Working Hard to Keep Morale High

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It’s no surprise that strong morale contributes to successful outcomes for both employee and employer. In his article “7 Reasons to Care About Employee Morale,” performance management specialist Stuart Hearn shares that high morale at work has multiple benefits – employee retention, increased productivity, stronger work relationships, and fewer sick days to name a few. Focusing on your team’s morale is the right thing to do and makes good business sense.

As working remotely has become more common, leadership must now maintain positive morale from a distance. Teams accustomed to working in an office may miss the energy of the in-person conversation, the dynamic brainstorm session, or the impromptu idea exchange while others may find this new arrangement more productive with no commute and fewer interruptions. Learn how a few industry leaders have stayed in touch with their teams and had some fun along the way.


Regular Communication

When organizations were forced to quickly shift to working remotely, weekly meetings became a helpful tool for communicating with staff, continuing work that needed to be done, and enabling people to stay connected. Kevin Noller, Associate Vice President for Major Gifts at Villanova University, had a few staff members working remotely before the lockdown orders went into effect but other team members had to adjust quickly. On the second day of telecommuting, Noller’s team had their weekly prospect strategy meeting via Zoom. Noller said it “felt good to have that meeting on our second day in this new format. We needed to see each other and know that we could continue with our work.”

As working remotely became the norm, Noller and his team continued with weekly meetings and tweaked them to suit their evolving needs. Now the meeting includes general updates, recognition of gifts closed the week before and a new twist. Each week a director from Noller’s staff does a live interview of another staff member. It is a fun five-minute way for people to learn a little more about each other. Questions range from, “where did you go to college?’ to “where did you grow up?” to favorite sports teams to tacos vs. pizza? According to Noller, “everyone laughs, we learn a bit about each other, and it feels good to start the week that way.”

Kate Buchanan, Associate Dean for Alumni and Development at Duke University, School of Law, has strong opinions on the value of regular communication, especially during this time. She believes that transparency is essential, even if the news is not good.

“Transparency in how the office and organization is running is really important. Most anxiety comes when there is lack of understanding or certainty and in today’s uncertain times, it is exceedingly important to communicate regularly,” she says. “I share as much information as I have, even if I don’t have all the answers or if the news isn’t good.”

When their work shifted to remote, Buchanan started with a weekly huddle via Zoom with the entire staff to share information, updates and highlights. Having established a strong foundation, they now huddle every other week and she supplements with individual meetings by phone, Zoom, or in-person while masked and socially distanced if that is what someone needs.

Associate Vice Chancellor at North Carolina A&T State University Ralisha Mercer created “accountability partners” for her team.

“When I saw that some of my extroverts were not thriving with working remotely, we created accountability partners. Everyone has a person that checks in with them twice a week. They discuss what each person needs to do and how they are going to do it. Regular communication doesn’t have to only come from me.”

Her team also has Friday afternoon Zoom meetings that are more casual where they talk about workout routines, share menu items, and stay in touch on a personal level.

At Stanford University’s School of Engineering, Associate Dean of Development Angela Young has also prioritized 1:1 meetings with her staff. She has completed two rounds of 30-minute individual meetings with each member of her staff and is about to embark on the third round. These meetings do not have a specific work agenda, Young uses the time to get to know staff members on a more personal level. “I was relatively new in my role when we moved to working remotely so I wanted to be sure I got to know my team beyond their respective work responsibilities. I really look forward to those conversations.”

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Personal Touch

If you ask Wendy Schiffman Wilsker, Chief Advancement Officer at Jewish Family and Children Services, how she has managed to maintain morale with her team during this period of working remotely, she will tell you “with a little bit of everything”. Wilsker has weekly Zoom meetings with her staff and continued her regular one-on-one meetings with her direct reports albeit over the phone or via Zoom.

