How to Maintain Your Team’s Morale and Productivity on Quarantine

If you are like me, you started quarantine with a warrior attitude. “I purchased an ergonomic standing-desk, subscribed to Asana Pro, and got the best noise-canceling Beats by Dr. Dre. I am going to wake up at 7:00 am, go for a run, and then work all day. What could go wrong?

As Marshall Goldsmith outlined in his book Triggers, most of us strongly overestimate our ability to deal with our environment, which is typically hostile to our intentions. The hostility can come in the form of Tiger King on Netflix, your one-year-old asking for water for the 35th time in five minutes or this weird smell from your neighbors cooking lunch. Our ability to fight these distractions is highest when we are fresh and lowest when we are exhausted. Over time as we get more and more exhausted, we start giving in here and there. I’ll just work in my pajamas. I can skip my morning walk today. I’ll postpone this laundry load…The productivity hit creeps up unnoticed.

In teams, the loss of productivity is amplified. Communication is both slower and more challenging remotely. We are less likely to ask a colleague we don’t know well for help. We are more likely to miss an important update because we didn’t stop by someone’s desk. It is more challenging for teams to start complex new projects that require cross-collaboration remotely. Finally, the sense of urgency to get things done goes down as we don’t see our team working hard around us. If one person starts loosening output standards, this is more likely to create a chain reaction if everyone else is exhausted.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

We are now facing an unprecedented situation where many teams are starting their second month on quarantine. Moreover, the first wave of new hires is starting to onboard completely remotely. Here are some recommendations for maintaining your team’s morale and productivity long-term:

I. Re-Invest in Your Culture and Create a Quarantine Response Plan

Strong company culture is crucial to pull teams through difficult times. People who are intrinsically motivated, show good judgment and a positive attitude can keep your team morale and productivity strong. Luckily, it is never too late to invest in your corporate culture.

Start with a “Culture SWOT,” and ask your employees to fill in a survey to highlight the strength and weaknesses of your culture. The famous Netflix corporate culture slides can be a great guidebook for a well-defined, productive culture you are aiming for. Focus on reducing operational complexity and processes and increasing personal freedom.

Wait, what? We should increase people’s freedom when they are already working from home?

That’s right. We want to encourage, and support people who are working hard to pull our company through these tough times. These people will keep working from home, from the garage, and from the moon. Let’s make their life easier.

At the same time lookout for team members with a negative attitude and ambiguous work ethic. Use the Netflix “Keeper Test” to help find such people: “Which of my people, if they told me they were leaving in two months for a similar job at a peer company, would I fight to keep at Netflix?” People who don’t fall into that category should get a generous severance package now so that you can avoid a downward spiral in morale and work ethic of your team.

Next, foster your team climate. Start with what matters most to people on a personal level. Too many times, companies throw lavish happy hours but forget about employees’ key personal needs. Do you have new moms in your company? See if they need help accessing baby products, breast pumps or lactation consultants. Do you have people with disabilities or chronic illnesses? See if they need help with medical equipment in their homes.

Educate all your employees on the state of the company’s business. Be honest. As Ben Horowitz advises in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, “Don’t be the executive who comes by about once a quarter to blow a little sunshine up one’s ass.” Thank people for their commitment to the company and hard work. If you except tough times ahead, tell your team how you plan to push through and what your expectations are of their work. The golden rule here is - overcommunicate. Communication needs to be abundant even the best times. Remote communication in times of crisis needs to be overabundant.

Make a specific plan to address social deprivation and mental fatigue in your team. Opportunities here are endless. Here are some ideas:

- Start your day with “Selfie of the Day” pictures on Slack

- Introduce Slack channels for parents in your team to exchange photos and advise

- Plan virtual games to learn more about each other (e.g., “Who in our company climbed the Everest in 2017?”)

- Send your employees a “happiness self-care package”

- Organize virtual musical and poetic performance hours

- Host a virtual Zumba dance class

- Create a fantasy football team

- Play team-building games like the ones listed here

All of the challenging dynamics outlined above become stronger and stronger over time. Thus, it is crucial for companies to not only create a dedicated mitigation plan but also gradually increase support levels over time.

II. Take Your Remote Onboarding to the Next Level

Starting a new job is always stressful. Starting a new job remotely can be daunting. Over-invest your time to make sure your new employees feel taken care of. A checklist to consider:

- Make sure all IT systems are working 100%; proactively add new hires to the tools, Slack channels and calendar lists that are relevant for them

- Send new hires their laptops and reading materials a week or two in advance

- Review and update all onboarding materials and make sure they can be easily found on your website or corporate wiki page

- Hold frequent webinars to educate your new hires on company benefits, health insurance, and travel policies. Create HR communication channels on Slack to facilitate Q&A

- Send a swag package to new hires’ homes

- Send welcome emails introducing new hires a day or two before they start and encourage people explicitly to reach out to them

- Record a video message for new hires from existing employees

- Organize a virtual “welcome lunch”

- Assign a mentor who can set up virtual coffee chats and provide guidance

- Make a bi-weekly virtual meeting with company leadership for new hires

- Hold frequent product demo’s and technical trainings

- Overcommunicate: increase the number of meetings you would typically do to compensate for the loss of information while remote

- Follow-up to gather feedback about your onboarding process

III. Keep Your Team Challenged

Few things motivate top performers more than an exciting challenge. People don’t want to just survive the quarantine — they become stronger, learn and move forward. Help them thrive!

Adopt the Objectives and Key Results system or a similar output-driven SMART goal system to encourage people to focus on outcomes, not processes.

Pay special attention to aspirational OKRs. Aspirational OKRs not only foster creative thinking but also collaboration because there are hard to achieve on your own. Encourage cross-department brainstorming sessions focused on bold, exciting goals.

Photo by Minh Pham on Unsplash

Re-engage people who are seeing a reduction in their work level. Are you leading a sales team, and nobody is buying? Ask your team to revamp that old, complicated pricing structure, create exciting marketing content or help customer success with particularly challenging clients.

Here are some other ideas:

- Organize a team-wide hackathon to see how your company can help respond to COVID-19

- Provide access to virtual learning courses on platforms such as Udemy. Don’t forget to hold meetings to recap on learnings from these courses

- Introduce “book of the month” reading sessions

- Invite virtual speakers to share their experiences with your team

IV. Follow Best Practices for Remote Work

This topic has been addressed a lot, but it merits repetition. Introduce a set of best practices and guidelines for remote work. Address them on All-Hands explicitly and publish them on the corporate wiki.

- Ensure that no crucial performance assessment meetings and 360° reviews get skipped

- Provide guidelines for your managers for remote team management. For instance, it is harder for people who are naturally quiet to speak up in virtual meetings. Managers who are aware of this dynamic can encourage participation proactively

- Cameras are crucial for productivity and maintaining team bonding while working remotely. So is detailed notetaking during meetings

- People tend to take longer to get their points across in a virtual meeting, so reducing the number of agenda items per meeting might be a good idea

- Make sure you use your productivity tools to their fullest. For instance, try Slack polls to help people get a buy-in from their team remotely

- Look for dedicated remote working tools you might have otherwise not considered. For instance, try to remove background noise during meetings

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. — George Bernard Shaw