How you keep people motivated, connected and disciplined in COVID-19 extreme circumstances.

30 March 2020

As with any major change, we need to manage the transition. We need to take care of our health and the health of our business. And at the heart of both are people.

author picture Article written by Anna Balk-Møller

When a client asked “How do we maintain a sufficient level of connection with our team members working from home? And, how do we keep them motivated, involved and disciplined?”, we thought the answer could be of broader interest as we are all facing weeks of uncertainty, anxiety and confusion.

These are characteristics of any major change. And all of them are at play these weeks – massively. As with any major change, we need to manage the transition. We need to take care of our health and the health of our business. And at the heart of both are people. People who are concerned and confused. But at the same time we are required to perform in an entirely new way to minimise the effects of Covid-19 on our business.

But before I – for purely structural reasons – divide the question into social and business objectives, let me state, that our connectedness to other people is not purely a social need. It has positive spill-over on discipline, motivation and engagement as well.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow established during another crisis in 1943 ‘The hierarchy of needs’ which can be used to understand the order in which we need to prioritise. The social needs are so elementary that they affect the need of being disciplined, of achieving, of gaining respect, of problem solving, and of morality if not met. Therefore, I will address the social need before exemplifying how to ensure business elements in the times ahead.

But first, as a leader – regardless of whether you run a large corporation or a minor firm – you are now managing a massive change. You are the primary sponsor of this change and you have three responsibilities to take on, which PROSCI refers to as the ABC of Sponsorship in Change Management:

  1. You must be Active and visible
  2. You must Build coalitions with your peers and mid-level managers to make sure that you are all onboard and coming across united with the same, clear messages.
  3. You must Communicate directly with your employees (not just in the first week or two, but until we are back to normal (and even a bit longer than that)

How to ensure social elements of feeling connected, involved and motivated.

People are now primarily working in insolation. The idea of one or two days of working from home pales as reality turns days into weeks. Why do you think videos of neighbours singing together from their balconies in the midst of Covid-19 crisis are going viral? We want to feel connected.

Use social media to stay connected. Encourage the use of different social media such as e.g. a WhatsApp group for the team to share all the non-work-related chatter that would normally occur by the coffee machine, before meetings start or over lunch. We plan for the business-related stuff to continue as much as possible, but we should also facilitate that all the social stuff can remain. And we should allow for more time spent on this than what would be acceptable under normal circumstances. Sharing memes and jokes in the department’s WhatsApp chat was maybe ‘unprofessional’ a few weeks ago, before COVID-19 disruption. But now it serves a purpose far beyond laughter. So, allow, encourage, and participate yourself.

Use online meetings rooms for social events too. Along the lines of establishing a chat-forum for office humour, also think of online meeting rooms for social gatherings as well. Try having an after-hours bar, a lunch meeting or, as we do, 15 minutes daily ‘recess’ to just check in. People can join when they can and there is no agenda, no slides and no muted microphones. People can even prepare online games or quizzes which has the additional advantage of serving as inspiration to new online tools for working.

Use different applications to involve people working from home. Though pre-isolation we thought of ourselves as virtual savvy’s, we realise that being in online meetings all day, literally means an entire day of more or less passively looking at people and slides on a screen. And it is draining. Disengaging. As time passes, motivation starts to plummet. The online platforms surely give us a chance to keep working. But we still need to actively seek involvement.
At our company we absolutely love using ‘Poll Everywhere’. People can answer, vote, make input, suggestions and ideas on their smartphone which is displayed in real-time directly in the meeting presentation. Through that we get involved – actively. I will get back to more applications available in a minute.

Whatever you choose, make sure that leadership actively and visibly participates in the social activities too. Studies conducted in the field of Change Management have found that sponsorship is the most critical success factor for implementing change.

How to ensure business elements such as discipline, motivation, engagement.

Covid-19 massively threatens our basic physiological and safety needs which is the primary focus of the government regulations. When we have found routines and ways of connecting virtually (the need of belonging), we can start ensuring discipline, motivation and engagement.

Ensure motivation by taking care of other needs. Motivation is not a need in itself but is directly affected by all the Maslow needs. Motivation decreases if any of the needs are not met. After the need of staying connected comes the need for ‘esteem’. That is confidence, self-esteem, achievements and respect. To keep up motivation we must make sure that people have the knowledge and ability to perform their work in a new way. AND provide them with positive affirmations as research show that people are more motivated by positive information than by warnings. You can therefore: 

  • Provide people with the support and knowledge they require to work online/from home.
  • Provide regular updates on business progress to establish a sense of moving forward.
  • Share success stories – big and small. And share them often.

Involve to engage. Engagement happens through involvement. Though we love ‘Poll Everywhere’, we have also experience with other digital platforms for different ways of collaborating. ‘Klaxoon’ has a variety of different online functionality, ‘Synthetron’ is good when co-creating strategies and for direct feedback, ‘Mind Meister’ is amazing for online mind mapping and collaboration on ideas, and ‘Zoom’ is for meetings and online learning and have a great options for breakout groups.
Our primary collaboration platform is Microsoft Teams and like many others we are on the fast track to become ‘Teams user black belts’. Like any other company we have both experts and novices. So, first thing is to provide the support and knowledge of both functionality and best practice.

Discipline will become a challenge in the weeks to come. The final part of the question from our client was how to ensure discipline (with empathy and love). The first few weeks are basically about finding our balance, but if the situation drags on, ensuring discipline can become an issue. We are in what we call ‘the transition state’ of a change. This state is characterised by being messy, unorganised, less productive and loaded with emotional energy. This is true for any change. And usually good change management is trying to get through this stage in a good and quick way. But now we cannot know for how long we linger here. Hence, it is important to adjust the expected level of productivity and to communicate this.

The answer to the question is therefore to ensure discipline by clearly communicating expectations and keep communicating. And to do it with empathy and love means to manage the people side of this change as we should with any major change.

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