Tackling Low Morale Among Remote Workers

Author: 
Tanner Corbridge, Senior Partner, Partners in Leadership

While a lot of us have worked from home in the past, the numbers now doing it are unprecedented. Culture is never more needed than at a time of crisis. Morale becomes strained as outside influences push in. Many proven leadership principles will be the first to go by the wayside. Leaders can maintain morale by moving remote workers to a place of optimism. But that won’t happen on its own. 

Optimism is a choice, even when there is no evidence to justify it. Leaders must make a conscious decision to go there. There are a lot of things that can help. Step one is to get your own head right when the sky is falling, because optimism feeds down from the top. Keeping people engaged is complicated when we’ve been told to stay apart. To manage effectively and create action, we need to come together as we’ve never done before. 

Nurture An Environment of Hope

No one should be surprised if loneliness and strained morale arise from working remotely. The brain is wired to grieve and default to the worst-case scenario when change occurs. This so-called Negativity Bias is very natural and very real. The challenge of coping with negativity bias during a crisis is that we can become entirely overwhelmed and not see the path forward. 

The 10-80-10 Principle

Who may be thriving and who may need help? Partners in Leadership uses a concept called the 10-80-10 principle. In a crisis situation:

  • 10% will freak out and may make things worse. They may be tempted to check out and go on a 4-week Netflix binge.
  • 80% are stunned, paralyzed and bewildered. Their tendency is to hunker down doing what they know to do, and wait for solutions to come to them.
  • 10% will act calm and measured. They see a crisis as an opportunity to leverage change and innovate. They remain engaged. They ask, “What else can we do to thrive in this new world?”

The question becomes: How do you move the middle 80% to being reengaged? 

Workplace culture is evolving rapidly right now. Leaders are either intentionally managing it or it is evolving on its own. If you can get mind-sets right, people are going to act. Moving the middle 80% requires three steps: 
 
Step 1: Go Big With Actions

Be visible. To lead big in a remote world means turning on the webcams. It’s essential to interact face to face. Now is not the time to be stuck in the ’90s. If you’re slow getting on your camera, you’ll pay a price in the morale and productivity of your team. Anyone who leads a team, whether it’s three people or 10,000, needs to put a camera in front of themselves right now. That’s a necessary shift, whether it’s making a recording or moving conference calls to video platforms. 

Over-communicate. Fill the information vacuum with information instead of worst-case scenario assumptions. Overcompensate for geographical challenges.

Make the “why” compelling. Companies are shifting strategies rapidly. The tendency is to focus on what you need and when you need it. Spending time to make the ‘why’ more compelling will reduce the level of resistance you might have otherwise. 

Step 2: Shape Beliefs With Every Meeting

What’s the belief you want people to hold? It may be something like, “No one is taking a three-week vacation right now.” Or, “We can be more productive working from home.” If you believe your team is worrying about the uncontrollable, start the meeting by asking, “What can we control?” Then, whiteboard all of the controllables. After three minutes, the team is more likely to believe they are still in control. Managing beliefs is the most overlooked management element because it is the hardest. But doing so will create a stronger sense of team culture. 

Step 3: Leverage Virtual Experiences

Set the tone for each meeting. Recognize employees demonstrating extra commitment. Ask people to come prepared with evidence to justify optimism. Invite participants to share stories of what it looks like to live your company’s mission right now, given the realities you face. Stories play a huge role in illustrating how to show up and get work done. Some leaders may want to share how teams pulled together post-9/11. 

Lead Even Bigger with These Additional Strategies 

All workers now are going to be dealing with novelty and unique challenges and distractions. Leaders need empathy to know how to coach them. As a leader, make sure you’re attuned to your employees’ needs and current circumstances. If you have employees who are able to focus, then coach them on how they can be more productive. Here are some more ways to help facilitate that productivity:

Coach the bottom 10%. Even as you focus on the 80% of employees who are easier to move, remember the beliefs of this group are impacting the culture, wherever they fall on the org chart.

Don’t indict them for their reaction to the crisis. Be empathetic. They may not even realize they are feeling fearful or hopeless. Instead, establish clarity and accountability around outcomes. Set short-term goals (one week, one month) so people can see the small wins available to them. Encourage everyone to ask themselves what they need to do to deliver their results.

Make sure everyone feels heard. Millennials especially want to know they are making a difference. They want to feel connected. Include them, by name, in meetings.

Leverage employees who can help transform the business digitally. Seeing the world through their skill sets has never been more valuable than right now. They are accustomed to remote communication.

Encourage everyone to take accountability for creating connections. Remind them to reach out to people and not to just sit back and wait for connections to happen. This means turning on the cameras. This means asking for feedback. We’re surrounded by people around the world in the same dilemma. 

In his role as senior partner for the leadership and management training firm Partners In Leadership, Tanner Corbridge actively leads many of the firm's largest consulting projects, including the design and execution of multiyear client engagements.