12 practices for how to build team morale remotely in the long-term, not as a short-term enthusiasm blip.
Now, more than ever, the question, “How to build team morale remotely?” is one you may be asking yourself.
From your team’s body language on Zoom calls, you can just tell. Folks look work thin. Energy levels are depleted. And if you let yourself admit it, you feel depleted as well.
You’re not alone. Thirty-nine percent of managers in a recent KYT Workshop Live! session with hundreds of managers from around the world, described the current level of morale in their team as “low” (out of 140 participants in the poll).
These are uncertain times. Amidst the pandemic and US election and everyone now working remotely, a swirl of fear, anxiety, and malaise have seeped into many teams. A heaviness is felt by many.
As a leader, it feels pressing: You want to turn things around, of course. To lift your team’s spirits and to figure out how to build team morale remotely.
But how exactly?
Here, I’ll share some specific practices for how to build team morale remotely, based on research from the past 20 years on morale – along with our own research of working with 15,000+ people over the past 6 years. A heads up that it’s a long read – but it’s because I wanted to do this critical topic justice.
Let’s dive in.
Defining “team morale”
Before talk best practices for how to build team morale remotely, let’s get clear on what we’re trying to improve, in the first place.
You can’t improve what you haven’t properly identified. As a result, we have to properly define what team morale is, first.
Morale is the outlook and sentiment of your team. It’s the way people feel about the team and the company.
Morale is not is the engagement of your employees. Employee engagement is the level of involvement and enthusiasm of your team. Nor is morale equivalent to motivation. After all, motivation is our own drive and willingness we have in the workplace. It’s our inner impulse that encourages us to do – or not to do – something.
Above all, we must not conflate morale with culture. As organizational scholar Edgar Schein delineated, culture is comprised of artifacts, beliefs and basic underlying assumptions. And while morale absolutely influences these elements and culture as a whole, team morale is a team’s sentiment – it is not culture, in itself.
To be clear: Morale impacts engagement, motivation, and culture, but it is not a sole predictor of any of them.
You’ve likely observed this firsthand. For instance, a team has high morale –but their culture is toxic to outsiders. Or perhaps, a team has low morale –but they have high engagement out of fear of repercussions if they don’t.
This distinction of morale is massively important. It helps us realize that team morale is only a lever, an input, toward certain outcomes that we want to achieve. This helps us avoid optimizing for the wrong thing.
On its own, high morale doesn’t get you anywhere. Rather, if we want to improve team morale remotely, that improvement in morale must serve a bigger idea. Perhaps it’s in service of a healthy culture or in service of hitting annual goals, or in service making progress toward your vision.
Whatever larger purpose that high morale might serve for your team, make sure you’re clear on it.
Ask yourself: Why do you need to improve morale? What is high morale in your team ultimately in service of?
In sum: Team morale is outlook and sentiment. If you want to improve it, it should be in service of a bigger idea or outcome.
12 practices for how to build team morale remotely
Now that we’ve honed in on what team morale truly is and how it should serve a greater idea, outcome, or aim, let’s delve into the best practices for how to build team morale remotely.
DO NOT: Ask, “How can I help you?”
Bear with me here. You’re likely thinking, “What do you mean I shouldn’t ask, ‘How can I help you?’ Isn’t that a fine, normal question to ask?” I hear you. Up until a few years ago, I personally found myself asking this question to team members.
Asking “How can I help you?” doesn’t help the other person at all. It burdens them. You’re asking your direct report to come up with a thoughtful critique and feedback of you and your role on-the-spot. Instead of encouraging positive sentiment by asking that question, you’re whirring up more stress and more anxiety for your direct report. While your intention may be to help, the question hurts.
DO: Ask more meaningful, specific questions.
Instead of reverting to “How can I help you?” during a one-on-one meeting, try different questions: Questions that put an employee at ease. Questions that enable them to speak from the heart, to level with you honestly, and share things perhaps that they might not normally share with you.
Specifically, here are some of the best questions to ask if you want to improve team morale remotely:
“How would you describe your energy level these days?”
This is a fantastic alternative to asking “How are you doing?” and helps to reveal the morale of the person more accurately. Follow-up questions you can ask include:
- “Have you been able to take time for yourself, in any way? How can I support you in that?”
- “Are there any tasks or projects lately that feel more like a struggle than usual? How can I adjust things to help make that project more manageable right now?”
“What fears or trepidation do you have around the team, and/or company, if any?”
This question helps pinpoint what might be causing or triggering the low morale – and help you understand if there’s anything within your locus of control to fix it. Follow-up questions you can ask include:
- “What can we communicate more often and more transparently to help reduce anxiety around X?”
- “Is our plan for the next 90 days clear?”
“How have you been feeling about your own performance lately?”
When you ask this question, you’re trying to see if the level of morale a direct report is based on their own perceived performance level. Follow up by asking these questions, as well:
- “What are you most worried about getting ‘wrong’ with the project?”
