Maintaining Staff Morale in Covidian Times

The pandemic has stuck around longer than anyone has expected, and now we all face a Wisconsin winter under these unusual circumstances. Even without the days getting shorter and the weather getting colder, keeping staff morale at its best has been difficult. WBA sought out some of the best practices from WBA Associate Members to make sure morale in the workplace continues to thrive.  

Reconsidering Culture 

The first step to keeping everyone motivated and engaged might sound simple, but it’s one that is often overlooked. Reconsidering the workplace culture doesn’t mean restructuring the entire workflow, but Executive Coach Sarah Noll Wilson finds it helpful to approach morale as something that requires a bit of rethinking from time to time, especially during uncertainty.  

“When I think about morale, I’m not thinking about how I can make people happy,” said Wilson. “I’m thinking about how to make people feel safe given the current conditions we’re going through, and the happiness follows.” 

For Wilson this means basing culture around how everyone is treated rather than the events or activities surrounding it. This commonly focuses on assuring that staff feel their work has purpose and their interactions are genuine. Currently it’s about feeling safe and supported.  

“People have to feel safe before they can begin to care about clients,” said QTI Director of Employee Experience Beth Weiler. “We can’t boost their morale if they don’t have that security and trust.” 

Part of this trust is allowing flexibility. Letting staff take ownership of their daily tasks instead of a strict schedule allows them to reach out to others when needed. It’s an approach that Plante Moran Partner Kyle Manny said is critical to assuring that workers are heard, receiving the resources they need, and satisfied with their contribution. 

“A flexible and open culture is something that should be engrained early,” said Manny. “Regardless of whether a person is an administrative professional or a client-server, the expectation should be that if somebody reaches out and asks for help, client or colleague, you’re going to do that. Culture to me is being able to empower professionals so they're willing to ask for that help."

In other words, workplace culture should not be defined by morale. Everything surrounding the culture that leads to an employee feeling respected, supported, and safe will instead build and strengthen morale. The activities and events that have seemed to vanish in recent months will always be a good supplement, but assurance should come first so the happiness can naturally follow.  

“Celebrate the wins and create that culture where everyone is happy about everyone being successful,” Weiler advised.  

Checking In 

People deal with stress in a number of ways. To make sure this is being addressed properly, it can be helpful to develop a plan and have guidelines set in place for understanding where that stress is coming from and how it can be handled. Every organization should take a different approach to how they build these guidelines and tailor them specifically to their employees, but they should begin with outlining the ways to make everyone feel reassured as everything continues to change. 

Manny noted some of the ways that Plante Moran is doing exactly this: rolling out expanded work-from-home remedies which provide technological and comfortable resources to staff working at home, providing flexibility on how and when to take vacation time as they manage unexpected personal commitments, expanding their athletic reimbursement policy, and offering financial support for those struggling with dependent care.   

A plan should also include more than just benefits, Manny said. Highlighting the importance of regular check-ins can be a good way to identify when your staff might need a boost. 

“It’s important for executive staff to understand the mental health challenges that people are facing already and how that will be exacerbated come winter,” said Wilson. “It’s a balance. A company needs to make money and be productive, but that productivity should look a bit different given what everyone is going through.” 

When checking in, Wilson added to be specific with the questions you ask. Sometimes just asking what a person needs isn’t enough because the reality is that they truly don’t know themselves. Other times it can be difficult to articulate or someone might not feel comfortable beginning that conversation. It can be as simple as asking if they need any additional resources or if they’ve been excited about anything in particular. Are they hesitant or unsure in their response? This might be a sign that they’re in need of a morale boost. 

“Be intentional in whatever you do,” said Weiler. “Take some time to reflect on what a strong, trusting relationship looks like, both personal and professional, and see how they’re doing and what you can help with." 

For places that don’t have this type of personal interaction in the workplace, Wilson noted that it can be as simple as seeing whether anyone else is going through any of the same problems. When one member of a group she was working with assured her that the staff wouldn’t discuss their feelings because it wasn’t really their culture, things took an unexpected turn when one person said ‘I haven’t been getting the best sleep recently — has anyone else experienced that?’ The simple admission created an open dialogue they didn’t have before, and suddenly they were aware that many of them were going through similar struggles. 

Checking in becomes even more necessary with remote employees. It can be easy to check in with others when you’re physically near them, but that daily interaction might not be there with those working from home. It’s also not unusual that many of those workers will see significantly less nonverbal expressions, like a smile, than they’re used to. Routinely reminding those staff members through video chat that they continue to add value to the company is a small task, but it makes a huge difference in the way that person views their work.  

Especially with winter approaching, Weiler noted that QTI is planning a variety of new ways to keep remote and in-person staff involved as much as possible. From online cooking classes for the office to employee engagement surveys to virtual happy hours, she noted that it’s a lot of brainstorming and it’s never been more worth it.  

“Supporting our colleagues’ mental and emotional health isn’t a finite task — it's ongoing,” Wilson added. “We’re always going to be experiencing challenges. The more equipped we can be to creating an environment where people feel safe, supported, and have the tools to navigate those challenges, the better.” 

Candor is Kindness 

The overwhelming response to how companies have maintained staff morale offers insight into how everything else should be approached — when it comes to tackling difficult situations, transparency seems to be the most important factor.  

“I think we can sometimes be too afraid to admit when something isn’t looking great,” said Wilson. “The immediate thought is that you have to keep it positive and be a cheerleader, but sometimes the greatest gift we can give somebody is just admitting that it’s hard right now. You can be confident that it’s something you’ll figure out as a team, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s hard.” 

Separating the professional from the personal is a major part of being transparent. When staff are treated as humans first and employees second, they’re more likely to open up and provide their thoughts on how everyone can survive and eventually thrive.  

“Developing a personal relationship where I can candidly ask what people are struggling with personally helps to better identify the right solution for them,” Manny said. “Whatever we end up doing, we want to make sure we’re addressing the root of the problem and not just a symptom.” 

But being transparent doesn’t mean sharing everything. A great start is just to name and honor the challenges that arise, even if they can’t be fixed. It’s natural to want to shy away from uncertainty and focus primarily on the known, though being kind doesn’t have to veil the reality everyone is facing.  

“At our firm we say, ‘candor is kindness’,” Manny continued, “so we’re always making sure we communicate challenges and uncertainty that exist even when we don't know how our business and team might be impacted. On a personal level, especially now, knowing our leaders are informed, prepared, and willing to communicate gives me a lot of comfort in our ability to tackle any problem."

Reconsidering culture, regularly checking in with staff, and being transparent are all great ways to better understand when in-person and remote employees might need a boost of morale and how that can best be handled. But once the pandemic has ended and everyone begins to return to the office, celebrating events in person, and going about the holidays as usual, maintaining staff morale shouldn’t be put in the past. Giving the scenario the attention it needs now means constantly rethinking it for the future. 

“Recognition is free,” Weiler said. “People are doing great things every single day, and that kindness is contagious. Keep that kindness going, because it’s not a one-and-done situation, and remember that no one has it figured out perfectly. You just have to keep working on it.”

QTI is a WBA Associate Member

Plante Moran is a WBA Silver Associate Member.

By, Alex Paniagua