

Then it was a matter of figuring out how to recreate the benefits you get from working together in the same space. We already had a decade of experience as a company with teams distributed around the globe. We knew that the thing people miss most about being in the office together is simple informal interaction – not just working, but being together.

We learned quickly that togetherness can be achieved many ways. For us, it was themed trivia, raffle draws, happy hours or even learning to make pasta virtually alongside a chef. One of the simplest and most effective things we did was our weekly virtual Caffeinate with Kobo chats: every Tuesday, I’m there, mug in hand, on an open Zoom call where anyone can drop in. The only rule is that we talk about anything other than work – namely, the kind of things we used to talk about when grabbing coffee in the kitchen.

Our weekly town hall has long been a major tool to create alignment. We share project updates, business results, employee experiences, successes and more. It used to be live and on stage, streamed for our colleagues in Europe and Asia, with an intro by me, followed by an often nervous speaker trying to sync up their speech with their slides.

Since the pandemic, though, it’s all virtual and it has beautifully transformed in ways we didn’t expect. Now town hall is like a short film festival. We have seen teams create animations, dramatizations, fake newscasts and genuine heartfelt moments, all while talking about Dutch publishing trends, usability testing or the impacts of foreign exchange. All of it gives teammates a chance to show the people behind the work and the projects they are most proud of. And it builds on its success. When you’ve seen a team hold an entire Zoom audience rapt for a talk about supply chain logistics, you know you had better bring your best when it’s your turn.

It’s not all craziness. There is an informal rule: be serious about the things you need to be serious about. We are serious about financials, pandemic updates, diversity issues and goals, as well as risks and challenges. But we let go of the reins for the rest. And most of all, we don’t worry about trying to be cool. We created a no-apologies space for our people to indulge themselves and have fun, and they turned a regular corporate check-in into a multimedia event.

Pandemic or not, you can’t make people have fun. With a few good choices, though, you can help people make their own.

Michael TamblynHandout

Michael Tamblyn is the CEO of Rakuten Kobo. He is the leadership lab columnist for September, 2021. This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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