Keeping staff motivated in a crisis

If an organisation can maintain its sense of unity and purpose, it could find itself in a position to perform more efficiently than before the lockdown

For much of the last few weeks, businesses owners across Ireland have faced unprecedented challenges as they attempt to grapple with the financial and moral implications arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The partial shutdown of the State means that many businesses are fighting for their survival, creating a massive amount of anxiety for staff.

However, now that the shock of the last few weeks is beginning to subside, management teams are starting to seek out ways of minimising the impact of the crisis.

Despite the scale of the challenge, many organisations will have found that both staff and management have rallied to navigate a path through the initial shock. Together, they have initiated new ways of working, set new targets and displayed an astonishing amount of emotional intelligence.


The last time organisations had to respond in such a way was at the outset of the financial crisis in 2008, when firms were expected to achieve massive budget reduction targets while maintaining the same quality service or output.

During the initial weeks of the financial crash, both employees and employers responded constructively to the immediate challenges they faced.


Research into the health service that I conducted alongside Prof Mathias Beck, demonstrated that the majority of people exceeded organisational expectations during the initial stages of that crisis.

At the time, adaptive behaviours such as mindfulness and resourcefulness were evident. Many businesses find themselves at this stage right now.

However, our research also illustrates that the enthusiasm we are all imbued with at the moment will wane. As someone who has studied crisis management for over a decade, I can state that this is simply part of the process.

But, notwithstanding this reality, an organisation can influence how long this window remains open and in what manner it closes. To keep it open for as long as possible, our research (informed by many others) suggests that organisations should:

– Build the highest level of trust possible by connecting with people. Organise meetings/calls even if you don’t have a lot to say. Move the discussion to family, the economy, the weather. These connections and relationships will be critical in the coming weeks;

– Demonstrate the highest levels of objectivity and transparency. Share as much information about how you are making decisions as possible. If it’s not organisationally sensitive, share it. Information relevance is not a priority in a crisis, people just want information of any sort during a crisis;

– Keep organisational structures consistent and don’t remove pre-existing levels of autonomy or decision-making power. If you take away autonomy now, it will be difficult to ask individuals to step back in at a later point;

– Communicate and engage across hierarchical levels. Keep up morale and engagement. Send thank you emails to all staff from senior leadership to distinct departments and sub-units. Acknowledgement is fundamental to keeping that window open for as long as possible.

Bear in mind that even the smallest hint of poor communication with colleagues, especially subordinates, can shut it abruptly.

You also need to appreciate the fact that there will be a huge amount of anxiety among staff. They have undoubtedly read and heard stories relating to enforced lay-offs or know of people who have seen their working hours and/or pay reduced.

To negate this somewhat, management teams need to strike an empathetic tone when communicating with staff. Organisational leaders will need to be cognisant that some staff may have had to coax a toddler from their knee before joining a meeting via video conference.

That overlap between a person’s domestic and professional life will create tension all of its own.


However, if an organisation can maintain its sense of unity and purpose, it could find itself in a position to perform more efficiently than before the crisis. People will have found innovative ways of working and organisations will achieved greater levels of engagement and buy-in from staff.

The next two to four months will be difficult for everyone, particularly in situations where pay cuts may have to be implemented, increment freezes imposed and promotion calls suspended.

Maximising our emotional intelligence will make it easier for all of us to successfully manage the crisis, and even allow organisations to emerge stronger and more united as a result.

Dr Michelle Carr is a senior lecturer in management accounting in the Department of Accounting and Finance, Cork University Business School, University College Cork; Prof Matthias Beck is Professor of Management in the Department of Management and Marketing, Cork University Business School, University College Cork