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How to Boost Employee Morale During the Pandemic

BoF talked with executives and experts about how companies can motivate their workforces during this difficult and uncertain time.
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  • Tamison O'Connor
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MILAN, Italy — Just like Kylie Jenner and countless teens and millennials, Moncler has its own Finsta. And just like any other not-for-public-consumption Instagram account, the Italian outerwear brand's secret feed is reserved for the company's nearest and dearest: in this case, its employees.

The content isn’t so different than what some brands are posting publicly these days: employees across the company can join yoga classes, take nutrition courses and watch mental health sessions or talks from guest speakers.

But in a world where quarantines have forced employees to work remotely for weeks on end, the company had to get creative to keep its staff feeling connected, said Chief Executive Remo Ruffini about the decision to start the account.

“Today more than ever, a sense of belonging is essential in empowering people to face unexpected times and challenging situations,” he told BoF over email. “That’s why...I thought we needed to create a virtual space to replace the physical one where we used to meet.”

More than ever, a sense of belonging is essential in empowering people to face unexpected times and challenging situations.

Moncler isn’t the only company grappling with how to boost morale during uncertain times. Billions of people have been ordered to stay in their homes while a deadly pandemic rages outside; surveys show anxiety and depression levels spiking.

Many companies are finding that Zoom meetings and company-wide emails from the CEO aren’t enough to keep employees motivated and upbeat.

The key, experts say, is to lead with compassion, focusing on delivering support and facilitating connection.

“The biggest thing that is taken away from us at this time is that connection, that physical connection that we have with the people we work with,” said Karen Harvey, founder and CEO of The Karen Harvey Companies, a consulting and advisory services firm for luxury fashion businesses. “We’re often not aware [of] that good morning hug when we walk into the office or connecting when we’re grabbing a tea.”

Communication Means Nothing Without Trust

Many companies are communicating more frequently with employees since the pandemic took hold, either via email or regular check-ins over Zoom or Google Meet. However, communication for communication’s sake will only serve to undermine leadership and frustrate employees. Leaders have to build trust, sharing information openly and honestly.

“That critical piece is transparency,” said Kristy Hurt, who owns a boutique HR advisory consulting firm specialising in fashion and luxury. “Even if the news is bad, it’s really important to be completely transparent about what you know, and what you don’t know.”

This can be a challenge when leadership wants to shield the wider company from worrying about the future of the business. But executives shouldn't downplay bad news, said Lyst Founder and Chief Executive Chris Morton.

“I don’t think you get the best out of people that way, even though your thinking comes from a good place to protect them,” he said. “We are as open as we can be, and then people can bring all of themselves into the solution that we meet together.”

Morton said he shared company data with his employees even when it was “pretty scary for the business,” explaining how different scenarios would affect revenue and profitability. When the company’s prospects started looking up, he shared that too.

Many companies are also carving out time for employees to give feedback. These sessions are most effective when leaders can show they are acting on suggestions, or are at least honest about why they can’t.

"It's so important to make sure that everyone knows what we want to do and what we've already tried," said Vestiaire Collective CEO Max Bittner.

Find Ways to Connect Beyond Work

Finding ways to connect socially is essential, as many people feel isolated and lonely.

Leaders should encourage staff to keep up the social interactions that would usually happen at the office water cooler, or over drinks.

No company’s internal culture is homogenous. Some employees might enjoy a weekly virtual pub quiz, while others would prefer a more-casual Zoom coffee break in the afternoons. Moncler’s internal Instagram account serves as a gathering spot for employees, from the CEO on down.

“Sometimes we think about our community being outside of work,” Harvey said. “But I think what we realise during this time is that our companies are also our communities.”

Establish Boundaries — and Enforce Them

Thanks to technology, many companies are able to continue daily operations with little disruption. But the downside is that many employees feel their home life and work-life are blurring together.

“It’s wonderful to have all of these tools and systems in place ... [but] it’s much more important to make sure that people feel set up well at home,” said Sian Keane, chief people officer at Farfetch.

Companies need to ensure workers are taking regular breaks, she said. Employees who are caring for children or ailing relatives will need more flexibility around working hours. Farfetch allows staff to convert vacation days normally dedicated to charitable activities into “caring days” if they need time off to support a loved one.

Give Employees a Mission

Harvey suggests leaders present goals for the next six months and clearly communicate how employees can contribute.

“It gives people a vision for the near term, and something that they can really strive and attain their own sort of goals for,” she said.

Coronavirus may have plunged the wider business into survival mode, but that doesn’t mean employees should feel like their careers are put on hold indefinitely. Similarly, for those that are still employed, having meaningful work during this time is important to keep staff motivated.

“What we’re finding now is for the people who are not able to do their role, we’re able to utilise their skills in other areas of the business so that they can support their colleagues and team members during this time,” said Farfetch’s Keane.

For example, some retail employees have been deployed to help customer relations teams while stores are closed. Practically this helps the overall business. But it also provides staff with new career opportunities. The company is also launching an online learning and professional development system.

Don’t Forget to Celebrate the Wins

During a time of crisis, it’s easy to succumb to tunnel vision to focus on emerging on the other side. But don’t forget to celebrate any small wins along the way and take the time to recognise the hard work of the team.

Swedish menswear brand Asket, for example, recently completed its company principles document, its own version of corporate governance guidelines. For the 12-person team, this was a big project that had been in the works for a while. The team has made time to recognise the achievement over drinks on a video chat.

“Now that it’s coming together we’ll have an online beer and potato chips together,” said Asket PR manager Sarah Arts, “to give each other a virtual pat on the back.”

We’re tracking the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the global fashion business. Visit our live blog for everything you need to know.

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