If your staff was singing kumbaya around the metaphorical campfire before the pandemic; Don’t assume they are still in that happy place.

The abrupt switch from in-person to home office took a toll. Associations thrive on plans, procedures, and processes. Our culture is the opposite of spontaneous. The careful preparation that usually accompanies a significant transition didn’t happen. Employees were thrown off balance physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

We came through the storm. Projects are getting done. The output is polished and professional. But answer this question honestly? Are your teams working with the enthusiasm that characterizes a positive culture? If you hesitated, the answer might be no.

Should you be worried? Well, consider this—

Along with the other disruptions, COVID-19 rebalanced employer/employee dynamics. There are 10.4 million open positions in the marketplace, and workers are feeling their muscles. According to the Labor Department, 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August. This mass exodus is being dubbed “the great resignation.” Although the defections are primarily in the foodservice, retail, and social assistance sectors, this trend is gathering momentum.

Employees have discovered they don’t have to settle. Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, told TIME Magazine this. “Workers are burned out. They’re fed up. They’re fried. In the wake of so much hardship, and illness and death during the past year.”

If angst has seeped into your workplace, there is no shame in acknowledging the disfunction.

If angst has seeped into your workplace, there’s no shame in acknowledging the disfunction. The only fault lies in allowing that negativity to simmer on the back burner. When untended emotions come to a boil, the situation becomes much more difficult to manage.

Every CEO was challenged to maintain morale over the last year-and-a-half. Ironically, coaching teams at a distance requires an approach that is more intentional and hands-on than when everyone occupies the same space. Nurturing the intangibles like trust, collegiality and a supportive environment is even harder. Your brand is only as strong as your culture. And a few weak links can spread like rust to corrode the entire organization.

I take the pulse of our industry by regularly talking to its leaders. Culture is a topic I always ask about. In interviews for my podcast and the two books my business partner, Kevin Ordonez, and I wrote on Association 4.0™ leadership, I’ve gathered plenty of recommendations for how to create a positive environment for teams that are in the same building or miles apart.

Put Fun to Work

Whether you are virtual or back in the office, there has never been a more important time to find fun in the workplace. These are a few ideas for showing appreciation after a long year and to give everyone something to smile about:

  • Offer time off for volunteer activities
  • Give a birthday holiday
  • Purchase new laptops—everyone loves new tech
  • Host lunch and learns about interesting or unusual topics
  • Begin meetings with personal updates and information sharing
  • Organize a “dress up” theme week or ask people to showcase themed virtual backgrounds such as my dream home or vacation spot
  • Send employees lunch from a delivery service
  • Hire one of the many companies that are organizing virtual team-building exercises or check out the .orgSource website for team and skill-building ideas.
  • Host a virtual wine tasting
  • Create team channels – such as #topchef, #netflix, #kids, and #pets etc.

Hire for Fit

On a more serious note—no play or perks can compensate for an unwise choice. You can train for skill, but you can’t teach collaboration or character. Without the right team, a positive culture is an uphill battle. Hiring for fit doesn’t mean everyone must think, act, or look alike. That’s a recipe for stagnation. Diversity drives innovation. You need those unique thinkers. But everyone must share this value, the organization’s success is the bottom line.

David Caruso, Co-Founder and President at HighRoad Solutions, explained his perspective like this. “I try to maintain a staff that is similar when it comes to core values such as work ethic and lifestyle balance, but wide-ranging in skills, experience, and personality.”

HighRoad’s diversity is both human and geographic. The company’s address is a post office box in Ashburn, Virginia. There is no headquarters. “One of the best decisions Ron and I ever made was to run a virtual company,” Caruso explains. “Today, we are able to hire the best people for the job, no matter where they live, and technology allows us to bring them together seamlessly. When you have the right team, you don’t worry about distractions. I know that our employees don’t need an office or a manager looking over their shoulders to be productive.”

Meg and Tim Ward, Co-Founders at Gravitate Solutions, have employees around the globe. “We find smart people who fit the culture and we accommodate them,” Tim says. “Our goal is to hire great people, give them a vision and let them run with it.”

“Hiring employees who are the right fit for this positive environment is a top priority. Our interview process is rigorous. We do phone screening followed by three waves of interviews with teammates from different cross-sections of the company. There are role-playing exercises, and the final activity is a cultural fit session. This process ensures that we hire the right people.”

Communicate Mission, Goals, and Expectations Clearly

Effective communication seems like obvious advice for a remote, or any, workplace. But, in 2020, many organizations were caught without policies and procedures for working from home. If those guidelines still don’t exist, now is the time to put rules in place. Remote teams can feel untethered. Structure promotes a sense of belonging. It may be difficult to develop a one-size-fits-all approach for remote work. Instead, strive for simplicity, fairness, and clarity.

Don’t underestimate the power of a compelling vision to drive enthusiasm and performance. A statement that is aired once a year at the staff meeting, is just that—a collection of words. Power comes from shared experience. To accumulate meaning, values need to be lived daily.

Joey Knecht, CEO and Managing Director at Proteus.co, believes organizations need to exercise their culture. “We don’t try to control our culture, but we feed it and reinforce it daily. Every morning we do a jump-start, and each week we discuss one of our values. We also recognize accomplishments with kudos and accolades, and we support each other’s work. When someone needs help with an important project, a process called Red Dot gets put in motion.”

Knecht’s team makes having fun together a priority. Our culture group arranges a company-wide lunch every Wednesday. On a larger scale, they planned an organizational trip to Mount Rushmore. We took our entire staff and their families to visit this historic site and participate in a team-building hike.”

Create Trust

Great cultures are founded on trust, and trust is earned by demonstrating that your team can depend on you to be honest, respectful, and interested in their personal and professional well-being. This is an attitude that’s easy to endorse but harder to consistently maintain. We all have challenging moments and blind spots. When you have the courage to acknowledge weakness and the tenacity to keep working toward better leadership, people recognize that authenticity.

Teri Carden, Co-Founder 100Reviews, puts it like this. “Authenticity is attractive in leaders. By adopting a more open orientation, CEOs can set themselves, and their organizations, apart from the rest of the business world.”

Joey Knecht offered this advice. “The strongest thing that a leader can do is to protect the team. We have a five-person leadership team. Everyone is very transparent. All our activities are measurable, and we’re growth-oriented. Our culture and my leadership style reflect those principles.”

I think this advice from Roy Chomko, CEO at Adage Technologies, summarizes the ripple effect of culture on brand. “Employee satisfaction will be a critical consideration for associations that want to thrive over the next decade. If we don’t make our employees happy, we won’t have happy customers. I think of Adage as a concentric circle. The innermost circle is our values, then come our employees and then our customers.”

Of all the reasons you should want to keep teams in their happy place, Chomko’s observation is probably the most powerful. When employees love where they work that positive energy gives your brand a voice that speaks louder than words.

Read profiles of David Caruso, Meg and Tim Ward, Teri Carden, Joey Knecht, and Roy Chomko in our book Association 4.0: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation.