Keeping employees focused and productive in the midst of mass uncertainty is tough, but it can be done. It requires a shift in thinking about how having difficult conversations can help to improve bottom line results. Many leaders think that better results come through pushing and even scaring employees to hustle and outsmart the competition.   

“They need to be afraid. It keeps them on their toes,” one leader said to me after learning that his team was too afraid to share resources (collaborate). This was costing the company in productivity and low team morale, making it nearly impossible for new ideas to propel the company forward. 

When you add challenge to a dedicated team environment, innovation, self-motivation, and best-in-class products and services are the outcome (a.k.a. increased revenue sources). Strong team environments lead to happier team members. Happy team members lead to happier customers, which means increased referrals, new contracts signed, and a thriving business. 

Use the following ten strategies to keep your team focused and progressing –virtually, and in person:  

Communicate A Clear Mission and Goals

Imagine Davante Adams, or any of the top NFL players of 2020/2021, leaping multiple feet into the air to secure a catch. A top receiver will do this, knowing full well he will likely sustain a tough hit.  Now imagine that he’s playing on a field without an end zone. He wouldn’t make the leap, because he wouldn’t know why he was doing it. All games need clearly defined rules and rewards. The same is true for your team.

Teams with clear and compelling goals often benefit greatly from generational differences, while others struggle with energy killers like gossip, hoarding information, and disengagement. Your team needs to know what success looks like, and how their individual contributions add to the teams success. 

One of my personal favorite team missions is the one Menlo Innovations keeps plucking away at, even in the midst of the pandemic– “to end human suffering as it relates to software.”

Without goals, there is no focus. So make sure the goals are clear, and once the goals are defined, share them in places your team members can see, and share them frequently.  In an office, this is easy to do by putting them on a wall where everyone can see them.  In the virtual setting, you can post goals as a “sticky” pin at the top of your team’s message board (this is easily done in Slack), and/or starting each team Zoom call with a quick run-down/reminder of the goals.  

Reduce Fear By Increasing Cheer

The human brain is primed to look for the negative. There is an evolutionary reason for this. To keep you alive, your amygdala (located at the base of your brain) scans your (work) environment for threats. As a result, fear prohibits them from focusing their time and attention on their work. It takes a little time, effort, and intentionality to communicate appreciation for the little (and big) things they are doing well…

“Your attention to detail on that contract was excellent. Thank you!.” 

Remind them that they are a valuable member of your team and you’ll help increase safety, and therefore keep them focused and productive. A great technique for making cheer into a habit you personally practice is to put five pennies in your right pocket. Transfer a penny to your left pocket every time you cheer for an employee. Make sure all five pennies are transferred by the end of the day. 

Listen. Really Listen

Few leaders make it to the top ranks without good ideas. Fewer stay at the top (or attract top talent) by being the only ones with good ideas. 

“Real communication means more listening than talking. It’s not pronouncements on a videotape, it’s not announcements in a newspaper. It is human beings coming to see and accept things through a constant interactive process aimed at consensus. And it must be absolutely relentless.” — Jack Welch

Gather your team daily, listen to their ideas and problems they are facing. Repeat back what you are hearing them say–make sure you understand the problem (and solutions) from their vantage point.

Ten years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency had a problem with productivity. Employees were standing around the water cooler talking about how they might lose their job. As a result, they weren’t doing their job. Just nine months later, their productivity problem was solved. The key to their success was listening to the problems people were facing, asking for suggestions, repeating back what they heard, and then implementing the ideas offered by the team. Brilliant. 

Over Communicate, Especially When Fear Is High

In the absence of information, humans make up stories. Those stories are often worse than reality, and will prevent your employees from doing their best work. Instead, they’ll wind up wasting time worrying about the worst. You can avoid this wasted energy by communicating everything you can about what’s happening.  

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating, here are a few ideas to consider: tell your team what you know, tell them what you don’t know, remind them about the direction the organization is headed, and acknowledge small wins.  

Cultivate Connection Virtually

Being in a virtual environment, with little access to community, is tough for most people. Connecting with colleagues helps reduce fear, and often increases commitment.

Bring your team together for a few quick minutes on Zoom every morning. Strengthen relationships between them by making the conversations a little more personal. Icebreaker questions help greatly in this process. 

Kristina Bouweiri, CEO of Reston Limousine, said that a few months after starting these daily meetings her employees said that they were actually getting to know each other better than when they were in an office together. 

Zoom happy hours are also a big hit, especially when the leadership team adds fun and generosity to the mix. Kristina has food delivered to her employees homes once a month. Playing games and enjoying their favorite foods together in a virtual setting has not only strengthened employee morale, but improved bottom line results.  

Demonstrate Care

Have you ever had the experience of getting a phone call from your surgeon the evening after surgery? He called to check in, wanting to make sure that you were okay. How did that leave you feeling? How many people have you referred to that surgeon because of that experience?

Use the same strategy with your team. Call your employees and ask how they’re doing. Many leaders avoid these calls because they don’t know what to say if their employee isn’t doing well. Offering them your presence and your listening is more healing then you can imagine. 

If you don’t know anything about the challenges your employees are facing, it might be a good time to set aside time to check in. Listen for ways you can be of support, send them a care package, offer resources where you can, and then follow up.   

Offer Candid Feedback

If it’s hard for your employees to know what they’re doing that works (and doesn’t work) when they’re in the office, it’s ten times more difficult in a virtual environment. Many leaders struggle with what and how to give the feedback, especially during this pandemic. Yet, everyone needs feedback to get better results.   

The top three keys to giving candid feedback are: 

  1. Receive well. Let your team see you receiving feedback regularly. Show them how to integrate feedback (both sweet and sour) through your example. 
  2. Spend 80% of your time giving sweet (positive) feedback. Making a habit of pointing out what they do well helps to decrease fear.  
  3. Be specific and timely in delivering feedback. Be clear about what’s not working, offer specific suggestions for improvement, and do it as close to the moment as possible.

Cheer Some More

What you focus on as a leader will grow. If most of your time and attention are focused on what your employees are doing wrong, you’ll perpetuate a negative cycle. Focus instead on the good results they’re creating, acknowledge their hard work, and watch as they push harder to do more good work. 

Rich Sheridan, CEO and co-founder of Menlo Innovations, took a snapshot of the can of beer he was enjoying after winning a very small contract a few months into the pandemic. He texted the photo company-wide in celebration of this small feat. The result? Less fear; more excitement. 

As you incorporate these ideas, momentum will build, collaboration will increase, and issues with employee morale will fade away. Drive your team to think in terms of forward thinking, progress, growth, and collaboration. They will reward you with profitable activity.  

Here’s To Your Greatness, 

Misti Burmeister  

Misti Burmeister has been solving people problems and empowering leaders for nearly 20 years, increasing engagement and productivity across generations. Help your team reach its highest potential at