5 Tactics for Maintaining Strong Employee Morale During Difficult Times

April 6, 2020

Photo of father and daughter sitting at kitchen table with a laptop on it

Strong morale is never a luxury item; it’s always an essential. And that’s especially true today. Companies that can sustain employee morale while coronavirus disrupts their business will be better off than those who watch it vanish.

“We can’t predict where the 2020 economy is going to go,” writes industry analyst Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte. “I do know it’s going to be tumultuous, difficult, and uncertain. In this environment, remember one thing: If you take care of your employees, they will take care of you.”

Employee morale isn’t like widgets, which you can count as they drop off the assembly line. It’s hard to quantify. But that’s just what Justin Black does.

Justin, an industrial-organizational psychologist and the head of people science for Glint, says: “For people like us who work at the level of deep employee engagement, the fundamentals are still applicable. People still need to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. So, things like taking time to reflect on what’s important is especially critical right now.”

In considering what’s important, here are five virtual — and virtuous — tactics for maintaining morale at your organization during coronavirus and beyond:

1. Identify what the main priority is — and cut back on nonessential projects

Justin says now is the ideal time to simply stare out the window for a few minutes and home in on what is most important. “Once you have that,” he says, “it’s more likely that you’ll be able to have a sense of mastery over your world at a time when you don’t have control over a lot of other stuff.”

Priorities are shifting, quickly and often unpredictably. So, it’s not just OK, it’s advisable to step aside to gain perspective. “It’s the same concept in combat,” Justin says, “where soldiers will take a knee so they can catch their breath and reconsider their situation.”

Another way to get more focused on what’s important is to let unimportant tasks and assignments go. Justin sees this as one of the critical things companies can ask managers to do to send a clear message. He suggests framing this as something to do, rather than as something to avoid. “Tell them to take one thing off everybody’s plate,” Justin says, “as opposed to don’t put any more on.”

In the vein of making work life more manageable and elevating employee morale, PepsiCo introduced the Process Shredder. The company crowdsourced 260,000 employees, asking them to “name one process that stops you from getting things done fast.” (At Pepsi, it turned out to be the performance management process.) So, now is actually the ideal time to consider what work is nonessential — and let it go.

2. Provide unprecedented flexibility to your employees

The fluidity of the current situation — social distancing, WFH, shelter in place, essential/nonessential work — demands flexibility from both companies and employees. Your business may have been built on a long history of 9-to-5 and you may head back there in time, but employees should now have unprecedented agency in determining when their work gets done.

“There’s no new default setting for working hours,” Justin says. “I think as individuals we can take ownership of our schedules, and HR can encourage individuals to just take ownership of their own calendar and be able to block everyone away.”

Employees should let their teammates know when they’re on and they’re off. “If you’ve got to take care of your family,” Justin says, “take care of your family.”

And employees should also feel permission to take care of themselves. “Blocking off time on your calendar daily to do the things that you need to do to stay happy and healthy is more important now than ever,” writes Erica Lockheimer, the VP of engineering for LinkedIn Learning. “Whether it’s scheduling time for exercise or just giving yourself a short coffee break to step away and unplug.”   

Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, is on the same page as Justin and Erica. He sent a memo (via Slack, of course) telling employees: “We got this. Take care of yourselves, take care of your families, be a good partner. It is fine to work irregular or reduced hours. It is fine to take time out when you need it.”

Essentially, Stewart is cutting his employees some . . . slack. It’s an idea worth borrowing. Google is showing its flexibility by postponing employee reviews. And Facebook did that one better by giving every employee an “exceeds expectations” review for the first six months of the year.

3. Ask for and listen closely to feedback from your employees

Right there in the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the need for belonging — our strong desire for social connection through family and friendships. “It’s very simple, right,” Justin says. “How do we help people connect when they’re socially distanced?”

Connection starts with communication, and communication starts with listening. “People just appreciate being heard,” Justin says. “People don’t need leaders to have a crystal ball right now.” 

Consider sending out a pulse survey with just a few questions to get a read on how your workforce is faring. Keep it short. Ask people how they’re doing. Ask if they have the information and the resources they need to work from home. And ask regularly.

