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the challenge

Harry Chemko, chief executive officer of Elastic Path Software, sits in the company office in Vancouver June 1, 2011.

Every week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue.

Harry Chemko, CEO of Vancouver-based Elastic Path Software Inc., has made it his mission to keep employees engaged.

Daily meetings, post-work drinks, regular golf outings and other company-led activities have all helped sew a tight-knit culture for the company's 160 employees, keeping staff morale high and turnover low, Mr. Chemko says. "We like the water-cooler chat. People are always talking about projects, and everyone gets a good vibe from that."

With employees operating out of the company's Vancouver office for most of the past 11 years, it was fairly easy to create an engaged work force, Mr. Chemko says.

But now, things are changing. His business has been going increasingly global, and with more staff working out of more places, he's worried that without regular face-to-face contact, employees might start feeling more disconnected.

Elastic has seven employees working out of an office in London that opened in 2009, and it is adding another half-dozen over the coming months. The company is also on the verge of opening an office in Costa Rica, where it plans to hire a dozen employees. There are another 20 employees spread around North America working, sometimes for months, on project sites.

So far, Mr. Chemko hasn't seen a disconnect – but he starting to see signs that concern him. For instance, every two weeks, the company holds a meeting at 9:30 a.m. PST, which he considers important to keeping staff connected. But when that meeting begins in Vancouver, it's quitting time in London. As a result, most employees don't participate but watch a video recording the next day.

It's not just meetings they are missing. It's the holiday party, the product release celebrations and the regular lunch and learns, too, Mr. Chemko says. "It's key that staff at the UK office can voice their feedback at the same time as everyone else. Plus we want them to share a laugh with the rest of the company."

His challenge: How can he keep the growing number of Elastic's far-flung staff engaged?

The experts weigh in

Todd Mathers, Toronto-based principal of talent, rewards and communication for Aon Hewitt

It comes down to communication. The people running their international offices need certain information from leadership – what is the company focused on, what is the company doing and what decisions are being made? If they're opening a new office or launching a new product, that information must get communicated to employees as soon as it's legally possible. It creates a mindset that people are informed around what the company is doing and why.

He needs to be inclusive with international locations. Make every third meeting 6:30 a.m. in Vancouver. It's painful but then the pain is shared.

And be mindful about some of the differences between cultures. It may not seem like a big deal, but if he can communicate in Spanish with his people in Costa Rica, it will go a long way. Certain words are spelled differently in the U.K. Rotate the spelling between Canadian and U.K. English in some communications. It shows respect and sensitivity to what makes people unique and it helps them feel more valued.

Bruce Joyce, Ottawa-based vice-president of leadership and human resources research for The Conference Board of Canada

There are many drivers of employee engagement, but they can be summarized in how the employee feels about the support they get to do their job, the autonomy they have to do it and how they can develop in their career with the appropriate rewards and recognition. Regular reviews with agreed targets and development may seem too formal for this size of organization, but they are the way to find out what the employees need and want, and how they can deliver for both themselves and the company.

Elastic Path should use the same philosophy with their team as they do with their e-commerce product – their company slogan is 'frictionless, social and everywhere.' Ask employees for suggestions on how to maintain the culture they love. Present this as an issue on which management is seeking both input and recommendations and support for carrying it out.

Razor Suleman, founder and chief executive officer of Toronto-based I Love Rewards Inc. (with offices also in Boston and San Francisco)

Rewards are a big part of engagement, but give people choice as to what they can have. One size doesn't fit all. We once flew all our employees to New York for a day. We gave them the option of staying at work, coming for the day, or staying for the weekend. People liked having options. He won't be able to do this exactly, but he needs to understand that people are motivated differently. Send out a survey to find out what people want.

We keep people our employees engaged …through social recognition. Employees [across all offices]get real-time feedback through recognition about performance. Our software looks like a Facebook newsfeed. For example, a client might say an employee really came through; his boss hears that and then recognizes him in a very specific way about what he did. That's shared with the company. It helps the employee feel connected, and keeps people connected to the business regardless of where they are.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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