A sense of fulfillment seems like some far-off fantasy right now. Something of days past when work and life didn’t blur into one; at the very least, a time when you could have your morning coffee without interruptions. As we’ve seen the last few months, the pandemic has upended notions of well-being and happiness, especially around work and its separation from our our personal lives.
At the start of lockdowns, many companies made increasing employee morale a top priority. But as we wrap up the summer, the practice of working from home continues for many businesses, and there’s still no clear answer in sight for when this crisis will end.
What we believed to be a temporary adjustment has now become more a marathon than a sprint in keeping people’s spirits up, which raises the question How can leaders keep morale high while physically separated?
To help you get started, here are a few tips to maintain a positive mood from afar.
Remain calm and encourage communication
Over the past 14 years of building my company, my team and I have weathered many storms together. Remaining level-headed in the midst of change is how we’ve kept afloat, despite previous setbacks. According to Gwen Moran in a story for Fast Company, the way we react to stress plays a key factor in our team’s performance. “Managers who get angry or withdraw when the pressure is on hurt team morale,” she writes, “and teams are more likely to miss deadlines, exceed their budgets, and fail to meet quality standards.” Which is to say, a calm mindset is more important now than ever. This makes sense, we can’t really transmit confidence or boost morale if we’re paralyzed by fear.
One of the biggest management lessons I’ve learned is that motivating my team starts with me. It begins with being a steady anchor for them to rely on in turbulent times. And then it’s about committing to their long-term well-being—in finding ways to ward off burnout and isolation.
Along with the ongoing stressors of these times, teams are facing a deluge of information that can drown out individual voices in the shuffle of endless Zoom meetings and Slack messages.
Now, more than ever, we should promote honest communication. According to Kurter, “Employers should keep employees and contractors updated on the situation and invite them to engage in the discussion.”
Checking in with people is key to keeping them engaged, but it also protects against feelings of isolation that can lead to depression. One 2018 Gallup survey noted that negligent managers leave employees feeling uninformed and alone. To combat this consequence, prioritize open communication.
Advocate for your employees
Highly effective bosses know that employees’ well-being is what ultimately keeps them invested. That involves flexible work hours and avoiding an “always on” company culture.
According to Gallup, an unmanageable workload can quickly cause high-performing employees to shift from optimistic to hopeless. “When their workload is out of control, employees look to their managers to be their advocates for what they can and can’t accomplish and for finding others to help them.”
As leaders, it’s on us to keep our team’s spirit up by encouraging them to tell us their opinions and concerns on a regular basis. But don’t put the onus on them: Keep asking how they’re managing their workload. What isn’t working for them? How can you best support your employees? Afterward, follow up by offering tangible solutions.
Show genuine care
According to software company Limeade’s Employee Care Report, 1 in 3 employees have left a job because they didn’t feel their employer cared about them as a person. And 1 in 5 ended up leaving a job because their employer didn’t support their well-being. These findings are especially significant now when most people are burning the candle at both ends.
“Employee care should be at the core of any action,” the report states. “Tackling burnout is about identifying problem areas, tracking them, intervening at the group level and constantly working to resolve the issues.”
To put it plainly, keeping morale high during a worldwide crisis isn’t just about increasing team productivity with easy incentives. It’s also about focusing your efforts on the big picture: avoiding employee burnout and prioritizing their emotional well-being.
Focus on fulfillment, not incentives
Since launching my business, I’ve also learned that incentives alone aren’t enough to boost morale over the long term. In an article for Harvard Business Review, coauthors Frank Martela and Derin Kent write, “In dire times, it’s natural to question the meaningfulness of your work. When your world is shaken by a massive disruption, your job may seem insignificant and even pointless.”
As I mentioned, fulfillment in every sense of the word seems like wishful thinking right now. Yet, it’s what employees most crave: work/life balance, and a sense that what they do matters amid so much uncertainty.
Considering your employees’ needs, inspiring and motivating them—all of this is something strong leaders were likely already doing in normal times. But it’s taken on even more relevance now. “Finding purpose during a crisis is more than making a temporary situation bearable,” write Martela and Kent.
Today, my team and I continue adjusting to our new normal, and I’ve made it a point to show my team I have their back—by hosting virtual coffee breaks for them to vent and let off steam, by giving personalized praise to each team member for all their contributions, and by cultivating a sense of trust with flexible scheduling.
While I can’t offer my team the deep fulfillment that comes from knowing when this crisis will end, I can find ways to mitigate their stress and help them stay connected to each other, thus building lasting morale.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.