In the first year of my full time employment, I walked into the office with a big smile on my face everyday and greeted everyone I walked past with a “Good morning!”. It wasn’t until I got assigned a really big, difficult project loaded with difficult client & office politics that I would have headache every morning.
I felt my energy level steadily decreasing as soon as I left home, and drained completely when I walked into the office, resulting in a grumpy face and my morning greetings dissapeared. I was agitated and impatient all the time, and I had difficulties sleeping. When I woke up, it felt like I hadn’t slept at all. Pretty soon my health started falling and I had to take an unpaid leave to recover.
Morale is influenced by various factors, depending on the personality and priority of the employees themselves. However, some of the more common cause of low morale are poor leadership, poor communication, long hours or heavy workload, lack of appreciation of work being done.
In such environment, an employee is likely to not have a sense of belonging because he already spends a lot of effort just to come to work every morning. When this happens, it will likely result in high employee turnover, increased complaints, increased internal conflicts and lower quality output.
Working in a project-based IT company usually warrants long hours, especially when approaching deadlines. I did my share of working for 20 hours for weeks including weekends and sleeping on the client’s floor for days for way too many times. In cases like this, the only thing that can make your team continue to work is the sense of belonging.
Money only motivates people to a certain degree, and the sense of helping just a colleague is not as strong as the sense of duty towards a family member. For me personally, if I did not have my friends there in the same office, I would not last as long.
Ways to Improve Morale
1. Figure out if you are the problem
As a general rule, before you point your finger to someone else, always start by looking at yourself. Especially if you are a manager or a team leader, the team morale starts with you.
I’ve met several negative PMs, some of them were just counting days until they could get out. Some of them were also badmouthing the management or the client to their team members. I’ve been guilty of this also several times, but I’ve learned my lessons. This quickly turned the team members to not caring the quality of their work. They also became defensive, negative thinking and just plain rude to the management or even to the client.
Morale is higher when the team members feel close to their manager. When they feel like the manager have their backs, when they know the manager cares about them and not just see them as a tool.
You will face plenty of challenges from outside your team, the last thing you want is more challenges from inside the team. Develop good relationship with your team members, give them compliments when they do a good job, and care with what happens in their lives outside work.
2. Improve Communication
Reflect on how you talk to your team. How do you give them their assignment? Do you just bark orders? Do you filter what you share with your team? Does what you share actually beneficial for the team?
Then think about your listening skill. How do you respond when your team comes to you with a problem? Do you talk more than you listen? How do you manage rumors and conflicts?
The way you give assignments has a direct impact on how they’re being done. Your team should be laser-focused on their area of expertise, they do not have a helicopter view like a manager does, so do not assume that they understand the impact or urgency of a task assigned to them. So when you assign tasks, explain priorities, expectations and how they relate to other part of the puzzle. Try to minimize any room for assumptions.
A regular weekly meeting is also crucial, learn to use it wisely. Weekly meeting can be used to squash false rumors, and also to give your team a chance to talk and say what’s what.
Each team members will have different triggers and motivation, learn to discover them. Some people are motivated by money, while others may be motivated by experience or other career aspirations. These are the things that might motivate them to put in the extra effort when things get tough
3. Developing your team
As a Project Manager, one of your role is to provide guidance for your team members. It is also for your own benefit to enrich them with various soft and hard skills. After all, when your team is smarter, the easier for you to achieve goals and target, right?
Start with their career aspirations, what they are looking to get out of their current position and help them map the way to their goals. See if there’s any gap in their skills that is necessary to do their current job or to achieve their goal.
My team members were mostly young and inexperienced, so there were plenty room of improvement. During weekly meetings, I tried to squeeze in 10-15 minutes talks on various topics like time management, written communication or other area requested by the team.
On one project, I rotated the programmers so that they have various skills on the different aspects on the system. It increased the worth of my team members for the company. But on the other side, they got taken to a bunch of different projects cause there weren’t enough people with the right combination of skills.
On another note, when you develop your team members you also need to ensure their high morale because the most talented ones will have the biggest chance to walk away (e.g headhunted by other company).
4. Improving the workplace
The condition of your workplace also plays a big role on maintaining morale. Most people wouldn’t look forward going to work in a dark, windowless space, right? I am not saying that every office should be like Google’s, but at least your workplace should be reasonably comfortable.
As a project manager, my office depended on where my client’s office was. I’ve been stuffed in a moldy store room with my team, experienced one workspace where tiny cockroaches would come out after dark from the desks, or located in an office where the other employees had awful personal hygiene.
There was one where I absolutely loved my work, I loved my supervisors, I was learning so many things and totally excited on what I was doing but the office was rarely cleaned. I am very allergic to dust, so the dust bunnies on every corner and windows made me sick at least once a week. At the end, I had to give up.
Accept that you can’t be perfect all the time, but it is never too late to start. Even taking one step at a time is better than burying your head in the sand, hoping things would sort themselves out