How to reinvigorate post-COVID employees.
Anita has returned to the office after weeks of working from home. To her manager’s surprise, she no longer exhibits her customary drive. She seems disengaged with her work and uninterested in customers.
Robert continues to work from home because his duties do not require an on-site presence, but his supervisor notices that Robert’s motivation has declined. The one-time dynamo no longer bubbles with creative ideas that help drive profitability.
Your success in the floral industry depends on your ability to light fires under anyone who seems to have exhausted his or her inner resources. How? I’ll answer that question shortly, but first, let’s examine why workers might feel a slump in enthusiasm.
“Employees everywhere are feeling a high level of anxiety because of COVID-19,” says Jack Altschuler, president of Fully Alive Leadership, a motivation and training firm for business executives, owners and managers in Northbrook, Ill. “Anxiety makes people see everything in the light of their fears.” And fearful people, he says, perform poorly. “The energy that would normally go to their work goes, instead, toward worrying about the health and financial survival of their families and themselves.”
Much of this worry takes the form of unanswered questions. “Employees are concerned about many unknowns caused by the virus,” says Dr. Karlyn Borysenko, principal at Zen Workplace, a business environment consulting firm outside of Boston, Mass. “They ask questions such as, ‘Is my job safe?’ ‘Will the business survive?’ ‘How will the pandemic affect the economy?’ ‘Can I believe what the boss is saying?’ These questions and others reflect uncertainty, and uncertainty is always a challenge to motivation.”
The problem is made worse by the insecurity of bosses and managers themselves. “If they don’t know what’s going on, they don’t have a way to comfort employees with information,” says Borysenko. Winging it, while tempting, can make matters worse.
“If you are not sure about something, say you don’t know,” says Borysenko. “Then follow that up with something like, ‘As soon as I do know, I will tell you.’”
The goal is to assure people that management will respond quickly to new information as it is discovered. In the meantime, employees should know the business will reduce the risk of harm by taking extraordinary safety measures.
If anxiety is a highly individualized phenomenon, so is its cure: Bosses must renew connections with their staff and retool the working environment in response to individual needs. “Everything that happens right now in the workplace must revolve around the needs of each employee,” says Altschuler.
The launching pad for this initiative is the expression of a genuine concern for the staff’s well-being. “Employees want to feel cared about,” Altschuler continues. “When an employee knows the boss cares about him or her, the last thing that person wants to do is let the boss down.”
Consider the case of Anita from our story’s opening. Although she has expressed some good feelings about returning to the workplace, much of her current malaise likely derives from her concern about the safety of that very environment. Management must convince her that everything possible has been done to reduce risk.
“The source of anxiety for people like Anita is often fear of the unknown,” says Martha Forlines, president of Belief System Institute, an organizational and leadership development firm in Atlanta, Ga. “Employers need to continually remind their charges about the safety precautions taken to keep everyone safe, including disinfection of the workplace, assuring the availability of face masks, and the steps taken to maintain social distancing.”
While some of the COVID-19 fears are obvious, others may not be. Employers should encourage two-way communications with employees to uncover unanticipated fears. “Ask employees what they need to make them feel motivated and good about their working conditions,” says Forlines. “Their answers will take the guess work out of the equation.”
Now, how about Robert, who is still working from home? Recharging his batteries may prove more challenging than the same task with Anita. While this is likely less of an issue in the retail and growing segments of the floral industry, other segments such as wholesaling and importing can more easily conduct business with remote employees, especially sales.
The absence of interpersonal contact is likely the root of the problem. Not only is there a joy in working together with others in a shared environment, but solitude can also magnify COVID-19 fears. “A lack of face-to-face contact does have an effect on people,” says Altschuler. “They start to feel more uncertain and fearful.”
Employees unmoored from traditional working environments can also experience a loss of purpose. “Remote workers can lose clarity about why they are doing what they are doing, about the so-called vision statement,” says Altschuler. “It’s easy to forget they are engaged in something noble and helpful.”
Millennials can be especially sensitive to such a moral vacuum, he adds. “More than previous generations, millennials put more value on meaningful work.”
Finally, people separated from their colleagues can miss the satisfaction of performance feedback. “One of the things that motivate people is a feeling of mastery over their work,” says Altschuler. “And that feeling fails to grow when they are not working closely with the other members of their team.”
The solution to these problems starts with more frequent engagement. “Establish a shorter communication cycle time” says Altschuler. “If you scheduled a weekly check- in before employees started working from home, that may not be sufficient now. Remember that you no longer benefit from those quick water-cooler conversations to fill things in. So maybe now you need to have everyone check in twice a week.”
Employers also need to show interest in remote workers’ working habits and emotional states. “Home workers tend to spend more hours at their desks and often fail to get enough physical exercise,” says Borysenko. “That can affect their focus during the day and translate into productivity problems.” Managers need to give permission to take breaks and walks.
Employers can also encourage home workers to network as a team and engage in activities that improve their psychological well-being. Perhaps they can organize exercise groups, conferencing on cell phones during walks.
“Try organizing remote workers in pairs and have them work on tasks together so they do not feel so isolated,” says Altschuler. “You might establish a larger mission by organizing a Red Cross blood drive [redcrossblood.org] or a volunteer group at a food bank. Such ‘culture building activities’ bring people together.”
If Anita and Robert represent employees in general, the advice for remotivating them is valid. But in human psychology, one size does not fit all.
“Effective leaders realize that people are motivated by different things,” says Dennis Whittaker, Ph.D., a Charlotte, N.C. based psychologist who specializes in corporate psychology. “They make an effort to discover each person’s “hot button” (motivator), and then push that button every day.”
Some people may be motivated by status and by sales results. Others may be motivated by workplace stability, by joy in the process, and by the details of their work assignments. People often possess mixed motivational bags. Sometimes you can ferret out hidden motivators by just asking. Other times, employee actions can be revealing.
“Pay attention to what people do well,” says Borysenko. “When you see employees who thrive in group settings, for example, you can be sure they are motivated by collaboration.”
One final thing: Many employers assume that financial compensation is a prime motivator. But experience shows that employees usually want something more.
“Money is just a ‘satisfier,’” says Forlines. “If you pay people fairly for their expertise, money will not be an issue. As a productivity booster, money falls short.”
Successful motivation occurs by re-engineering the workplace in ways that stimulate each individual’s hot buttons. “There is a fallacy that you can motivate people,” says Dr. Kevin D. Gazzara, founder and senior partner of Magna Leadership Solutions, a leadership development firm in Phoenix, Ariz. “That’s not true. What you can do is create an environment that raises the potential for motivation.”
For example, most employees will respond productively to a gradually increasing degree of autonomy. Encouragement such as “Use your judgment about the best way to get this done” will help spark creative initiative by focusing on results rather than method.
Providing the right degree of autonomy, though, can be a balancing act. “You need to create a motivating environment in which the work given people is challenging enough for them to avoid boredom but not so intimidating as to cause anxiety,” says Gazzara. “When people have the right balance of challenge and skill, they can get into a zone I call ‘the flow.’ And then their engagement goes way up.” The right amount of autonomy will encourage employees to exercise creativity in problem solving and to master new skills. They will also see their work as having a meaning deeper than just the earning of a paycheck.
“Engaged people enjoy what they do, do more of it, and work longer and harder,” says Whittaker. “As a result, the business gets more mileage out of their working hours, and that is the definition of productivity.”