This article was originally published on 7 August 2020 on Forbes.com
2020 has tested everyone's resilience. The traumatic events of the first three months of the year — threats of war, fires, Covid-19 — were then compounded by a social inequality uprising with a call for change that challenged us all to face uncomfortable truths. Now, as a coming recession looms and we continue to deal with the emotional toll of living with new forms of background stress, we are also somehow expected to do our jobs well in a new environment that's not optimized for productivity.
Is it any wonder that employee motivation and morale have taken a hit?
Motivation and morale are different, and improving either means understanding that nuance. For example, you can be highly motivated — yet have low morale. Briefly, motivation is about our belief in our ability to do something; that “something” will then have value or impact; and that completing it provides a reward. Morale is more about our confidence, enthusiasm and how positive we are feeling.
A company's success is largely determined by the efforts and actions of its people. It's no secret that there is a positive correlation between motivated employees and their subsequent improved performance at work. Much as we may want to bury our heads in the sand and wait for 2020 to pass, a more productive way forward is to take action. Some factors are more responsible than others for negatively impacting morale and motivation. Let's look at those in turn — and see what employers can do to help.
The difference between expectations and reality sets us up for disappointment
Rule number one in consulting is to under-promise and over-deliver. That's the key to surprising and delighting clients. Since April, the University of Chicago has been following the same group of people to research how American views are changing due to Covid-19. They found that people reported that the virus ended up being much worse than they expected. That difference in expectation of a quick lockdown and minimal health and economic impacts and then the realization that we are in this for the long haul is demoralizing.
What employers can do: Morale needs a boost in this situation. Your leaders are perfectly positioned to provide just that. To do so, they must be more visible than ever before and put on a brave and confident face. That signals to employees that everything is going to be okay. And, people want to hear those leader voices. That means filming more short clips of leaders speaking, arranging more "ask-me-anything" type of Q&A opportunities, making sure more company-wide emails than usual come from the top to keep people informed of business bright spots, etc.
We are tired of working from home
While there is much to like about working from home — more flexibility, pajamas all day, no commute — the lack of a defined workspace, unreliable internet, being cooped up inside all day, blurred boundaries, and children and partners underfoot means our motivation can suffer. The environment is ripe with new sources of frustration. Many of us miss physically going into a space that signals to our brain that it is now time to work. We miss cups of coffee in the kitchen and spontaneous walks with colleagues. We're tired of video calls and the stress that comes with an increase in colleague misunderstandings that would not occur in face-to-face interactions. In fact, research has found that people are 2.5 times more likely to perceive poor work behaviors such as incompetence, mistrust, poor decision-making, lack of meeting deadlines with virtual colleagues versus those colleagues who are located onsite with them.
What employers can do: With regards to returning to work, provide a roadmap for how people can return to the office safely, and when that might occur. People need to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, as hope is a strong mood-booster. Until they are back in the office, reframe the working from home conversation to focus on the flexibility it provides. Encourage people to utilize that flexibility to take breaks when needed and work in the hours that suit them. Managing one's energy can greatly help with increasing motivation.
In terms of helping people manage new sources of frustrations, provide outlets for release. People may have this at home already – that friend they vent to, their daily run, or a nice glass of wine. Encourage finding that source of release in your wellbeing comms. You can also look for a way to provide an outlet for release at work. Maybe it's organizing a fun virtual event. Maybe it's an anonymous way to leave feedback so someone can dash off what's bothering them and then get back to work. You can also remind your people that we have a tendency to assume the worst — but it is rare that a colleague is intentionally being a jerk. In this case, picking up the phone or sending a quick chat to clarify intentions can go a long way to keeping smooth lines of communication open.
We don't see the visible impact of our work
When in the office, it's easier to share wins and get feedback that a contribution made a difference. Now, it has become harder to see the impact of one's individual actions. Additionally, in-person moments of rewards and recognition have become more difficult to recreate, leaving a gratitude void in some organizations.
What employers can do: You must be deliberate in explicitly connecting what people do at work at the individual task level to the external impact of those tasks. For example, if you have a marketing manager toiling endlessly behind the scenes, share with them how an appearance on a webinar they secured led to new work, or how an article they got placed in a high-profile magazine led to other opportunities. You can also crowdsource this search for purpose and impact by giving employees a chance to uncover this meaning for themselves. One client started a "Reasons to be proud" campaign to show employees the impact of their work on their local communities — a huge motivator.
Saying "thanks" can go a long way. This praise doesn't have to be in the form of a formal rewards program. Even just unlocking the praise feature within your enterprise social network and encouraging people to use it can go a long way. Or send hand-written notes to employee homes to celebrate big accomplishments. It really is the thought that counts.
2020 has been hard and we need to recognize that
Being kind to ourselves and our employees is the first step in boosting motivation and morale. Recognizing the immense stress the current situation brings — and baking that into your wellbeing and performance management strategies — is a crucial activity toward truly supporting your people.