We’re five months into coronavirus lockdown, and the brief honeymoon period of newly-minted WFH happiness is waning. Employees are demotivated, anxious, and starting to show signs of cabin fever.

So this week’s CTO Worry is: Remote Work Morale. Specifically, CTOs are worried about the downstream effects of forcing people who were previously colocated into a new and isolated lifestyle.

Remote Work isn’t For Everyone

Teams are typically either distributed or colocated. It’s generally difficult to pull off a hybrid. I’ve seen some hybrid models work, of course; typically when there’s an overseas or satellite office involved. But the big fear today is that remote work isn’t for everyone, and yet we’re forcing everyone to do it.

CTOs are seeing productivity and morale slump. This is a bit disheartening to most of the CTOs who previously reported encouraging early results. What CTOs want to know is: how much of this morale slump is related to WFH vs other factors?

These really are “unprecedented times”. But, anecdotally, I can tell you that each and every time I hired a “non-WFH adjusted” employee (that is, someone who never worked remotely before and didn’t know if it’s for them), it took about 18 months for their WFH status to start affecting their morale.

For this reason alone, I have trouble ascribing the morale slump to the abrupt transition to remote work. Or rather, I have trouble ascribing to morale slump to just the transition to remote work. If, say, there were no global pandemic but for some reason all office buildings just stopped working, it would take a lot longer for this forced-WFH to deteriorate morale to where it is today.

So we must instead look at a combination of factors. First and foremost, all of this is going on during what would normally be the midsummer slump. There’s also obviously a huge increase in background stress due to COVID, the political landscape, and the general sense of instability going around. Added to that is the fact that everybody’s social lives disappeared overnight — forcing WFH is one thing, but at least in pre-pandemic days your remote employees could go out at night. There’s also the fact that most people have cancelled their vacation plans and have literally nothing to look forward to anymore.

That last point is perhaps the most poignant. That famous study of Dutch vacationers suggests that planning the vacation is the best part of the vacation; having a vacation to look forward to 6 months from now can really tide one’s mood over. But now that most vacation plans are scrapped people simply have nothing to be happy about anymore.

What the heck do we do?

Nobody likes their boss forcing them to be social. For that reason I’ve never before supported “mandatory fun”-type activities. Until now.

There are probably two important things you can be doing at the moment. The first is to provide fun social interaction. It’s true that hanging out with coworkers is probably not everyones’ definition of “fun”; but it’s better than nothing. And that’s what we have right now: nothing.

I recommend structured, fun, personalized activities. Hire somebody to put together a trivia game on Zoom each week; make the trivia categories focus around an individual. “This week is Joe Trivia, with categories like ‘80s hair bands’ and ‘famous world leaders’. Next week is Jane Trivia, with categories like ‘Hamilton lyrics’ and ‘Seinfeld trivia’”.

Why trivia? Because a) it’s fun, b) it’s structured c) it’s introvert-friendly and d) the ability to personalize each week adds a special something.

Making these activities introvert-friendly is an important point you should not overlook. You probably started doing a weekly Zoom happy hour at the beginning of lockdown; how did that work out? From what I’m hearing, most of those Zoom happy hours have already fallen off. Why? Because they’re not introvert-friendly, yet most of your team are probably introverts.

You don’t have to go with trivia, but pick some other social activity that hits those same bullet points.

Oh, and let trivia cut into work hours. Now is not the time to try and squeeze blood from a stone. Right now your goal is not necessarily to boost morale but rather to preserve as much of it as you can. Do the first couple of trivias from 4-5 on Fridays, and if people really love it you can consider making it after-hours. But if productivity is so low now anyway, why worry about that 2% of the week you’d cut into on a Friday afternoon?

The second thing you should do is give your employees something to look forward to, plan around, and anticipate. Tons of Disney trips and week-long jaunts to Europe have been canceled, but renting a house somewhere beautiful and isolated is still a viable vacation option.

Encourage your people to rent a house or go camping for a week. If you can, offer to have the company pay for one or two nights of the vacation. And try to schedule it as far out as you can — send people away to go see fall foliage in a cabin in Vermont. Help book an early spring Hudson River Valley rental house for an employee who you know loves hiking. Give them something to look forward to. Many might be unwilling to plan that far ahead; that’s why you incentivize them by offering to pay for the first night.

This isn’t easy, and it won’t get easier for a while. Schools reopening next month is a huge variable, and things may get worse then.

The most important thing you can give your team is understanding and support. I know that’s tough to do right now; you’re supposed to look out for the business and you need everyone to be as productive as possible. But everybody’s losing this year, not just you. If you hope to thrive when this is all over, you’ll need to have taken care of your people in the interim.

I Wish I Had Better Advice

This newsletter is called “CTO Worries”, not “CTO Solutions”. I discussed these topics with a group of CTOs last week, and this is the best we could come up with! If nothing else, take solace in the fact that nobody actually knows what they’re doing right now. There’s no guidebook. We simply have to rely on our experience and intuition.

We all seemed to agree on the core points though: for the duration of this pandemic we will likely need to take a more active role than usual in our employees’ personal morale. Typically, CTOs worry about team morale insofar as their relationship to their job goes; but a CTO managing a team of 30 simply can’t delve into individuals’ personal lives to help out. Now, you might have to.

You have to make the time to do these things, and you have to advocate for your employees moreso than you ever have. You’d have no problem shelling out $1000 to send someone to a conference; shell out that same $1000 to pay for a nature retreat instead! That simple act of generosity will simultaneously give your team something to look forward to and also show that you’re serious about supporting your people through this.

Hey, you made it all the way down here! That means  you probably found this content valuable. I won’t force you to give me money, I just ask that you share this with your friends.


If  you want to support me writing this content, however, feel free to give me money! Either by subscribing or giving a gift subscription to a friend:

Subscribe now

Give a gift subscription

And feel free to Tweet your tech leadership worries to @bkanber, and I’ll try to address them in an upcoming newsletter.