During ordinary times, you don’t think all that much of the tiny interpersonal exchanges that underpin office morale. On a typical day, you might pause by a teammate’s desk to strike up a conversation before launching into work for the day. The acquaintances and friendships you build in those moments keep teams close-knit and establish a sense of purposeful togetherness.
But when everyone works remotely, morale drops. Suddenly, the conversations that teammates once had so naturally feel stilted and awkward. Idle chatter about office life or what someone did over the weekend through Skype or Zoom feels unnecessary, even forced — and not in the least because, with everything shut down, there’s little to recap. As a leader, you can feel the once-close-knit team ties unfurling into disparate threads.
Now, this sudden drop in morale might seem odd at first; after all, people did work from home before COVID-19. The differentiating factor is intensity — before social distancing restrictions, relatively few employees worked remotely all day, every day. While roughly 43 percent of American workers work at home some of the time, only 3.6 percent work remotely half-time or more.
Today, significantly more people are at home full-time. In a survey of 800 global human resources executives, researchers for Gartner reported that 88 percent of organizations nationwide have either encouraged or required their employees to work from home as a result of COVID-19.
Being at home round-the-clock without the opportunity to connect with team members in person can strain once-easy camaraderie and dim morale. One study conducted in partnership with the travel agency Ctrip and Stanford University assessed how round-the-clock remote work impacted staffers’ motivation and job satisfaction over nine months. Of the 1,000 employees offered the opportunity to work from home full-time, only half accepted. By the end of the nine months, only a quarter asked to continue working remotely. Why?
“The answer is social company,” lead researcher Nicholas Bloom summarized for Stanford News. “[Employees] reported feeling isolated, lonely, and depressed at home. So, I fear an extended period of working from home will not only kill office productivity but is building a mental health crisis.”
Other investigations corroborate and complement Bloom’s conclusions. In 2006, research published in the National Social Science Journal reported a “direct relationship between job performance and morale. When morale is low, productivity is low, and in turn, profits may be affected.”
All of this demonstrates that it is critical, imperative even, to address declining morale before it starts negatively impacting job performance and profits. True, social distancing restrictions may prevent team members from having the spontaneous interactions that fuel office camaraderie — but leaders can still take steps to encourage connection and boost team spirit.
One of the greatest threats to morale is uncertainty. Since COVID-19 began, sequestered employees can’t casually drop by a manager’s office and ask questions. Rather than occurring organically or spontaneously, communication needs to happen via written message or pre-scheduled video call. If leaders don’t make a concerted effort to reach out to employees and inform them of changes or updates, employees may inadvertently be kept out of the loop. This lack of knowledge can lead to uncertainty, worry, and even disengagement — all of which can, in turn, negatively impact morale and productivity.
Leaders need to take a proactive approach to communication. Host a semi-regular all-hands meeting to keep team members apprised of COVID-19-related developments and updates. Schedule virtual happy hours; set aside 30 minutes on a Friday to play a remote game. Offer your team the time and reason they need to socialize and reconnect with their team members.
Prioritize Video Calls
Never underestimate the connective power of a video call. While audio-only communications are quick and convenient, they often don’t have the connective ability that a video transmission offers. It’s easy for someone on a voice call to lose focus or check out altogether.
A video chat reminds us that we’re connecting with people and not faceless digital avatars. When we can see others’ faces, we can better gauge facial reactions for subtext and meaning — even if we aren’t in the same room.
Be Patient and Empathetic
In 2017, Robert Kelly, an associate professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea, achieved viral fame when his two children burst into his home office during the middle of an interview with BBC. During the ensuing chaos, Kelly struggled to keep his composure and continue speaking as his wife scrambled to herd the children back outside.
Now, all working parents are in Kelly’s shoes. Even during the workday, some employees will need to take time away to deal with bored toddlers and home-school older children. Barking dogs and noisy neighbors may interrupt conference calls; other responsibilities may take precedence over the usual to-do lists. As leaders, we need to be patient, understanding, and flexible in organizing an employee’s work around their responsibilities as caregivers. If team members feel heard and supported, they may be happier and more dedicated to their work.
One point is clear. Business leaders need to figure out how to maintain employee morale over distances, and they need to do so now — because the trend towards remote work won’t disappear when COVID-19 does. In fact, recent research conducted by Global Workplace Analytics indicates that remote work adoption rates will remain high even after social distancing measures relax. As researchers write, “Our best estimate is that we will see 25-30% of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021.”
Leaders need to know how to motivate a remote workforce, not just during COVID-19, but for the future. Why not start practicing now?
Written by Debrah Lee Charatan. Here’s what you’ve missed?
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