- Low morale at work is contagious and can lead to lower productivity, sluggish change adoption, and reduced innovation and collaboration.
- To help, leaders must begin by knowing what motivates their team and understanding why morale is low.
- Boosting morale involves providing support, offering learning, recognizing value, making connections, and keeping it fun.
Listen: Create a new commitment to team morale.
These days, the world of work keeps shifting and changing (seemingly even faster), all while economic outlooks continue to fluctuate. So, it's no wonder that employees everywhere are experiencing high levels of burnout and fatigue. The collective stress is palpable.
High stress at work is a real issue, in part because it's contagious. A team full of confused and frustrated employees—or even just a few—inevitably leads to lower productivity, sluggish change adoption, and mental barriers to the very innovation and collaboration that businesses need in order to stay ahead. If left unaddressed, low morale starts to drive turnover.
So how can leaders, who often experience the same burnout themselves, find ways to boost team morale before it's too late?
We took this conundrum to our InsideOut West Coast design leader group to explore. Though boosting team morale is a huge topic, some key themes emerged in this session, and leaders shared real-world ideas to improve morale … starting now.
Overall, everyone agreed that leaders must begin by knowing their team and understanding why morale is low. Only then can they offer realistic solutions. And here's the best part: Making the effort to uplift morale for others causes a beautiful ripple effect and revitalizes your own spirits. So even when your personal morale feels low, as a leader, it's absolutely worth digging deep and elevating the team's energy. It will inadvertently boost yours, too.
Read on for ideas and themes to get your wheels turning: support, learning, value, connection, and fun. Making the effort to boost team morale may be easier than you think.
Support: address individual needs and preferences
Every team member is unique. Obviously, right? But it really can't be stressed enough. Acknowledging this is the first step in uncovering what your team needs. Show that you value people for who they are by asking them (individually) about their needs and then doing your best to support those requests.
Sounds easy to do on paper. But yet, there's still a big disconnect—according to McKinsey, burnout is everywhere. Thankfully, senior leaders in our InsideOut community shared meaningful ways to make supporting people doable and realistic.
To start, set up regular one-on-one check-ins to understand each employee's motivations and concerns. These will change over time, hence the importance of regular check-ins. Pay special attention to any drops in motivation and advocate for changes that align with their interests. This is what caring looks like in a workplace, and caring is core to high morale.
Note: Don't forget the introverts or those who identify as neurodivergent. Take extra time to understand how they prefer to be acknowledged and recognized. Tailor your support to suit individual preferences to show that you and the organization value every team member just as they are.
Learning: foster curiosity and knowledge-sharing
Learning is a perpetual journey that not only enhances individual skills, but cultivates a sense of accomplishment and progression. As human beings, we gravitate to learning and are wired to be naturally curious, social creatures.
But learning too easily falls to the wayside at work. Our fast-paced world means deadlines always loom, days are full of meetings, and the to-do list only grows. So, how could learning for the joy of it possibly fit in?
InsideOut leaders said the first step is to consciously decide to make learning a priority. A few spoke highly of hosting a guest speaker series (say, someone who focuses on ethical design or prototyping). This can be done virtually or in person, quarterly, monthly, or whatever cadence fits company culture.
Outside ideas infuse fresh insights and encourage discussion. And knowledge sharing from the inside is invigorating, too. Create a monthly workshop where team members share something interesting—but not about work, like why slime-making or crocheting have made such a comeback.
Either way, investing in continuous learning proves that the company values personal and professional growth. And that leads to a more motivated, forward-thinking group of employees. The key is implementing a regular schedule, so staff can count on and look forward to it.
Value: recognize and celebrate achievements
People deserve to be lifted up and thanked for their efforts, which is essential for boosting morale (HBR agrees). In fact, according to Glassdoor's Employee Appreciation Survey, 81% of employees report they're motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation.
These days, branded swag and snacks aren't enough. Teams crave meaning and a chance to add value and want to be recognized for their effort. Remember that everyone is different, so think about the right way to celebrate someone that will make them feel good.
InsideOut leaders pointed out that some folks enjoy recognition in front of a group, like showcasing someone's project impact with metrics. Others said a personal email or note of gratitude for a job well done goes a long way. Some might appreciate a small gift card or a donation in their name to the cause of their choice.
For some teams, visual representations of group progress (like dashboards displaying KPIs) offer a tangible way to see collective effort and success in real time. Openly celebrating these accomplishments validates the entire team's hard work, underscores the “we're-in-it-together” mindset, and inspires people to strive for even greater heights.
Connection: build relationships and camaraderie
A strong sense of connection and partnership within a team can significantly contribute to high morale. This is why outside-the-office activities like corporate volunteering are a win-win for employees and their communities.
But forging closer ties can happen inside the office, too, even on the day-to-day. Start by encouraging team members to share what inspires them (maybe over coffee or Slack). Foster open dialogue to find common interests, which provide a foundation for meaningful connections beyond the workplace. In remote teams, giving back can be done together virtually. Try a Missing Maps activity, where everyone adds streets to maps of rural areas, places where folks are at greater risk in natural disasters or other crises due to missing info.
One InsideOut leader recommended establishing a task force of employees who are genuinely passionate about solving a problem (like how to make meetings more efficient or inclusive). This empowers folks to leverage their skills and creativity to find innovative solutions that benefit everyone.
Fun: inject joy and light-heartedness
Brené Brown advocates for the importance of play and rest, and InsideOut leaders totally agree. As do I, and I personally recommend this book on play: “Fish: A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results.”
Fun and lighthearted interactions play a vital role in boosting team morale. Good news, there are tons of low-lift, enjoyable activities that bring people together—like online games such as Skribbl (akin to Pictionary), virtual pizza parties, or a virtual “spin-the-wheel” to win mystery gifts. There are also tools like Bonusly that structure recognition in an easy, interactive way that weaves seamlessly into the workday.
Maintaining a playful atmosphere can also be done well in Slack channels devoted to fun and banter; they prompt people to acknowledge and appreciate each other. One InsideOut leader encourages using immersive environments to bring folks together (mini-golf is surprisingly fun in VR). It's a great way to learn about emerging technologies at the same time.
Similarly, there is much fun to be had with AI. Try prompts to write jokes; play with Goblin Tools to make all sorts of tasks (even cooking) fun and easy; reimagine the office together using RoomsGPT. A touch of fun and excitement goes a long way to foster a positive and enjoyable work environment. Don't overlook laughter and joy (or karaoke). It all adds up.
In our rapidly evolving world of work, prioritizing team morale is, put simply, paramount.
By investing in learning opportunities, recognizing individuals' achievements, fostering interpersonal connections, bringing the fun, and providing personalized support, organizations can create an upbeat and motivating work environment that drives success and growth for employees—and, in turn, the business.
Boosting team morale is not just a task on an HR to-do list. It's a strategic imperative (and a mindset) that should be woven into the everyday fabric of work. Every little bit counts, and leaders have the power to keep spirits high for their teams and themselves in the process.
Now that's a win-win.
Why do I care? My mission is to connect leaders to find solutions. If you're a senior design, experience, or operations leader of an in-house team at a high-profile brand and want to connect with others who share your unique challenges, let's talk. Our InsideOut community hosts virtual and in-person roundtables to support the learning and growth of our members, and I'm honored to facilitate those discussions.
How to make immersive brand experiences in the metaverse.
How to foster belonging with employee resource groups.
Hiring Creatives, Managing People, Remote & Asynchronous Work
Design leadership is vital—here’s how to explain why.
InsideOut, Managing People