Here are examples of survey statements you might ask your employees to rate on a scale that runs from strongly disagree to strongly agree:

  1. I am satisfied with my employer's response to the COVID-19 situation.
  2. I feel well supported by my employer at this time.
  3. I know what I should be focusing on right now.
  4. I have the resources I need to do my job.

It's also important to include an open-ended question for employees to provide additional details, such as: "What would make you feel more supported right now?”

“The secret here,” Justin says, “is not a perfect set of survey questions. The secret here is a really good set of habits at the manager level, where managers are just checking with their employees on a few of these key questions on a regular basis. In a resilient culture, you get managers in the habit of checking in with their people. And now is no different.”

Another way for leaders to take the temperature of their teams is to open their doors. Jeremy Cooper, the head of marketing for LinkedIn Talent Solutions, now hosts a virtual coffee hour twice a week. The low-key get-togethers (no one is required to come) give his team a chance to drop in on the boss, see how he’s doing, and let him know how they’re feeling.

4. Use fun activities to tighten the bonds with your teams

Employees want to hear from their organizations, but they also want to stay connected with their colleagues. Meetings or one-on-ones using videoconferencing platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, or Skype are an obvious way to do this. And many companies are encouraging work teams to use a chat tool like Slack, Twist, or Teams to talk, to check in, and to share anything that keeps them feeling connected — photos (pets and kids particularly welcome), recipes, playlists, Netflix recommendations.

Before coronavirus, most companies or work teams had regularly scheduled social activities they turned to for bonding. “For teams that would’ve had happy hours on a regular basis,” Justin says, “continue to do those and do them virtually.”

There is a lot that companies can do beyond hosting a Teams “water cooler.” For example, the London-based digital marketing firm Incubeta has instituted a five-minute virtual dance party every afternoon. Huge, another creative agency, has transformed its Wednesday lunchtime runs into virtual events at which colleagues share selfies and videos of their neighborhoods.

The London office of the global law firm King & Spalding has introduced a virtual drinks trolley on Friday afternoon, while the attorneys at Osborne Clarke have a virtual lunch they call “vunch.” Is vunch the new brunch?

5. Organize ways to give back to the community to bolster your employees’ sense of purpose and connection

Company volunteer programs are a powerful engagement and retention tool. Deloitte’s 2017 Volunteerism Survey found that 89% of workers believe such programs create a better work environment and 74% think they strengthen everyone’s sense of purpose. 

Given that now is not the ideal time for large-group gatherings, companies can make sure their employees feel the agency to take time to, say, run errands for elderly or immunocompromised neighbors. And if your company has a program that matches employee donations to nonprofits, now is the ideal time for a callout of that benefit.

Companies, of course, can set the stage for community service by modeling good civic spirit. For example, Apple, Salesforce, Facebook, and Johnson & Johnson all donated masks for healthcare workers. Uber Eats donated 300,000 meals to first responders and healthcare workers, and MGM Resorts provided tons of food to the communities in which it operates. U-Haul offered 30 days of free storage to college students who may have been kicked out of their dorms.

The perfume makers at  LVHM converted their factories to manufacture hand sanitizing gels for the French. Spirits distilleries from the Bay Area to the United Kingdom have also turned their focus to hand sanitizers. Ford Motor Company is partnering with 3M and GE Healthcare to produce ventilators, respirators, and face shields.

Final thoughts: The fundamentals of good employee morale haven’t changed

LVHM and Ford have been able to take their existing manufacturing facilities and convert them to produce hand sanitizers in one case and respirators in the other. No company can simply make adjustments on the factory floor and start producing strong employee morale.

But if you had good workforce morale before coronavirus interrupted your business, you already know how to produce it. As Justin says: “The fundamentals are still applicable.”

Free employees from nonessential work. Give them agency and autonomy. Talk with them. Listen attentively. Make work fun. Connect employees to the community. And focus on what’s important. Right now, that’s your people. As Josh Bersin says, take care of them now and they’ll take care of you later.

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