Motivation is a delicate issue.
The now-maligned "hustle culture" was previously sustained by a cultural obsession with productivity. Working smarter and faster is always better, the thinking goes. But the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing economic and emotional fallout revealed the cracks in that system. Now, urging workers to try harder and stay motivated when the world feels like it's falling down feels disingenuous, or even destructive.
But no workplace–or worker–would refuse a morale boost if it's delivered with authenticity. Every employee’s situation specific to them and deserves a specific set of tools. An employee who's feeling uninspired might not enjoy the new responsibility of training incoming employees, but someone who feels like they've plateaued and is seeking new growth opportunities might thrive in that situation. Someone who is coming back from a furlough is going to have a different outlook than someone in management who hasn't had a free moment since March.
My guided journal Do It For Yourself offers prompts to encourage creativity and productive work, and these strategies can be applied to companies, and the people who keep companies running. Here are a few situations you might recognize, and how you might be able to respond.
When Time Feels Untethered to Reality
How can we respond to fatigue, indecision, and setbacks? How can employees think positively about their careers, both in the day-to-day grind and in the larger arc of their lives? There is no simple trick for them to orient themselves in the arc of time (if there was, Jeff Bezos would be selling it right now), but there are a few tools we can use to think about our careers and companies almost from an outsider's perspective.
Shuffling the same to-do list around every day often makes you lose sight of the larger goal. What is this all for, anyway? To frame the future for your workers, go big: Write a future Wikipedia entry for the company, and encourage employees to write one for themselves. Detail what you've already accomplished and where you want to go, all in third-person perspective. Remembering the big dream can help you work backwards to set daily, weekly, and monthly goals.
When They Need to Be Selfish for Their Own Good
There are so many pressing demands on our time, energy, and emotional resources. For some employees, work might fall to a lower priority than taking care of their family or other concerns. And you know what? It's OK. Or it should be OK. Being an empathetic manager starts by understanding that no one should be expected to prioritize their 9-to-5 over everything else. To build themselves up, sometimes they need to do something for themselves. Maybe that looks like taking a vacation day, even in the middle of a big project. Maybe that looks like allowing employees to work with more freedom. Everyone is adapting–and the way to ensure employees' happiness in the long-term is to recognize that work should ideally be a place not to drain our limited energy, but to sustain it.
When They’re Faced With a Ridiculous Deadline
The wheels of business continue to turn, and with Q4 chugging along, you might be making up for lost time, turning toward larger projects, or already feeling the pre-holiday madness. What your team needs is sprint energy and a clear goal. It's easy to say, "Work faster! Work harder!" but the truth is everyone is probably already working as fast and as hard as possible.
One strategy you can use to urge everyone forward is to remind them of the past. Think back: It's likely your team has seen this hurdle before (or a variation of it), whether it was a dash toward releasing a new product or meeting a quarterly quota. Remind the team of how they jumped this hurdle in the past. Maybe they formed new collaborations, reframed the goal, or adjusted the timeline. What worked once can work again. The circumstances are different and more complicated but recalling their previous ingenuity can encourage resilience in tough moments.
When They Need More Human Connection
"Zoom fatigue" has become so common that people are planning vacations simply to get away from their screens. This has profound effects on employee behavior. Meetings feel more like a chore than ever before. Even if your company has mastered the transition to remote work, we're more than six months into the pandemic and it's time to refine your system, or at least add more of a human touch.
You can still conduct business while remembering you're all people on the other side of the screen. The next time you're having a routine meeting, try opening by asking everyone to go around and briefly talk about someone they admire. Whether their answer is a grandparent, colleague, or a Fortune 500 CEO, the act of reflecting on this person–and why they're so notable–can tell the rest of the group a lot about them and share in their goodwill.
A few additional ideas for improving and humanizing Zoom and Slack:
•Ask everyone to share the best thing they've read recently in the chat.
•Have "blackout" times on Slack. These are specific hours where everyone logs off and commits to one task instead
•Try "silent Zooming." Sounds counterintuitive (more Zoom?), but rather than having meetings that exhaust everyone with discussion, simulate your old office environment by joining a Zoom where a bunch of people gather in a library-like setting, doing their work without an obligation to say anything.
•And it never hurts to shorten a meeting by 15 minutes.
When They Return After a Crisis
There seems to be a welcome new element of empathy going around, at least when it comes to friends, acquaintances, and coworkers. Call it a kind of communal commiseration. So many people have known someone who's had a health crisis (or been sick themselves) or been affected financially, that there's a deeper understanding that everyone is trying their best. Office griping now feels tedious among our shared knowledge of what hard things really look like.
If your employees are going through their own crises, don't underestimate the power of simplicity. "We missed you." "You don't have to apologize for not being here." "Your help is invaluable." When life is moving fast, it's easy to forget to show gratitude. Take a moment and say the words. Reassure them that they haven't missed anything major and to not stress out over catching up. One saying that feels particularly apt in this moment is "things of quality have no fear of time."
When Their Energy Levels Aren’t in Sync
Even if days feel the same lately, there are still ebbs and flows to the work day. Research has shown there's a link between time of day and mental task alertness, and still more research has shown people are more likely to be ambitious and self-confident early in the day. To better understand the peaks and valleys of the people around you, try checking in on specific energy or focus levels. Say, for example, at the beginning of a meeting. You can ask everyone what their energy is at the moment on a scale of 1 to 10. They can say their answer or record it in the chat. At the end of the meeting, re-ask the question. The simple act of quantifying and acknowledging something ephemeral like "energy level" can clear the cobwebs. Our coworkers usually aren't ignoring us, and many office frustrations can be attributed to more personal aspects of people's lives. Opening up clearer channels of communication and not being afraid to fully own up to the fact that sometimes work is hard and sometimes everyone's exhausted can ease a burden you didn't know was there.
When the Company's Future Is Uncertain
One saying that feels particularly relevant during these few difficult months is "the only way out is through." So simple it could be a cliche, but it's incredibly effective. Clearly, every industry has fundamentally changed and the future is hazy. But while the natural inclination is to hunker down and cling to what worked in the past, this moment deserves the opposite: a full embrace of the future, whatever that may be.
If employees are mired in the daily grind but there's been no company talk of 2021 goals, that can create a situation ripe for whispering Slack convos and confusion. And asking employees to continue at a breakneck pace without reflecting on their hard work and adaptability might get them thinking, "Well, everything else is changing, why don't I start looking around, too?" It's easy to lose motivation if they're thinking that maybe the company won't be around in a year or that they haven't had any words of encouragement from management.
Even if you can't offer definitive answers, one exercise to try as the year winds down is to encourage a dialogue about what we should all leave behind–and what we want to embrace and move toward. Focus on the individual rather than the company. Have a candid discussion about the situations and work expectations that are better left in 2020, but encourage forward-looking thoughts, too. Maybe the company won't be around in a year, or maybe your workforce will undergo radical changes, but it's crucial to remember that you're here together now, and you can encourage each other now. You cannot let the precariousness of today distract you from the inevitability of the future. Lift up and encourage one another not because you're coworkers, but because you're human.
Kara Cutruzzula is a journalist, playwright, and author of Do It For Yourself, a motivational journal designed to guide people through their work and creative projects.