Nurturing team relationships remained a top priority as the University of Alberta Career Centre navigated a rapidly changing work context during lockdown

Blessie Mathew and Amy Roy Gratton

author headshotsLike others around the world, March 2020 launched our workplace at the University of Alberta into drastically unfamiliar territory. Career Centre Director Blessie Mathew had to navigate the challenge of shifting over 50 staff in multiple locations to remote work in a matter of days. Each staff member was destabilized as they were abruptly torn from their routines and had to pivot how they balanced work (which dramatically increased for a few months) with caregiving, schooling, home life and other responsibilities in a lockdown.

A director’s point of view

Amid the endless demands that accompany rapid operational changes, it would have been easiest to provide our staff with a list of mental health resources and hope those who needed support would seek it out. However, passive attempts at supporting one another was never how we operated; our staff invest in relationships and take pride in knowing that our care for each other extends beyond productivity and output. In the rapidly changing context of remote work, I felt the need to protect and nurture our unique workplace culture. It was clear that a focus on mental well-being, authentic team-building and maintaining a close connection to our workplace was imperative.

I asked Career Centre staff to volunteer in pairs to take on the role of morale officers for two weeks at a time. Morale officers, in general, would be responsible for finding ways to connect our team and ensure we had opportunities to stay engaged with one another as we started to work remotely. That was the extent of the parametres provided; the rest was up to the morale officers.

A morale officer’s perspective

What started out as a simple inquiry, “Would anyone like to be a morale officer and see if this idea works?” has turned into over 12 weeks of engagement that revitalized our team dynamic. Our first morale officers kept things light, which allowed people to test the idea out and decide how much time they wanted to invest. The activities were easy to participate in and didn’t take much extra time or effort. We received prompts like “Send us a picture of your new workplace” or “What restaurants do you support locally?” or “Submit a picture that represents who you are outside of work.” These simple questions evolved into measured glimpses into our colleagues’ lives at home, fun banter, meaningful discussions and a collective push to support local businesses. The second set of morale officers focused on mental wellness by asking staff to submit their self-care strategies, which were turned into a resource list.

Two activities stood out for me because they relied on team effort: the Career Centre Coat of Arms and the Pand-Emmys.

career centre coat of armsCareer Centre Coat of Arms

The morale officers asked us to submit a symbol or picture we thought should be included as part of a coat of arms representing our team. Individuals contributed symbols like a wolf protecting the pack and elephants protecting the most vulnerable. We also heard references to mentorship and growth, connections, community, friendship, multiculturalism and, of course, coffee and food. We captured our mission in Latin: to empower talented people in developing skills, knowledge, experiences and connections. We asked a high school student seeking to enhance their portfolio to integrate the submissions into a drawing. The final product, unveiled at a staff meeting, reflected our collective values.

The Pand-Emmys

The Pandemic Emmys were peer-nominated awards acknowledging our colleagues as they delivered services from home. The Pand-Emmys received 46 nominations in categories such as best behind-the-scenes work, best supporting actor or best reality show. Nominations ranged from fun to heartfelt and appreciative. At a staff meeting, colleagues announced award categories and winners. Some staff leaned into the activity, playing music and enthusiastically ripping open envelopes to reveal the winner.

Pandemic Emmys award certificate for "Best Reality Show Hosts"

Each staff member won at least one Pand-Emmy and the morale officers sent the winners certificates that included our Coat of Arms. As an added surprise, a category was created for our kids and pets – the supporting cast members who frequently made cameos in our virtual meetings. We felt affirmed and accepted for the complex ways our work and personal lives had become intertwined.

Here are some tips for making your own morale-boosting initiative work:

1. Make team building a priority. Team-building can seem superfluous to immediate operational challenges. Prioritizing your team’s connection to each other, and the workplace, positively influences staff mental health, engagement and productivity.

2. Ask for volunteers in pairs. Team members can support one another when workloads fluctuate. Staff were apt to volunteer when they had someone to brainstorm and plan with. Morale officers also modelled engagement in activities and debriefed if activities did not go as planned.

3. Encourage staff to make it their own. Allow morale officers to be creative and give them the freedom to design activities that feel authentically positive.

4. Try new things, even if they might not work out. There are no penalties for ideas that might not go well or head in a completely different direction. At first, some activities may feel awkward, but if your team holds an open and supportive mindset, they can morph into an unrelated discussion or banter that holds equal benefit for the team.

5. Make participation optional. Participation feels natural and fun when there is no pressure and ample grace for colleagues’ fluctuating work and personal demands. Enforcing participation in addition to a growing list of work-related tasks will breed resentment. There were weeks when nobody volunteered to be morale officers and we simply let it go until somebody had the time and inclination.

6. Choose your communication channels wisely. Initially we tried communicating over various channels and found it challenging to filter the fun messages from the urgent ones. Choose consistent and separate methods of communication that give your team the functionality they need (e.g. video conference, polls, or the ability to post pictures and video).

7. Focus on co-operation. Encourage the goal of positive team dynamics rather than one-upping each other. Some staff felt intimidated to volunteer because previous activities were so creative. To provide support, the previous team sent an email to the next team including what they learned and advice on how to engage people.

From both the staff and leadership perspectives, we are proud of what our team has achieved. We gained an innovative way to continue to create community when we cannot be together, and a way to inject some laughter and heartfelt moments into a stressful situation.

As Director, Career Centre and Experiential Learning, Blessie Mathew oversees the operations of the University of Alberta Career Centre, the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI), and Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology (WISEST).

Amy Roy Gratton, a Career Education Co-ordinator at the University of Alberta Career Centre, works with students, alumni and postdoctoral fellows on experiential learning opportunities such as job shadowing, career mentoring and community engagement programming.