How Executives Are Keeping Up Employee Morale

By Rodika Tollefson, Contributor

Staying motivated out of the office—and with only pets or children as co-workers—can prove to be difficult. Add to that concerns over health and other uncertainties, then subtract regular human contact, and focusing on work can become a challenge.

The current pandemic has upended the lives of many employees, who now find themselves in the not-so-familiar territory of working from home.

Leaders are using creative ways to keep their teams motivated. From virtual happy hours and Breakfast Club Mondays, to work simplification and over-communication, C-suite executives are leveraging new strategies to help their workforce stay connected, get tasks done, and maintain well-being.

Growing Closer—Remotely

Marketing, public relations, and advertising agency French/West/Vaughan (FWV) has a highly collaborative, creative environment. The majority of the 120-plus employees at the Raleigh, North Carolina, location worked at the office. They also regularly got together for social events.

After transitioning to an entirely work-from-home environment in mid-March like many of us, FWV launched several new activities. With the regular in-person gatherings out of the question, one of the additions was virtual happy hour.

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Seeing each other’s pets, children, and home décor was a fun experience, says Chief Operating Officer Natalie Best. “That was the silver lining, to be able to see inside co-workers’ homes and apartments,” she says.

The co-workers have also been sharing their home workspaces as part of a daily Instagram series, #FWVWFH. In the past, FWV had Instagram employee-takeovers from time to time, but it was primarily to showcase client work.

“We’re trying to make sure everyone understands we’re all facing the same challenges together, and we’re trying to demonstrate it the best we can.”

—Natalie Best, Chief Operating Officer, French/West/Vaughan

Through the changes, the company stayed authentic to its culture. Instead of C-suite executives initiating programs from the top, a social committee brought ideas forward. “We want these things to be employee-driven and be born within our teams,” Best says. “We’re trying to maintain our culture and that style of leadership, and this might be even more critical now.”

The leaders are not completely hands-off, however. They encourage these programs by role-modeling and participating alongside everyone else.

“We’re trying to make sure everyone understands we’re all facing the same challenges together, and we’re trying to demonstrate it the best we can,” Best says.

Emphasizing Personal Interactions

Digital identity security company Keyfactor is headquartered in the Cleveland, Ohio area. Before the pandemic, about 17 percent of the 121 employees worked remotely from across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. In mid-March, the entire operation became home-based.

Mary Mathews, director of HR and business operations, says the company first looked at the existing initiatives to determine what could be maintained remotely.

“It is important to continue having non-work-related conversations and activities to partake in, even if we can’t do them in person.”

—Mary Mathews, director of HR and business operations, Keyfactor

Cross-functional lunches moved from restaurants to Zoom, with lunch ordered from employees’ local businesses. A yoga teacher, who offered a one-hour class at the office, now leads a virtual session in the middle of the day. While about the same number of employees attend the live class remotely as previously did on-site, others can also now participate on their own schedule by using the recording.

To make up for the lack of face-to-face interaction, Mathews and other leaders brainstormed ways to enhance employee engagement via digital channels. “We put activities in place that specifically focus on communicating about non-work-related topics,” she says.

Employees can now enjoy a cup of coffee and talk about their weekends during Breakfast Club Mondays, and share their musical talents on Open Mic Thursdays, all via video.

“Since we have so many musically talented employees, we thought this would be an awesome time for everyone to sit back at the end of the workday, listen to them jam, and chat about random topics,” Mathews says.

These activities fit the company culture, which is “one of the best aspects of Keyfactor,” she adds. “It is important to continue having non-work-related conversations and activities to partake in, even if we can’t do them in person.”

Focusing on Wellness

As a fully remote company that’s been providing online continuing education since 1999, continued didn’t have to shift gears for its 115 employees. And it already had virtual wellness programs such as Midday Motivation, an exercise and workout session led by a full-time, in-house wellness coach.

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“We tried to look at our existing programs and see how we could enhance or augment them specific to these times,” says CEO Tony Perlak.

As a result, the company expanded the frequency of Midday Motivation—which was already available to employees and family members—and also added a 30-minute class for children.

“It may sound like it’s not significant, but building on the fact we’re a work family, here to get through this together—even something like that fitness challenge goes a long way.”

—Tony Perlak, CEO, continued

As part of the company’s fitness challenge, teams typically compete against each other around goals like number of steps per day. During a recent challenge, however, there were no teams.

“We competed as one team against a goal,” says Perlak, who worked for 20 years in a brick-and-mortar environment before joining continued five years ago. “It was more around the concept of unity and ‘we’re in this together.'”

The cumulative effects of these initiatives, he says, add up. “It may sound like it’s not significant, but building on the fact we’re a work family, here to get through this together—even something like that fitness challenge goes a long way.”

Leading With Compassion

As a company with a partially remote workforce for the last decade, Dell Technologies has a variety of resources for distributed teams, including training programs for managers. To gear up for a major shift to working from home, the company created a centralized portal that consolidated all the assets and tools supporting remote work. Additionally, the portal includes other COVID-19 resources that range from global advisories to tips for managing stress.

“Our people philosophy has been anchored around achievement, balance, and connection. We’ve recognized in short order that we’ve got to elevate balance and connection right now.”

—Brittany Podolak, senior vice president, human resources, Dell Technologies

“We’ve also recognized that there are additional stressors for our team members at this time,” says Brittany Podolak, senior vice president of human resources. “We’ve helped managers and coached them to recognize this is a time for incredible empathy and caring.”

She adds that the leaders also understand that the workday doesn’t look the same.

“Our people philosophy has been anchored around achievement, balance, and connection,” she says. “We’ve recognized in short order that we’ve got to elevate balance and connection right now.”

At the same time, she says senior leaders set the expectation that team managers will change their leadership approach to lead with compassion. “Ultimately, what helps employee morale is to show this isn’t just a corporate environment,” she says.

Recurring Theme: Overcommunication

Overcommunication seems to be a common theme for executives leading remote teams in uncertain times. At FWV, the management team meets daily via videoconference instead of weekly and in-person. At Keyfactor, the all-hands monthly meetings turned into weekly remote ones.

Perlak notes that overcommunication is not about quantity but rather about clarity. That’s why at the end of February, he began discussing the coronavirus situation with the executive team, and the first week of March started sending all-company weekly updates. These updates include company changes resulting from the pandemic, such as cancellation of all company travel.

Perlak also says it’s imperative to reassure employees that flexibility is even more important while they’re facing new priorities, such as children at home or ill family members.

“We want to make sure we’re meeting external deadlines for our customers, so we don’t have a degradation of service,” he says. “But internal deliverables can be flexible and deferred, and that can include flexibility around performance goals, as well.”

One communication method FWV emphasizes less is email, and Best recommends the same to all executive leaders. Pick up the phone and call, or use a videoconferencing app, she advises.

“Do not rely on email,” she says. “Let them hear your energy—and your passion for what you’re doing.”