How to Motivate Fatigued and Stressed Employees in the New Year

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe January 26, 2021

​It's been nearly a full year since employees started working from home or following COVID-19 protocols in the workplace.

Even if staff took some extra time off to unwind during the holidays, most employees probably haven't returned to work with the renewed sense of purpose that is typically associated with starting a new year. Instead, the first quarter of 2021 will likely feel like more of the same—endless Zoom meetings, no clear end to the pandemic, and home and work lives thoroughly enmeshed.

"We've just finished an unimaginably difficult year," said Nancy Halpern, founder of Political IQ, a New York City-based management consulting firm that helps organizations resolve office politics. "For your team, the start of 2021 may feel like more of the same. How you motivate and support them now will set the tone for the next six months."

Here are four ways managers can help motivate employees in 2021.

Have an honest, one-on-one conversation. Even though managers may have conducted a performance evaluation for work done in 2020, now is a good time to have a different type of one-on-one conversation with employees. "Rather than focusing on work, focus on their family, mental health and how they are doing personally," Halpern said. Ask open-ended questions and, if they say everything is fine, encourage them to be honest by sharing your own concerns and challenges. "If you're vulnerable and candid, they will respond in kind," she noted.

The purpose is to understand each employee's current state of mind and what he or she needs to succeed, said Kym Harris-Lee, an executive coach in Atlanta. Consider asking, "As you think about this new year, what are your goals, what do you want to accomplish, how can I help you?"

Another question to raise is, "How can I create conditions that will help you survive and thrive?" If an employee admits that thriving is a stretch and that he is simply focused on keeping his head above water, ask how you can help him get his job done so he can better manage his home life, said Anne Shoemaker, a women's executive coach and strategist based in Greensboro, N.C. "The manager's role, whether staff is working at home or in the office, is to create conditions where team members can be their best selves."

Think about each person's individual situation. Most likely there are two distinct challenges facing your staff right now: feeling overwhelmed with multiple responsibilities and feeling lonely, Halpern said. "Give as much thought to the person struggling to home-school their children as to the single person at home by themselves."

Encourage employees to think strategically. One lesson most managers learned from 2020 is that employees don't appreciate back-to-back virtual meetings, because it doesn't give them much time to think or get actual work done, Harris-Lee said.

She recommended that managers give employees permission to decline one to two meetings a week during the first quarter of 2021, provided they use the time they aren't in a meeting to reflect on their work.

To encourage strategic thinking, Harris-Lee suggested giving employees journals to help them think through their ideas and list what motivates them to do their best. Encourage employees to share their suggestions with the team; this might uncover a best practice that could benefit the team or even the entire company, she said.

Create easy wins. Rather than setting long-term quarterly or midyear goals, set monthly goals that focus on actions staff can control, Halpern said.

Consider redefining what it means to "have a good month," she added. Maybe a "good month" means that everyone met deadlines, the team learned a new skill, or everyone excelled at time management and didn't have to work over the weekend.

Consider whether the staff accomplished what they wanted to in short 30-, 60- and 90-day horizons, she said.

Be gentle with feedback. "For the first half of 2021, be selective and intentional with feedback," Halpern said. "Focus on trends and patterns versus one incident. If you see someone [making a mistake] once, let it go." Rather than giving an employee feedback on what she did wrong, suggest a way that you can help her succeed.

Find out why the employee is missing deadlines or struggling to get work done, especially if she is typically a strong performer, Shoemaker said. "Invite [the employee to share] by asking, 'If we were in the same office, what would I know that I don't know now because we're not working side by side?' "

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va. 



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