- “In your view, did anything fall short of your own expectations?”
- “In your view, did anything fall short of the team’s expectations?”
“What are your biggest time wasters?”
If you’re trying to figure out how to build team morale remotely, this question can help identify blockers for your direct report – blockers that you can potentially eliminate to help improve morale. Follow-up by asking these questions as well:
- “How am I or others holding up progress for you?”
- “What have you seen in the team that could accelerate our progress?”
If you find these questions helpful, be sure to check out our training program. We give you hundreds of suggested questions like these, and agenda templates, to help you have effective one-on-one meetings that help improve morale.
DO NOT: Require participation in team-building and social activities.
When we feel team morale is low, we often seek out social engagements as a solution. But it’s hard to “rally the troops” so-to-speak when everyone is working remotely. Particularly if it’s required.
Make anything required and it automatically becomes dreaded. This is a funny part of our human psychology that we resist the things that are imposed upon us.
Additionally, when we default to stacking Zoom social events on the calendar as a way for how to build team morale remotely, we assume because it’s something we like that others will enjoy it.
This is a grave mistake. Because while of course, you might enjoy it, the truth is this: Other people are not you 🙂
Think of it this way: Rather than employ the Golden Rule of “treat others the way you want to be treated,” try the Silver Rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”
DO: Figure out work preferences.
To put the Silver Rule to work, you’ll want to figure out, well, what others truly like.
I call these “work preferences” – the proclivities, leanings, and habits of how we all like to work.
To encourage positive team morale, you’ll want to ask your team members what their work preferences are, particularly around social events, before you mandate that they all need to show up for the Friday online game activity.
Start with these work preference questions:
- Where on the spectrum of an extrovert to introvert would you place yourself?
- How much social interaction do you typically enjoy at work?
- What’s your biggest work-related pet peeves?
- What does “work-life balance” mean to you?
DO NOT: Say “ASAP”, “Urgent”, and “Should”.
When we’re trying to figure out how to build team morale remotely, we tend to use words that we think will accelerate progress. So we find ourselves saying things like, “ASAP,” “urgent” and “should” more frequently.
However, these words only give us the illusion of control. In reality, they incite pressure – and pressure can have disastrous consequences on the outcome itself.
Edward Deci, the seminal scholar on human motivation, found in his 20 years of research that exerting a feeling of pressure or control on others unknowingly chips away at people’s intrinsic motivation. His studies revealed how when pressure is applied, performance worsens, quality of outcomes worsen, the person learns less, and the person ends up not enjoying the task as much.
Rather, there are alternative words we can use.
Instead of saying, “ASAP”, try saying…
- “Is this deadline reasonable?”
- “What trade-off will we need to make so X is delivered by this time?”
- “What can I take off your place so we can accomplish this?”
Instead of saying, “We should do Y…”, try saying…
- “What’s your opinion on how to move forward?”
- “What do you think is the best way to approach this?”
- “What advice would you give me if you were in my position?”
Instead of saying, “These are your goals…”, try saying…
- “What goals would you get excited about achieving?”
- “What should the team accomplish that you’d be proud of?”
- “What kind of work would make you feel energized and “I’m glad I did that?”
DO: Give choice.
Of all the practices for how to build team morale remotely, the most powerful is this: Give choice.
Choice, as found by Deci in his research, enables people to feel more agency and self-efficacy – and as a result, increases the likelihood of positive morale.
We as leaders can give options and create alternative pathways for our team. And it does not need to be grand. Choice on even the smallest of levels can help improve team morale.
For example, here are questions you can ask that give choice around small items…
- “What time of day would you prefer our 1:1 meetings?”
- “How often – if at all – would you prefer me to check in with you before a project is due?”
- “Do you prefer receiving feedback via writing (e.g., Basecamp, email, Slack) or via a video call (e.g., Zoom) or a phone call?”
Certainly, there are times when we cannot offer choice. A situation is out of our hands, and we can’t influence the degree of optionality offered. Acknowledge this. Doing so will help your team feel as though you are in tune and not oblivious to the frustrating nature of the circumstance. You too feel it.
For instance, you can simply say:
- “I know this sucks.”
- “I know I’m putting you in a tough spot.”
- “This is a terrible situation, and I’m sorry for it.”
Admitting a deplorable situation doesn’t make you deplorable: It makes you well-adjusted to reality. And that is is in fact helpful for team morale.
DO NOT: Strengthen deadlines and the frequency of check-ins.
It can be tempting to increase the frequency of your check-ins and tighten the deadlines you’ve set as a means for how to build team morale remotely. Especially in a remote environment where things feel more opaque to you, it can often seem like the only way forward.
However, things don’t move faster because we’re touching them more. Rather, we cause interference and add baggage. The more pressure we put on a direct report in the form of check-ins and deadlines will continue to erode team morale.
