Employee Morale: The Key Driver of Performance in Distributed Teams

by Sandra Petrova

8 min read · May 29, 2020

After being relegated to the back burner, it’s a welcome development that employee morale is finally taking center stage in conversations about best practices in remote team management.

With the coronavirus pandemic sending droves of workers home to work, organizations need to focus on keeping remote employees engaged and in high spirits more than ever before. 

Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work report reveals the biggest struggles of remote workers. Looking at the results, 80% of the areas where remote workers struggle have something to do with employee morale. These are:

working remotely Buffer report
While working from anywhere has its advantages, remote workers face unique challenges that can affect their morale (Image Source).

Arielle Tannenbaum, a community strategist at Buffer, shares:

I’ve been working from home for the past four years. While I love working remotely and am so grateful to work with my amazing team, my biggest challenges are the moments of feeling lonely.

Making the Business Case for Increasing Employee Morale

Keeping employee morale high is not just about the feel-good atmosphere associated with it. Maintaining high employee morale also means improving employee engagement, which can have concrete and measurable benefits for businesses. Here are some key takeaways from a Gallup survey on how employee morale impacts key business metrics.

High Employee Morale = High Profitability

The answer to the question “How is this going to affect my bottom line?” is possibly the most determining factor when businesses decided whether or not to proceed with an organizational change. 

If you’ve been putting off employee morale related initiatives for your remote team, here’s something to consider. Companies that focus on employee morale register a 21% higher profitability. This is because employees with high morale are more:

  • attuned to the needs of customers
  • productive
  • likely to uphold high work standards

High Employee Morale = High Productivity

Speaking of productivity, low productivity is a perennial misconception about remote teams. In fact, organizations that have implemented flexible work arrangements have reported higher productivity.

However, in fully remote or distributed teams, morale is a fragile concept. It can easily breakdown because of the challenges enumerated above. Nevertheless, if you invest in morale-boosting initiatives, the payoff in productivity is 100% worth it. 

According to Gallup, organizations that maintain a high employee morale record a 17% increase in productivity. Improved productivity can lead to better collaboration and teamwork, and lower employee absenteeism and attrition.

High Employee Morale = High Customer Satisfaction

Service with a smile is a common phrase we hear all the time. It’s almost impossible to expect employees to deliver good customer service or client work if they’re unhappy and lack motivation.

If you’re managing a remote team or a distributed workforce, achieving high employee morale can result in a 10% increase in customer satisfaction which leads to a 20% increase in sales.

All of these benefits are great. However, the question is:

How do you increase employee morale, especially among fully remote and fully distributed remote teams, that lack physical interaction?

Implement a Balanced Management Style

The office-less nature of distributed teams may lead to managers to either be:

  • extremely hands-on (micromanagement), or
  • extremely hands-off (macromanagement)

This can also happen among co-located teams, but the lack of a shared physical space makes remote teams more prone to these extreme management styles.

Either way, both management styles put a dent on employee morale. Micromanagement can make employees feel like nobody trusts them. Macromanagement, on the other hand, can make employees feel the company left them to drown.

Managers and business owners should exert a conscious effort to strike a balance.

One of the strategies you can adopt is a management technique coined by Intel co-founder Andry Grove called Task Relevant Maturity.

Essentially, depending on the experience level of your team on the specific tasks they have, you can be more hands-on or more hands-off.

Task Relevant Maturity management style
Task Relevant Maturity is one management theory that remote team managers can adopt to keep employee morale high (Image Source).

Use Tools That Foster Trust and Accountability

Trust and accountability are important concepts in all workplaces, but even more so for remote and distributed teams. In co-located teams, it’s much easier for managers to come to the workstations of their team and check on the progress of tasks and projects.

This is more challenging in remote teams, especially if your team members are working across different timezones and the default is asynchronous communication.

Distrust can also emerge among remote employees. Since colleagues don’t share a physical office, suspicions may arise that their co-workers may not be working as hard as them, and yet get the compensation and benefits. 

This is why you need tools that will help you create trust and accountability. For instance, a time tracking software that also doubles as a project management tracking tool will ensure that employees are accountable for how they allocate their time. 

This deters employees from deliberately dragging tasks beyond what is actually needed, especially because you will have baseline data on how the rest of your team is performing.

Hire for a Remote Working Culture

It only takes a few bad hires to ruin a great remote working culture. Half the battle of building a high-performing remote team is hiring the right people.

The reality is, not everyone will thrive in a remote work environment. Even with the right skills, these employees can be a liability and destroy your team’s morale if they don’t have the right attitude for remote work.

Choose Channels That Allow for Non-Verbal Communication

The morale of remote teams lives and dies on how sufficient and efficient they communicate. 

According to Jennifer Stine, former head executive of professional education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

Close attention to relationship-building and a process to ensure good communication is really important. When the group or the organization has a strong culture that supports collaboration, this can stand-in for many of the detailed steps—it really helps.

While email and instant messaging platforms will serve as the primary communication channels in remote teams, it’s important to regularly use platforms that allow for non-verbal communication. We’ve been told time and again that it’s not what we say, but how we say it. Without physical contact, non-verbal cues such as eye contact, facial expression, and body language are lost.

Remote teams can mimic face-to-face interactions by using tools such as video conferencing. At least once a week, get together with your team on a video call. It’s also recommended that you do this when:

  • making big announcements
  • important project meetings
  • milestone employee interactions such as performance reviews and appraisals

Create Virtual Water Coolers

The lack of face-to-face interaction should not hinder your remote employees to form meaningful bonds with each other and with you. Keep in mind that 20% of remote employees are battling loneliness which is why remote businesses should exert double the effort to help create a sense of community. 

Some great ways to bond when working remotely includes:

  • playing virtual games
  • dedicating regular meetings for personal sharing
  • hosting a virtual book club
  • hosting themed events just to name a few
QuizBreaker team building games for remote teams
Team-building games can make employees feel closer to each other and stronger as a team. (Image source)

Wrapping It Up

The number of employees working remotely and the number of businesses opting to build distributed teams are expected to increase in the next few years.

This is good news for businesses as they are able to tap into a wide pool of top talents who are not confined within the accessible radius of their physical office. 

However, this also means that organizations need to step up and implement measures to ensure that employee morale remains high. It’s not easy, but it shouldn’t be painful as well.

Remote organizations who are able to prioritize employee morale won’t only reap the concrete business benefits outlined above, but also ensure that they become top-of-mind among top remote workers when they’re looking for a job.

Author Bio

Dean Mathews is the founder and CEO of OnTheClock, an employee time tracking app that helps over 9,000 companies all around the world track time. 

Dean has over 20 years of experience designing and developing business apps. He views software development as a form of art. If the artist creates a masterpiece, many people’s lives are touched and changed for the better. 

distributed guide

FAQs

Q: What is meant by employee morale?
Employee morale is a term that’s used to describe the emotions, attitude, and satisfaction employees have during their time in a workplace environment. If an employee is happy at work, it is said that that employee has high morale. On the other hand, if an employee is not satisfied at their workplace, then that employee is said to have a low morale. 
Q: Why is employee morale important?
High employee morale can lead to improved employee engagement and productivity, high profitability, and high customer satisfaction.
Q: How do you build team morale remotely?
  • Use Tools That Foster Trust and Accountability
  • Hire the right people
  • Choose Channels That Allow for Non-Verbal Communication
  • Create Virtual Water Coolers