Chances are, your employees are feeling stressed. According to the health policy organization the Kaiser Family Foundation, four in 10 adults report feeling anxiety or depression since the start of the pandemic, compared to just one in 10 in 2019. Emotional issues and burnout can impact a person's quality of work and productivity.
“Small businesses have an advantage due to their size," says Nancy Rothbard, a David Pottruck Professor of Management and Chair in the Management Department at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. “Leaders and managers can stay more directly connected to employees, even when working from home."
It's more important than ever that business owners support their employees by creating a thriving culture. These five steps can help engage your team.
1. Model Good Behavior
“If you want the culture to shift, you need to shift," says Kevin Eikenberry, coauthor of The Long-Distance Teammate: Stay Engaged and Connected While Working Anywhere and cofounder of the Remote Leadership Institute. “If you want the team to continue to build relationships with each other and be engaged, ask yourself if you're doing that. If every conversation is transactional, you're setting the table for employees to treat each other that way, too."
Make a point to connect on a personal level before talking about work. “Have a true interaction," says Eikenberry. “Modeling is the first step. Don't expect your team to naturally engage with each other if you are showing them you don't have time."
Prioritize relationship building and not just task-related activities, adds Rothbard. “Some organizations are scheduling virtual water cooler time to check-in and mix and mingle," she says.
2. Communicate Goals and Needs
To make sure employees are not wasting energy on things that aren't a priority, take the lead to clarify goals and check-in with employees. Ask what they need from you to help them do their best work, says Rothbard.
“When employees are working remotely, leaders need to be much more clear about their metrics," she says. “What are you expecting of employees? What are your performance targets? Are there daily goals or weekly goals or project goals that need to be met?"
3. Be Respectful of Time
Many of your employees are juggling work and home life, and managers need to be mindful of preferences and schedules, says Rothbard.
“If an employee with school-age kids never turns their camera on during the noontime virtual water cooler, be sensitive to the fact that this may be when they need to handle lunchtime for the child who is home doing online school," she says. “Perhaps rotate the time so that you do not inadvertently create exclusion."
Take the same approach to team meetings, adds Rothbard. “It is critical to think about the schedule you and your team have," she says. “If employees need to coordinate with other people, schedule a synchronous window of time that is acceptable to all team members."
4. Find Informal Ways to Connect
Set up free meeting spaces that anyone across the country that works for your business can join and maybe have lunch together, says Allan Jones, founder, and CEO, Bambee, an HR management services provider.
“At Bambee, we have virtual meeting spaces that anyone in the company can join at various times of day, whenever they'd like company and random conversation with someone that they work with," he says.
Ashley White, executive director of HR for APQC, a member-based non-profit that provides benchmarking and best practices research in HR, says leaders need to dust off their employee engagement programs.
“When was the last time you celebrated the birthdays for the month? Used your team chat to share a corny Dad joke or two?" she asks. “All these ideas and more are some of the ways my HR team is working to re-engage with our staff. We cannot gather 65 people in a room and throw a party, but we can certainly find small ways to remind them that they are the foundation of our company and we care about them. Dust off your fun hat—in 2021, you are going to need it!"
5. Shake Things Up
Look for ways to collaborate that don't require Zoom, says Jeff Grimshaw, coauthor of Five Frequencies: Leadership Signals That Turn Culture into Competitive Advantage.
“Recognize that most people are eager to work together again in collaborative settings," he says. “If you can't do it in person, consider using a virtual whiteboard, like Miro or Mural. A fresh format can renew a team's energy and tribal affiliation. Plus, they are spending time together actually creating value for the business."
Good or bad, every organization has a culture, says Eikenberry. “Cultivating a strong one is the most important role of the leader," he says.