What should you do instead? Read on.
DO: Clarify expectations and progress being made.
If we want morale to be high and to speed up the progress being made, we must make clear what is expected from our team and what that progress is. What accelerates work and people feeling good about what they are doing is (1) knowing why they should be doing it and (2) seeing that progress. This is how to build team morale remotely.
Consequently, instead of more deadlines and check-ins, you must define what success is, clarify the expectations to get there, and create a system where people can proactively share progress.
To define success, you can ask questions like:
- How should we define success?
- How will we know when we have been successful?
- What’s the best way to define if something is “done” or “high quality”?
To clarify expectations, you can ask questions like:
- What’s the best way to share progress about this project?
- When is it most helpful for you to loop me in?
- How much context upfront would you like before I hand off a project or a task?
To create a system where your team can proactively share progress, you can use a tool – perhaps email, or Google Docs, or even software that asks everyone to share each day, “What are you working on?”
In Know Your Team, we have a tool called the Heartbeat that does this, and then shares the answers with everyone automatically. Be sure to give our Heartbeats in KYT a try if you’re looking to automate your status updates and improve morale.
DO NOT: Try to “measure morale” all the time.
Remember that morale is sentiment – and it can influence engagement, motivation and culture – but it is not a singular predictor of any one of those elements.
Yet we don’t always remember this – and this is most clearly shown when we attempt to measure morale. When we try to measure morale, we often fall into the pitfall of overcomplicating it and overstating it’s influence on engagement, motivation, and culture. For example, some teams will be focused elements completely unrelated to a team’s true needs for positive morale. Or other times, a team will inflate their scores, giving the guise that morale is positive when in reality it’s not.
We also overuse team pulse surveys, inundating and overwhelming our team with too many questions too frequently, and failing to take action on the results.
Instead, we should pause and ask: What is this all for?
The truth is that we do all this measurement because we’re attempting to understand how our team is feeling so we can do something about it.
If we want to figure out how to build team morale remotely, rather than trying to simply measure it all the time, we should try to create an environment where team members feel comfortable telling us the truth of how they feel.
DO: Create an environment where team members feel comfortable telling you how they truly feel.
You cannot improve morale unless your team is willing to tell you their true state of morale and what is affecting their morale.
In order for them to be honest with you, they must be able to, in a word, trust you. They most believe not only that no ill repercussion will occur if the truth is spoken – but also some genuine listening and follow-through will be sought.
In fact, when we surveyed managers and asked what were the most effective ways to build trust, the top three answers were: (1) Show vulnerability (2) Make intentions clear and (3) Follow through on commitments.
In short, your team must feel you truly want to know what their morale is – in both your words, and your actions. They want to hear that you know the team’s morale could be higher and that you haven’t always done the best job of encouraging that, and they want to see you take small actions to have that be true. A trusting environment enables your team to tell you their true state of morale, which is what you’re seeking in the first place.
DO NOT: Put everything on yourself.
When you sense low morale in your team, it can be easy to pile that dissatisfaction on yourself. You think: This is on me, and I’ve got to fix it.
What you might not be aware of is that pressure you put on yourself doesn’t protect your team – it deflects onto your team.
The more drained you’re feeling, the more desparate you’re feeling, the more drained and desperate your team will feel too. We can’t hide our own attitude, energy, and morale, as a leader – it’s unknowingly transferred.
DO: Take care of yourself.
This means you have to prioritize your own morale if you want your team’s morale to be strong. You can’t ignore that if you’re feeling dejected, it’s likely your team will feel dejected too.
Here are some recommendations of things you can do to help bolster your own morale:
- Step away. It’s an obvious action, but one we forget benefits us. Distance gives us perspective. And if we carve out time to see things from a different view, our sentiment on them at times may change.
- Create a wedge. If you can’t step away for a week or two, do create what I call a “wedge” — it’s a small sliver of time and space for yourself only. Perhaps 10 minutes before you start your workday, to regroup, recharge, and recenter.
- Allow yourself to admit how hard it is. Sometimes, our admittance of reality keeps us from relieving any pressure. It’s okay to tell yourself, “This is harder than usual right now.” Sometimes that singular admittance is all you need to regain a bit of stronger morale.
In sum, here are the principles and practices you can revisit…
- Don’t ask “How can I help you?” Ask more meaningful specific questions.
- Don’t require participation. Figure out work preferences.
- Don’t say “ASAP.” Give choice.
- Don’t strengthen deadlines. Clarify expectations and progress.
- Don’t measure morale. Focus on building trust.
- Don’t put everything on yourself. Take care of yourself.
I hope that rethinking of our usual impulses around team morale – and clarifying what morale is to begin with – can help us make progress, not to short-term blips of enthusiasm, but toward longer-lasting positive sentiment. As we all work remotely these days, many of us for the unforeseeable future, that longer view, not short term view, is one to aim for.