During this global pandemic, we are all navigating a new normal. Faced with tighter restrictions to our daily movement, most of us are working remotely. Many people now find themselves alone at work and are reliant on technology as their means of communication with the outside world.
Those of us with children are negotiating new work patterns that enable us to switch between parent and professional. Work-life boundaries are blurring and the human moment at work is becoming lost, therefore it is more important than ever for us to step back and look at our sources of motivation and engagement and to develop an appreciation of how we might help individual team members to self-motivate in these challenging times. So, what can managers do to ensure their team members remain motivated and engaged in these challenging times?
These are unprecedented times. During times of rapid change, people can feel confused, anxious and vulnerable, so it is important that line managers exercise transparency. By treating people as adults and being honest about what they know or don’t know, is an important display of trust, which is key to helping people to stay motivated and engaged. Furthermore, it is important that line managers are proactive in their support, for example, by regularly ‘checking-in’ with team members. It also helps if managers ‘check-in’ in a way that does not make team members feel they are being checked-up on, but instead that their line manager is available for them and they care.
In teams, we know that trust lies at the heart of engagement, so it is at times like these that managers need to display trust in their people by giving them the freedom and autonomy to work in a way that suits their individual circumstance and needs. It is important that line managers recognise that we all have different life circumstances and competing home and work demands. For example, parents whose children may be off school for an extended period, should feel empowered to work flexibly and to change their work patterns to help them juggle their competing commitments. Individuals should also feel they are able to take regular breaks away from technology and to limit their exposure to social media to enable them to physically and mentally switch off during the working day.
Make space for non-work talk
People have a lot going on in their personal lives at the moment, such as health concerns for elderly parents, financial worries, feelings of isolation or insecurity about their jobs, so managers should make ample time for people to voice their anxieties. Once aware of an individual’s struggles, is vital that line managers do not just offer a one-off conversation but continue to create the time and space for confidential non-work conversations. Unless there is a safe environment where employees can openly express their emotions without fear of judgement or reprisal, suffering can become ‘stifled’, that is to say individuals are unable to process their feelings and are prevented from healing. One of the ways in which line managers can learn to pick up on the signs of distress is by getting to know their staff at an intimate level. This, however, requires a relationship of trust, with trust being built when the manager themselves talks about their own personal life and challenges at home. That said, line managers should also recognise that everyone is different; some individuals might be happy to share their concerns openly in a team meeting, whereas other people prefer to disclose during a one-to-one. By creating a psychologically safe environment where people feel they can speak up without fear of judgement is a cornerstone of engagement, however, it is line managers who must lead by example.
Acknowledge that work is part of coping
For many people, work can be an important distraction, bringing much needed structure and routine to a life otherwise in disarray. It is especially important for managers to understand that being at work does not mean it is ‘business as usual’ and individuals are unlikely to be performing at their best in the current circumstances. Our mood and motivation levels shift daily, so managers need to be sensitive to this. If an employee is not performing well, a natural response is to become frustrated. In these situations, however, managers are better advised to work at suspending judgement and to instead ask questions with care and curiosity.
Each employer clearly has its own context, business priorities, policies and practices that need to be considered, so there is no one-size-fits all approach. However, there may be some good to come from these turbulent times if line managers are able to foster genuine care for their people. We know that caring managers are caring colleagues are two of the most important predictors of engagement, so from crisis comes opportunity for us all to build closer connections with one another, which in turn leads to healthier, happier and more engaged workplace environments.
Dr Amy Bradley is a professor at Hult International Business School. In 2020, she made it onto to the prestigious Thinkers50 Radar list of global management thinkers. Her research has been published in academic and practitioner publications including Harvard Business Review, Forbes Magazine and Management Today, and in the press, including BBC online and The Guardian. Her new book, The Human Moment has been longlisted for CMI’s Management Book of the Year 2020. In it, she argues that organizations must find ways of becoming more compassionate in an age where our work is increasingly de-humanized.