It is not only easy but hardwired into our lizard brains to have a fight-or-flight reaction to a “crisis.” After all, we’ve got to survive! What that means is we often forget the everyday things that we might otherwise do, because we are immersed in the urgency of the crisis and performing with a laser focus. When operating in this environment for a prolonged period, the risk of employee burnout and depleted morale grows substantially.
COVID-19 is the latest example. While I’m admittedly a non-essential employee, I’m still very much in high gear, working longer hours and with much higher visibility than before. Operating in what feels like a state of constant pressure, I paused and reflected on my experiences throughout the pandemic so far. I thought about the everyday interactions that have recharged me during those times when I felt like I needed to crawl into a hole, never to resurface. To kick-start a “pay it forward” cycle of positivity with my teams, I’ve focused on practicing these actions more intentionally in my everyday interactions.
You may be tempted to think that the actions outlined below are simply niceties (after all, they are nice). Yet, they also conveniently reinforce the principles of behavioral science and, in turn, are proven to drive motivation and productivity. They map to Daniel Pink’s key motivators, as outlined in his oldie but goodie, Drive. Those motivators are:
- Autonomy: Our desire to be self-directed. It increases engagement over compliance.
- Mastery: The urge to improve our skills.
- Purpose: The desire to do something that has meaning and is important. Businesses that only focus on profits without valuing purpose will end up with poor customer service and unhappy employees.
No matter the unique circumstances, we’re all facing more than we were before the pandemic, and sometimes that’s just hard. In a scenario that the world has never seen before, there’s a lot we can learn by exchanging insights from our shared experiences. In that spirit, below are five simple and scientifically backed tactics you can use to boost employee morale in your organization. Best of all, they are free and require little effort.
- Say "thank you." Purpose: Simply stop to express gratitude. A colleague taking the time to pause and show appreciation is more impactful in a time when everyone’s output is in full throttle. People need to know their effort matters.
- Tell people they're doing a good job when they are. Mastery: This is a simple action that is easily overlooked. If you want employees who are doing good work to keep doing it, make them aware that they’re performing strongly. It’s a win-win, yielding both short-term morale benefits and supporting long-term retention.
- Give permission to take a break. Autonomy: Encourage a luxurious, hour-long offline lunch break or an early sign-off. The downtime is a force multiplier for quality and productivity. Anything that breaks the cycle employees are in—even if it’s a redirect of focus on a passion project—will bring renewed energy and focus when they return.
- Ask how you can help whenever possible. Purpose: Don't offer to help a team member if you’re not able to help, but if you have the time, capacity, or skills, offer it. The gesture alone demonstrates care, even if the employee doesn't take you up on it. It reminds employees that they are part of a team.
- Give the gift of presence. Purpose: We are all tempted to multi-task. Yet as the lines between home and work continue to blend, it's sometimes unavoidable. If you must multi-task, be transparent about it. And if it's a significant conversation, then very clearly demonstrate attention and even verbalize that you will not multi-task. Now more than ever, attention is a precious resource that goes a long way in helping your team members feel valued, cared for, and understood.
Some of these actions may not come naturally to you. That’s okay. Start by choosing one and aiming to try it once a day (or once a week) for members of your team. You will undoubtedly make their day, and that just might be the day that they wanted to give up.