How to Keep Your Employees Engaged and Happy at Work During COVID-19

11 min read
Nov 16, 2020

Keeping team members engaged throughout the new remote work experience can be challenging at times. With frequent issues such as loneliness, a lack of motivation, communication problems, and even more serious suicidal thoughts, HR teams and leaders all across the world need to reorient their efforts.

So how do you go about motivating employees and keeping your team engaged? 

Focusing on your self-care first

You’ve got to slow down and think about your own battery levels. I actually share this with the leadership team at least once a month. 

As leaders, our kindness can dry up. We've got to put our own care first so that we’re compassionate and understanding towards others. Our teams look up to us as the anchor. If we get used up, we're not helping those around us. 

When you're taking care of yourself, you're actually helping others. So there’s no guilt to develop here as you're really doing this to aid others. 

To start your own self-care routine, there are common tips like getting enough sleep, exercise, and eat properly. Related to exercising, I personally make sure that every day I get out and walk. I've set goals for myself and I track them regularly so I can maintain my mental and physical health in balance. 

New call-to-action

Also, in HR as with many other roles, it's really important to stay current on the news, stimulus packages, PPP loans, unemployment, and so much more. But even when so much is going on, I try to limit my intake of daily news. I only watch television news in the morning for half an hour and another 30 minutes in the evening. I rely on written news instead. Not to mention that having the TV on constantly exposes you to challenging music and feelings that can bring you down—this is clearly the last thing you need right now.


Self-care in a remote work home environment

Emotional focus can be draining too. If it feels like you're sleepy at work or during the first minutes of a call, set boundaries. Designate a room or area as your workspace. In some homes, there are adults that are working, kids doing online schooling, pets, lots of noise that can distract you… Even if you can’t get a separate quiet space, at least have rituals for beginning and ending your day.

This might just mean taking your laptop out of a backpack and when you're done turning it off and putting it away in a backpack. Someone at work told me that she uses her past commute time as her “me time”. You could use your previous commute time to do yoga, meditate, drink your coffee, read a book, walk, exercise, and just spend that same time taking care of yourself.

Taking time off even through the lockdown

When we went into remote work, we had to pay a lot of attention to all the legislation. After about three months of working from home, Megan, our HR manager, took a Friday off. She came back as a different person on Monday. This showed us the power of unplugging and rejuvenation for keeping teams engaged and employee happiness. We now make sure people are using all of their PTO and taking time off.

Sometimes you have to nudge people to do it as there will always be work challenges or priorities in the way. But that time is so important for health and creativity or innovation boosts. As a leader, I think you have to encourage it and make people take it even when they feel like they can't. 

Leading in uncertain times

Leaders also have to set boundaries when it comes to team member engagement and staying thoughtful about their expectations. Maintain compassion and check in often—really pay attention to what’s going on in your team and spend more time on calls to find out what's happening in people's lives. I think it's important that these are check-ins, not checking on people. 

When measuring results, focus on performance but also care a lot about the people you come in contact with. Give a lot of words of encouragement but still ensure that deadlines are met. Go one step further and become a model of that behavior. For example, stick to only doing emails or phone calls if it's an emergency in the evenings or weekends.

How to check in with your employees

On our Monday calls, we spend a lot more time talking about our weekends than we used to. But even during Friday calls we try to keep things friendly and ask them about what they’re going to eat and how they plan to relax and enjoy time off or just do something different from their routines. 

You can then use one-on-one meetings to inquire about loneliness, stress, or anxiety and find out how you can help on a deeper level. Just to listen and offer your help can help you show genuine care while ensuring your employee has someone to turn to.

New call-to-action

Another thing that’s important is just thanking people and recognizing them. Even ordinary heroics need to be recognized and rewarded. Simple things like saying “Thank you!” often or sending handwritten notes will always be appreciated.

Yet, while you want to be understanding, you might not want to deal with all the details of what someone is going through. As a manager, you can tell them you understand the challenges they’re going through but you’d like to limit the conversations to about 10% of personal-life talk and focus on business matters instead. While it’s important that we're there for employees, we don’t have to be there for every single step of what they're going through personally.

Dealing with work from home burnout and invisible costs

Many companies have said their employees won’t be returning to work until mid-2021. Some organizations are also reconfiguring their workspace. 

To me, 2021 is going to be a swing year. We'll primarily see a lot of work from home and then, as offices open up, more flexibility around that. I anticipate that in 2022 there'll be more discussions about productivity, collaboration, and rent costs to tackle the real expenses of an office. CEOs and leaders will also focus on company culture and dealing with a hybrid workforce and its demands.

New call-to-action

To help with our own decisions, we took the four phases of the Washington Safe Start. We created what we call the “crawl, walk, and run phase”. The crawl phase refers to volunteers who’d like to come into the office early. There are a few people that already come into the office based on business needs. Each of the next phases implies more people will come to the office and we’re going to use these time spans to conclude our key learnings and work our way up from there.

There are so many people that are already working on-site. Pharmacies, grocery stores, restaurants, delivery services, etc. For every company, determine what your essential operations are and which people you need on-site. For those of us who are able to work from home, just appreciating this ability is equally important.

Handling multiple needs and worries through remote work

Certain employee categories are more exposed to feeling left out or unmotivated. From a mental health or wellbeing perspective, people who live by themselves are exposed to loneliness especially if they don't have family or friends nearby. 

Another category that’s finding it difficult to handle working from home are the households where you two adults are working and their children don't understand that the parents are trying to get some work done. This leads to higher stress levels and, implicitly, more attention needed from leadership.

