2020 has been a tough year, and increasingly, business leaders on both sides of the pond tell us they’re wrestling with low employee morale. Addressing and improving low morale is important: it’s not something that will resolve on its own, and the resulting business harm can be lasting. 

The first step to take to boost morale at work isn’t to act — it’s to ask. Put another way, a dearth of pizza parties is not the root cause of morale problems, and as such, ordering pizza for lunch won’t rectify the problem. 

Understanding the root cause of low employee morale 

In that spirit, let’s go back to what we’re hearing from the leaders whom we’re helping address morale challenges within their companies. 

Some of the reasons they believe are causing low morale are unique to 2020: 

  • People are tired of the pandemic and eager to get back to normal, 
  • Parents are struggling with virtual learning, 
  • The chaos of pandemic has created an abnormal level of fatigue. 

Others speculate the reasons for low morale may be rooted in new regulations resulting from Covid: 

  • Contactless work that removes people from the customers they know (and in many cases miss interacting with) 
  • New work procedures – ranging from PPE to spacing – make work more complicated 
  • Conflicts between workers coming back from furlough, and those who worked throughout the spring and summer. 

Finally, staff reductions are never easy, and those necessitated by the pandemic are especially worrying for remaining employees, who may be concerned about their peers’ ability to find new work. Remaining employees also cite changes in workload, reporting lines and juggling new responsibilities as stressors caused by the departure of their coworkers.

“Layoff survivors’ guilt is very real and very common, even in a strong economy when the likelihood of former colleagues finding other positions is strong,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas at the firm, in a statement quoted in the TechRepublic article Workplace Survivor Guilt is Real. “However, now, the additional stress of working and living through a pandemic can make survivors’ guilt even more acute.”

To better diagnose what’s causing morale issues within a team, an employee engagement survey can be revelatory, enabling leaders to pinpoint teams that are struggling, so they can marshal more support. 

It may be challenging to gauge morale when many workers are still working from home,’ notes Andrew Challenger, in the same article cited above. “Distributing a survey to keep your finger on the pulse of morale and engagement can give employers valuable insight into how their teams are feeling.”

Helping employees cope with change to improve morale

There’s a common thread connecting all these issues, however, and that is change

In order to stick, change needs to be clearly understood, and employees need to buy into it. Helping them accept the changes is an important first step. Ensuring they feel in control of their jobs and destinies is the second. Together, these two acts will lift morale in a way pizza cannot. 

  • Show them the big picture and be transparent – Lack of understanding is the primary reason why employees don’t buy into change. Being transparent about the business (especially if layoffs are a factor) is critical. 

“Clearly state what is changing and why. Show employees where you are today and where you intend to be tomorrow. Make sure you show them why this matters to the organization, how it will positively impact their careers and how you plan to measure success,” wrote Lindsay Broder in the Entrepreneur article “Change is Good.” 

  • Personalizing the change in the context of individual contribution will help employees understand the role they play, and how their contribution will be measured. 
  • Let them see you care and are empathetic – Even if it’s after the fact, taking time to express the difficulty of the decision to reduce staff can be reassuring to your remaining team.  
  • Over-communicate. The number one thing employees want from their leaders, according to years of engagement data, is better communication. While communications are easy to overlook or delay, leaders should make regular communications – especially during a period of change – an absolute priority.

Ensuring employees feel in control of their job is important during a time of change. When people feel they have no control, hopelessness can creep in – opening the door for pervasive declines in team morale. Here are steps you can take immediately to put employees back in control of their destiny at work.  You’ll set them up for success and provide immediate relief from job stressors: 

  • Ensure workloads and responsibilities still make sense and are achievable. Work with employees to ensure workloads are rational, and that teams and leaders are aligned on expectations and priorities. 
  • Set clear goals that support the most important changes. Codifying employees’ responsibilities in terms of goals and incentives will help ensure the work is prioritized and the right behaviors are rewarded. Be sure managers are equipped to track progress on a regular basis to keep teams on track. 
  • Check-in with employees by conducting an employee engagement survey every quarter. Doing so will provide leaders with an at-a-glance view of which teams are embracing the change, and which need some more support – before the issues show up in business results. By surveying teams each quarter, leaders can continually identify, address and resolve issues that are impacting team mindset, morale and performance. 

Helping employees cope with the raft of changes they’ve faced this year will help you re-build team morale. Keeping tabs on the team’s spirits while the leadership continues to address problems within the organization will go even further to improve the team’s dynamics and performance, while at the same time making needed changes stick.