Amherst Human Resources Manager Joanne Misiaszek posts a Twitter update using the #WorkingForAmherst hashtag, which is part of Amherst’s efforts to keep its employees engaged during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

A Google search for “employee morale during COVID-19” returns a torrent of online articles, from “4 Ways to Boost Team Morale During a Pandemic” to “March Sadness: How to Boost Worker Morale.”

With city and town halls from Provincetown to Pittsfield mostly shuttered for two months, Massachusetts municipal managers could write their own advice columns – and the term “Zoom meeting” would show up frequently.

Across the state, virtual platforms are working overtime as town managers and mayors aim to keep their staffs connected and upbeat, minus the usual face-to-face team building and camaraderie.

“Frequent communication is helpful,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. “You’re used to seeing people you work with sometimes more than your own family, and that’s been all flipped on its head. But there’s still important work to do.”

Salem, like most municipalities, has been holding a variety of employee meetings online since March to keep everyone engaged and spirits up. Driscoll hosts daily Zoom meetings with her senior staff, including one that involved a Zoom background contest (with some Salem-spooky entries, of course). She also holds a quarterly staff meeting for about 100 employees via Zoom and had a virtual morning “coffee break” for about 60 City Hall and City Hall Annex employees on May 14.

A Zoom coffee hour is also in play in Needham, where Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick has added brief stress management advice to the bi-weekly agenda.

“When we shut our town buildings in early March, we knew it would be important to keep staff engaged virtually, not only to keep the work of town government going, but to give people a sense of connectedness and community through all of this,” Fitzpatrick said.

Familiarity with the technology notwithstanding, municipal managers are finding that online meetings are effective morale-boosters. Unlike conference phone calls, meetings hosted on Zoom and other platforms enable colleagues to see – and not just hear – each other, making them a particularly valuable tool in this time of social distancing.

“We encourage employees who participate in these meetings to do so both through audio and video so we can actually see each other and try to have a human connection even if we can’t be physically together,” said Auburn Town Manager Julie Jacobson.

She added that her weekly Community Messages to Auburn residents and businesses always include a “thank you” to town employees.

“It is important to publicly acknowledge the work they are doing to maintain continuity of services,” she said. “I have never been more proud of the town employees than I am now as I see how they have reacted to and adapted to the COVID-19 crisis.”

Manager connections
Jacobson, who is president of the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association, and other current and former MMA and MMMA presidents and vice presidents recently wrote to all MMMA members to make sure they are getting what they need “to stay strong personally and emotionally.” While the letter didn’t draw a large response, Jacobson said that’s likely because ad hoc regional networks of managers were already reaching out to each other to discuss common challenges and exchange solutions.

“There are several informal groups throughout the state consisting of managers/administrators who meet regularly and, since COVID, have increased their conversations to address common issues and concerns,” she said. “Here in central Massachusetts, we have a group of about 22 town managers and administrators who regularly communicate via email to share ideas, resources and plans. It is an incredible source of support for all of us under these unprecedented circumstances.”

Continuing connections
At opposite ends of the state and in communities in between, strategies for lifting staff morale and keeping workers connected feature more similarities than differences – variations on a theme designed to inform and motivate municipal staff and the public alike.

On Cape Cod, Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith provides weekly updates to her staff and town residents via the municipal website. In the Berkshires, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer delivers weekly community-wide updates via Pittsfield Community Television and Facebook Live. In the Pioneer Valley, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman hosts twice-weekly virtual Community Chats that bring town staff and residents together for updates and live Q & A.

Amherst also provides staff lunches from local businesses for those still working in town facilities, and has launched a social media campaign called #WorkingforAmherst that highlights staff members in their “new normal” (usually home offices) to remind residents that town employees are still hard at work.

“This has been a great way to keep connected with staff, especially those working from home,” Bockelman said. “This has had a great response from the public as well, so it checks multiple boxes for us.”

In addition to online meetings and updates, some municipal workforces are finding creative ways to simply get together to socialize. Examples include Amherst’s “virtual open lunchroom series,” during which staff pop in and out to say “hello” and catch up; Chatham’s “Keeping Team Chatham Connected,” which enables staff to share stories and selfies using the MS Teams platform; and Needham’s virtual coffees and after-hours game nights and chats.

A “Zoom Happy Hour” hosted several weeks ago by Lexington Town Manager Jim Malloy has now become an every other Thursday tradition.

“We had a great discussion that included an update on the town’s COVID responses, issues with staff working remotely, as well as the anxiety many staff were going through,” Malloy said. “It was a great experience during a stressful time to reunite staff. I’ll continue doing this regularly until we return to a normal work environment, and I believe there will be long lasting positive effects of this effort.”

Written by Lisa Capone