Unexpected, dramatic change can be a huge hindrance on employee morale. Just ask any business leader trying to keep a team motivated during the COVID-19 pandemic. What makes this major change event especially challenging is all the uncertainty around it. When will the crisis subside? Will another outbreak occur? When can all businesses safely reopen? What will the post-pandemic work environment look like?
These are big questions, and the answers will only come with time. Meanwhile, many senior executives, including CFOs, must tackle a twofold challenge when it comes to their workforce.
First, you need to help your teams adapt to COVID-19 business disruption from an operational standpoint. It’s only been a matter of months since the pandemic forced businesses to go all-remote, essentially overnight. Employees at all levels had to set up workspaces in their homes with secure access to company data and continue pursuing key projects. Many companies, and their employees, are still transitioning to this new way of working.
The related challenge is strengthening employee morale. It’s an unsettling and frustrating time for many. Given all the changes and hard decisions executives must make to help the company survive, bolstering morale may seem like a low priority.
But morale is no back-burner issue, especially during this time. If employees feel unmoored and unsupported, they are not likely to be productive. Companies that understand they need to prevent sagging morale also recognize the difficulty in addressing the issue when potentially their entire workforce is operating on a remote basis. Two in three employers polled for a recent survey by SHRM said maintaining employee morale has been a challenge during the pandemic.
An opportunity familiar to many seasoned executives
As James K. Harter, Ph.D., Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace management and well-being, observed in 2009, at the height of the financial crisis: “In good times, employee engagement is the difference between being good and being great. In bad times, it’s the difference between surviving and not.”
Many senior business leaders — especially those who led teams through the Great Recession — understand that maintaining staff morale is a business imperative in times of anxiety. And some go even further. The savviest among them also see this trying time as an opportunity to rally their workforce and strengthen the company for the future.
Here’s how to keep morale high among your workforce and ensure your employees stay engaged and committed.
Determine if low morale exists and how widespread it is
You’ll need to accurately assess the mood of your workers. You can’t do this by just asking people how they’re feeling. Employees may fear that being frank will negatively affect their job security. Instead, you and your management team will need to look for clues that something may be amiss among direct reports.
In a typical office setting, it can be fairly obvious to see signs of low morale — changes in body language such as sluggishness or boredom at in-person meetings, for example. Or you may catch wind of more water cooler chat or whispers among colleagues.
But, when you’re working remotely, these once-noticeable signs disappear. You’ll have to be aware of more subtle distress signals from your team members.
Red flags of low morale include:
- Employees displaying resistance to cooperating with colleagues, a lack of initiative or an unwillingness to take on new assignments.
- An overall decline in work quality, along with more mistakes and missed deadlines.
- Team members stop sharing ideas or opinions — a particularly troubling red flag now, when businesses need to be creative to survive and grow again.
- Less frequent communication from your team, such as fewer project updates or requests for direction and input.
- Increased pessimism about the company’s performance or future prospects or criticism over management’s approach to the current crisis (even small, seemingly offhand comments can be extremely revealing).
In addition, late-night emails and employees who always seem to be online are not necessarily signs of a dedicated, engaged team. It may be that staff struggling with an overwhelming workload do not feel comfortable alerting you during an unpredictable time. The stress and burnout of working around the clock will cause morale to sink like a stone.
If you see any of these signs, or other troubling changes in behavior among your workforce, here are four actions you can take to help boost morale:
1. Show how the senior management team is working to stabilize the business.
Explain in emails or team video calls, first, how the business is working to protect employees’ health and safety. Then divulge as much as you can about how your efforts to continue providing outstanding service to your customers are going. What wins have you had so far using creative strategies to serve customers while your team is working from home? Employees already know what’s happening in their area or department, but they’d probably be very interested to learn how other groups are handling clients, both external and internal.
Reiterate that the company’s mission and values continue to guide the organization. Explain how they provide the foundation for the changes and hard decisions the business has made and is making.
2. Increase communication — with all key stakeholders.
During normal times, you’d put solid internal communication front and center in managing any major business implementation or pressing initiative. Now, that’s even more important: The COVID-19 pandemic is obviously much more disruptive than a new business system implementation or compliance mandate.
Match the moment with an appropriate level of communication to employees, as well as other stakeholders, such as customers, partners and shareholders. Make communication efforts clear, consistent and timely, and only share information that target audiences will find most relevant.
3. Throw a lifeline to now-lean teams.
Leaders within some organizations have been forced to make difficult decisions during these times, such as reducing staff. While those remaining are no doubt relieved, for the time being at least, they’ll need your help in handling newly adjusted priorities with fewer employees to share the load. The morale of people with more items on their plate than they can handle will plummet — and eventually lead to burnout.
Interim resources can be a lifeline for fully tasked teams until key projects have been handled and workloads subside for a while. The COVID-19 crisis is a strong reminder that businesses need a flexible staffing strategy to help keep things running smoothly in the face of disruption, and to seize new opportunities when good times return.
4. Embrace empathy — and remain human.
It’s not just workplace concerns that influence your team’s morale. There are personal ones as well. While this has always been true, it’s especially the case when everyone is working remotely and doing everything they can to protect the health of their family members. As people attempt to balance work with personal demands, like childcare, it’s easy for them to become overwhelmed, and even deflated, at times.
A leader’s role in holding the group together extends to these personal, human needs as well as business priorities. Quick, maybe 15-minute check-in calls about non-work matters on a daily basis are something staff are likely to look forward to. Discuss items like: How are people handling the situation? How are they keeping themselves busy or entertained outside of work hours? Using video calls makes it feel much more like a real get-together than a business meeting.
Offering flexibility is also important. Recognize that everyone’s situation is different. Some employees may live alone. Some might be caring for someone who is ill. Let them know they don’t have to worry if they need to alter their schedules somewhat.
Now has never been a better time for CFOs and other senior executives to institute an open-door policy — albeit a virtual one. Make it a priority to lend an ear to employees and remind them that they are not alone. Staying in touch with, and acknowledging, employees’ concerns and feelings is, perhaps, the most important way to ensure morale stays strong as the business navigates through this uncertain time.