Building Employee Engagement and Protecting Your Organization’s Culture: A Case Study of Beating The Blue Monday Blues in a Time of Virtual Work

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. One of the great joys of leading a team, is that they will – if provided the right tools and venues – inspire you, and teach you. I walked away from our team’s Beating the Blue Monday Blues staff meeting, inspired by my team, and thankful that they had shown me in the ways they had shown up that day, that we had each identified the need to work together towards successful completion of common goals and individual projects.

When I set the meeting, I thought it would be a fun exercise for the team; what I could not have anticipated was that it would not only capture the imagination of my team, but also pique the interest of so many of my CSAE Colleagues. Blue Monday is the name given to a day in January (typically the third Monday of the month) claimed to be the most depressing day of the year. The theory goes that this is the time of year when we’re all cold, broke and riddled with guilt that our new year’s resolutions to get fit, drink less alcohol, and be a better human being have fallen by the wayside. The expressed purpose of the meeting was “to do a little bit of bragging, and to inspire each other”.

Each Staff member was assigned homework to bring to the meeting. The notice read:

Here’s your homework/scavenger hunt assignment. Each staff member will bring for meeting show and tell;

  • One inspirational quote that inspires, joy, pride or resolve. Be prepared to speak about why this quote is impactful to you personally, and what you hope your teammates will get from it.
  • One small object (that you can hold in front of your webcamera) that inspires you or represents one of your 2021 resolutions. Be prepared to speak to why this object is impactful for you personally.
  • One image, object, or story about a small (or large) success you have already achieved in 2021. For an image or object, be prepared to explain how it represents your accomplishment.
  • One idea for 2021 that we can work as a team to help you achieve – it can be as simple as asking for 5 accountability buddies, or as complex as needing each of us to do a specific task in a specific order.

We started off strong, with some amazing quotes, contributed by Jessie Nguyen, Brenda La, Wendy Jensen, John Evans, and Kyle Smith;

  • “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”. –Chinese Proverb
  • “If the plan doesn’t work, change the plan, never the goal.” – Author Unknown
  • “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbour, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover” – Mark Twain
  • “It always seems impossible until its done” – Nelson Mandela
  • “Even if you stumble, you’re still moving forward” – Author Unknown

But, the secret sauce, was when we hit item 4 – one idea for 2021 we can work as a team to help you achieve. Some people brought personal items to the table, but everyone also brought something to the table that is important to our organization, where they recognized that the skills and knowledge of their colleagues is essential to success. Where, in order to go far, we must go together.

Like many small Not-for-Profit (NFP) staff teams, my team at the Air Cadet League of Canada, Ontario Provincial Committee (OPC) has had successes and challenges in keeping in touch, and maintaining our work-family culture in the midst of the pandemic.

I’ve looked for ways to replicate our team bonding, our annual New Year Sushi Lunch on the first Friday back from Holidays; or our Holiday Celebrations which coincide with two staff birthdays on December 20th. To end 2020 we did a virtual Happy Hour; during the summer lull in infection numbers, we did a socially distanced meeting and “picnic” in my front yard. And of course, I’ve sent my team on the aforementioned inspiration scavenger hunt.

Thus far, I’ve been lucky, I have a great team, who are willing to trust my crazy ideas, I haven’t had to lean on my Blue Monday meeting quote for this  – If at first you don’t succeed, Try, Try Again. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn from, and lean on others.

The Scavenger Hunt Idea – will be familiar to anyone who attended CSAE Trillium’s Holiday social on REMO! I was hopelessly outmatched by Sherry Lucia from Hamilton Tourism and Gerald Bramm from Bramm Research; but, it was still fun to “visit” with CSAE friends in our own homes.

I borrowed the Gamification idea from many – including my organization’s partner, the Regional Cadet Support Unit (RCSU) – Central at CFB Borden. Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Leonard, the Regional Commanding Officer, reported at a pre-holiday meeting that his group was playing virtual games to support team building while many continued to work from home.

The idea of focusing a meeting on Mental Health, and Personal Wellness – came, in part, from conversations I had early in the Pandemic, with Tracy Folkes-Hanson, CAE, the President and CEO of CSAE, who shared a “how are you feeling” chart she was using at virtual staff meetings to monitor how her team was coping with the uncertainty brought by COVID-19.

As a CSAE Board Member, I am lucky to get to witness the leadership that Tracy has brought through this difficult time. I’m ashamed to admit, that I don’t know anyone (including myself) who is as loyal to, and as caring about their team. Tracy has kept the Board up-to-date on some of the initiatives she and the staff have implemented; and as members I encourage us all to consider leveraging the example being set, including;

  • Weekly Virtual Team Huddles.
  • Maintaining regular meetings that tackle the work that inspires and informs staff’s sense of purpose on topics such as Values, Strategy and New Initiatives.
  • Sharing of messages, photos, and weekly wellness tips, alongside project updates on messaging platforms such as Slack. Special mention was made that Janice works to provide her colleagues with helpful ideas on a weekly basis.
  • Culture Club, run by the social committee, with online cooking and baking classes.
  • And, CSAE Café, where the team signs in and works in a shared virtual space on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In the same way that I have been inspired by my peers, including my network through CSAE, I hope that there are some take-aways for others who may sense that their organizational culture is slipping, but not know how to prevent permanent damage. While so much of this will also come down to your team, and their willingness to show up, and engage, its still incumbent on all of us – particularly Chief Staff Officers (CSOs) to set the tone.

Finally, I encourage everyone to speak out for what you need. If your boss isn’t bringing your team together in meaningful ways, offer to plan a virtual get together. If you are the boss, and you’re missing your peers, there are a host of options from CSAE Talk Tuesdays, to gathering your peers together to catch-up. There are many ideas here to inspire you.

Danielle S. Russell, CAE, is the Executive Director of the Air Cadet League of Canada, Ontario Provincial Committee; an organization rich in history, and staffed by a small but mighty team of dedicated individuals. Danielle is a member of the CSAE Board of Directors, and previously served on the CSAE Trillium Council. Connect with Danielle on LinkedIn – or follow her on Twitter @Dani__Russell.