But when her team met a $1M goal for their Caring During Crisis Campaign, she knew it was time for something more. She purchased a small bottle of champagne for each staff member, a plastic champagne flute, a decorated celebration bag, and printed an “invitation” to toast their achievement via Zoom. Each package included a handwritten note which Wilsker boxed up and mailed out.

“Of all the things we have done during the pandemic, I think this was my favorite,” said Wilsker. “It is easy to rely on technology for quick communication, but we did something extraordinary and I wanted to make sure my team knew that.” As Wilsker looks to the future, she will continue to look for opportunities for special personal touches because feedback from her staff was so positive.

Ralisha Mercer was also having regular meetings with her staff so when the time came for her team’s annual staff retreat, she had to get creative. The retreat was virtual, so Mercer sent each staff member a care package in advance. She focused on the team’s business goals but also on personal wellness. The care package included a small candle to help with meditation, lavender for aromatherapy, an inspirational message, and a Panera gift card. She knew that everyone lived within 30 minutes of a Panera so during the retreat, they had time to order lunch for delivery or go and pick it up so the team could have lunch together. Mercer knows that her team has been working extra hard during the pandemic – as evidenced by their record fundraising year – and believes that it is essential that she expresses appreciation for them professionally and personally. “I care about my team and the work we do together and know they bring 100% everyday, that deserves to be recognized, valued, and nurtured,” said Mercer.

At Stanford, Angela Young created a “mugs up” moment for her staff. The fun idea of ordering a personalized mug for each team member was launched and the mugs were personally delivered to team members in advance of their virtual retreat. On the first day of the retreat, Angela asked everyone to hold their mugs up and she took a Zoom photo of the team with their personalized mugs.

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“Everyone enjoyed the moment and it was a nice start to our retreat because it gave us a shared experience and reminded us that we are not just individuals at separate computers,” said Young.

Kate Buchanan delivered potted plants to each of her staff members with a personal note. “It was nice for me to spend the time delivering the plants” said Buchanan, “I found it to be invigorating! I wanted to show the genuine appreciation I have for the work they do. Each and every person on my team contributes to our overall success and that feeling of teamwork can get lost when working remotely.”


Having Fun

Consider building on what you already have in place – if you have a weekly Zoom coffee hour, let staff drive the content. At Duke University, School of Law, the team does a “Wellness Wednesday” where periodically everyone is encouraged to step away from their home office, do something relaxing and share a snapshot of what they do. A staff member creates a collage of the photos and shares with everyone. Images shared have ranged from someone’s dog to an open book to a flowing stream. “It is a nice way to be reminded that balance is important in our lives too,” says Associate Dean Kate Buchanan. “We have fun too – we have had reason to celebrate recently with two new babies and a wedding so I sent some props via Amazon – backdrops, party favors – and we incorporated those in to a Zoom meeting.

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Lighthouse is a blog about leadership and management advice. In their article, “11 Essential Tips for Managing Remote Employees,” they encourage managers to get creative with group gatherings. Which is exactly what Kevin Noller’s team at Villanova did. Noller was very skeptical when a staff member approached him about doing a virtual talent show. He wasn’t sure anyone would want to do it but when the staff member persisted, he agreed to give it a try.

“It was incredible,” said Noller, “we had someone who is a classical pianist perform, three people sang, another played the guitar and sang a Lumineers song, someone told jokes, my kids did magic tricks. All in front of over 90 staff members via zoom. The staff member who organized it dressed his baby up in a tuxedo and had the baby serve as his co-host. It was inspiring to see our team’s hidden talents but more important it was fun and hilarious. It was the biggest morale boost we all needed and finally captured our special culture in a virtual environment.”

Focusing on morale is an important part of leading a team whether you are remote or in person. When your team is remote, you lose some of the natural in-person opportunities for team members to connect and feel appreciated. Incorporating practices such as regular on-line communication, personal outreach reflecting appreciation, and some levity when appropriate may help keep your team engaged and connected regardless of the miles between them.

Written by Megan Abbett, Lindauer Senior Consultant.