Keeping things transparent in any situation

Without transparency, people create their own stories, worry a lot more, or make up their own beliefs and facts without real data to rely on. No matter what your company-wide decisions are, communicate them with your employees as early as possible. This way, they can make their own choices and see how the changes will impact them and their families. 

Stay transparent even if you don’t know what to do next or you’re evaluating potential solutions. Especially as the holidays are approaching, have very honest conversations with your team. and be thoughtful about what everybody is going through. I encourage companies to create new traditions and rituals like Zoom social hours even if the holiday season will feel different this year.

As many as two-thirds of employees are likely to be negatively influenced by such changes. To spot similar concerns, the signs that indicate an employee is stressed or struggling include:

  • Mentioning self-harm
  • Being withdrawn and quieter than usual
  • Missing meetings or deadlines
  • Showing general demeanor shifts
  • Giving comments that indicate they’re feeling helpless or trapped
  • Increased substance abuse or use of alcohol
  • Absenteeism

So after spotting these warning signs, how should you engage with them in a very professional yet compassionate way?

Zoom or any video conferencing software can help you recreate that face-to-face interaction your employees need and help you let them know that you care about them. Don’t be afraid to say you’re concerned and ready to listen to any problems they might face. Ask them if there’s anything you could do for them or if they need any kind of advice or assistance. By now, you should have built a relationship of trust to make it easy for them to open up. 

New call-to-action

The other thing is being sensitive when communicating. Ask direct questions like “How are you feeling?”. If the answer starts to go down a path you're really concerned about, ask if they've had suicidal or any self-harming thoughts. If the results indicate such ideas or behavior, you can even ask “How do you plan on doing it?”. A lot of times, people don't want to inquire about that. But for the employee, simply having someone reach out and ask them about it makes them feel better and cherished.

I was once asked to talk to a woman who had expressed suicidal thoughts. I talked to her for an hour and a half and I forgot to ask the important question because I got very nervous. When somebody indicates they are having suicidal thoughts, you have to act. Give them the names and numbers of available suicide hotlines and make sure they make the call. If a therapist is recommended, follow up with the employee so they actually get and go to the appointment.

Never promise confidentiality when dealing with such a serious issue. I once called the mother of a suicidal peer of mine and told her about the entire conversation we had. She got on a plane immediately and came out for three months. Don’t worry about intervening or violating confidentiality as this is a matter of life and death. Follow up and let them know they can call at any time and find other resources or loved ones who can be updated on the situation. 

Using employee assistance programs appropriately

Use employee assistance programs (EAPs) as creatively as possible. If a coworker is feeling lonely or has suicidal thoughts, refer them to the EAP. Within our company, you don't even have to be on the insurance program to use the EAP and find support there. 

At Walmart, we discovered that people handling call center work we’re struggling and needed EAP help. They were hearing horrific situations from people that were impacted by Hurricane Katrina when we asked the EAP team to come on-site. They counseled people and met with anybody who wanted to talk with them afterward.

There seems to be a general legal concern when it comes to having an HR person as opposed to an EAP representative ask the employee if they think of harming themselves. Usually though, HR managers meet up with the employee after they’ve said or done something that’s of concern in another context. 

You will always want to make sure you’ve done absolutely everything so there’s no bad outcome. But if someone's uncomfortable, seek other resources that help. HR people can partner with others in the organization like a manager or colleague who really cares a lot about the employee. This way you have a better chance of getting all the information. 

Balancing business needs and employee struggles

You still need clear expectations on the business side of things. 

What are the results you want? How do you want to delight customers? How can you ensure business doesn't drop?

Although the wellbeing of employees comes first, you don't want your customer service levels to drop. You don't want people to view you as being non-responsive or not able to get the job done. To ensure all things run smoothly, work can be done in a different manner or time. For example, if you've got a couple of adults and a lot of children at home, parents could have their shifts at night or change their schedule to still meet work requirements. So balance is really about maintaining clarity about how you’re going to handle both aspects. 

New call-to-action

For essential roles, let them know ahead of time that they have a core responsibility and need to work on site. What you must do is ensure that the workplace has all safety measures and protocols in check. Be firm about people following these through and don't tolerate employees who won’t respect them. Listen to every individual as well to hear their concerns related to health or other specific situations. We’ve had people live in RVs for six weeks so they went above and beyond the call of duty. We try to make sure that we appreciate folks who've done that.

Maintaining team culture virtually

One of the things we've tried is taking advantage of the time we got at home to expand our book club. Everyone in the company can now join our Zoom book club at any time. One of the books we read together during the racial justice protests was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. People don't even have to have read the book to come to the club. They can simply participate in the discussion and stay connected with one another.

We hold monthly contests like trivia night or talent shows. For Halloween, I dressed up as Dolly Parton and did a video at the office to "9 to 5". I adjusted the lyrics as I wanted to keep it light and humorous. We have people from all over the company, choosing which contest they’re going to participate in. The point is we all get together as a whole company, to judge and look at the submissions. 

New call-to-action


We're doing a virtual potluck and recipe exchange for November. We've got an incredible team that comes up with this stuff and everybody looks forward to it. 

There are many virtual happy hours that we've done. We've done virtual lunches. One guy who grows produce did a virtual walkthrough of his garden. Anyone can showcase their best or fun self within a team really. 

When we got started with remote work, we also finally celebrated every single birthday and had the person decide how they want us to celebrate their birthday. Some don't want any recognition while others are happy with a short email. They can also submit photos and fun facts about them and we’ll create a PowerPoint deck. We've learned so many fascinating things about people, their interests, and their hobbies.

At the end of the day, keeping your team engaged and happy at work is a matter of every single thing you do for them. From setting an example yourself to taking the time to listen to them, rewarding their efforts, and ensuring their health is guaranteed above all these.

Describe your image

Get Email Notifications