Watch: How to get re-engaged with work when morale is running low

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When you’re inspired or unhappy at work, it makes getting through the day a lot tougher. How can you get yourself, or your team, back in the swing of things?

In our Quartz at Work (from home) workshop on Jan. 21, a panel of experts shared practical advice for maintaining or improving workplace morale at the individual and organizational levels, with special consideration for companies trying to do this in remote settings.

Click the image above for the complete video playback. For a recap of their top tips, read on.

The panelists

  • M. Gloria González-Morales, associate professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University and associate editor of Work & Stress Journal
  • Kevin Oakes, CEO of HR research firm i4cp and author of Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company
  • Edward (E.B.) Batten, executive vice president of growth, IT outsourcing firm BairesDev

Tip 1: Get some AIR

People feel motivated when they have agency, which González-Morales says comes from getting autonomy in their day, intentionality in their work, and regulation of their emotions—or AIR.

Working from home has its downsides, but one positive finding from recent research by González-Morales and her graduate students is that the work day is filled with “nano-transitions” between work life and home life. “You may be working for an hour and then you go into your personal life, preparing breakfast or [making] lunch or setting up the computer for your children.” The ability to make those transitions is a form of agency—they are empowering and help performance, González-Morales. (They also might be something people will be reticent to give up when or if they’re recalled to an office.)

Tip 2: Engage in some positive self-inquiry

When morale takes a dip, ask yourself to recall a time you were in the flow and feeling motivated. What were the conditions that made that happen? Where were you? Who or what had inspired you? Was there music on while you were working? Think about “the things that make the work a positive experience—even though it may not be very frequent,” González-Morales. Just acknowledging those moments can make it easier to re-create the positive feeling.

Tip 3: Don’t try to completely transform a company culture—renovate it instead

Oakes says research by i4cp has found that only 15% of companies that try to make big changes to their culture would say they succeeded. Tempting as it might be, ripping things up and starting from scratch rarely works. “A lot of the successful companies chose to renovate—to just build from the core of what made them a good company,” Oakes said. Usually they were renovating for the future, trying to create a culture that would be better at handling change, for instance, but basing the improvement on their existing mission or values.

Tip 4: Tune out (sometimes)

One problem with all of our connectivity these days is that it can become an obstacle to focusing on and finishing tasks. “If the expectation, both internally and externally, is that you’re always available… [then] you’re always on, you’re always engaged, but you’re not accomplishing what needs to get done,” BairesDev’s Batten said.

He suggests blocking time on your calendar for deep work and doing away with alerts that are more counterproductive than they are helpful. “I’ve turned out email notifications on my mobile phone and it’s been an absolute godsend,” he said (acknowledging it might not be possible for everyone). Strengthen morale by finding the right tools for your teams, helping people understand the method of communication, but also by “putting time aside for yourself so you can get done what you need to get done,” he says—and make sure your direct reports are doing the same.

Tip 5: Ask people what they need

It seems obvious, but this is a step that leaders sometimes skip in their quest to make things easier for people. If you’re tempted to institute “no-meetings Fridays,” for example, make sure this doesn’t have unintended consequences for team members who now have to pack more meetings into the other days of the week—which might make it harder for people who, for example, are simultaneously caring for young children at home.

“Talk to your team members,” González-Morales said. “Ask what their needs are, and what are the things they need to be successful—and [remember] this can change over time.” The shifting needs of parents between summer and the start of the school year is just one example of that.

Tip 6: Don’t hoard resources

Many company cultures are marked by competition for resources. But having to fight for funding, for promotions, or for the attention of a manager can be draining on morale and motivation. “We need to move to another context where the scarcity of resources is not necessarily what happens,” González-Morales said. “If we start building our cultures on the idea that resources actually multiply when they’re shared, and then empower individuals, we can create a culture where there’s not so much fear about sharing vulnerabilities, or there’s no fear about sharing tools and helping and supporting each other.” Incidentally, this kind of transition away from a power culture and toward something more communal can be very helpful to a company’s inclusion efforts.

Tip 7: Don’t hoard talent

“One of the things that we’ve always found top companies do very well is move talent and move people around the organization,” says Oakes. “The problem is that a lot of managers are talent hoarders. If you have good people working underneath you, you don’t want that person to go anywhere because you’re probably successful as a result. And that’s generally a symptom of a poor-performing organization.”

When you instead develop people and move them around the company, you are likely to improve communication and collaboration throughout the organization. You also may earn a reputation as a manager who knows how to help people grow in their careers—and then, Oakes said, you may find that you “suddenly become a talent magnet.”

Tip 8: Detach for a little bit every day

Vacations are great, but you’ll get a more lasting recovery benefit from regularly taking short breaks during the work day. “You don’t even have to do specific things; just detaching from work really helps,” said González-Morales, whose research found benefits for people who spent just five minutes looking at a screen with nature landscapes or simply relaxing, with no mindfulness training required.

Tip 9: Get yourself and others comfortable with saying “no”

Collaboration and communication are great ways to lift employee morale. But when too much of it is steered to one person—the one who always takes stuff on and gets stuff done despite stopping all the time to help everyone else—it can be a recipe for disaster.

“It’s important to make it safe for those individuals who are suffering from collaborative overload to raise their hand and say, ‘Look, I can’t do it all,” said Oakes. They need to know they have “permission to pass along requests to others who can get those requests done.”  The people who are most successful, and most overloaded, are at risk of burnout. This also means they’re a flight risk—and one your company can ill afford if the person is that critical to the operation.

Of course, the act of saying “no” can be uncomfortable for a lot of us, with particularly complex implications for women.

“‘No’ can be viewed as refusal, but there’s a lot of power to understanding how to be efficient with things,” said Batten. “We want people to understand it’s ok to say ‘no'” and to raise their hand when they feel overloaded. “That’s not a weakness; that’s a sign of personal and professional intelligence,” Batten said, “and we should support that.”

González-Morales says she advises people, women especially, to reply to requests with phrases like “let me think about it” or “let me look at what other projects I have in the pipeline and get back to you,” rather than saying “no” straight away. “‘No’ is a powerful word and I really practice it. But I have learned that sometimes you cannot say ‘no’ with that word. You have to say it in a different way.”

Tip 10: Call someone who inspires you

If there’s a colleague you find particularly energizing to be around or to hear from, ask to touch base with them, González-Morales advised. Even a 15-minute catchup can do wonders for your morale.