COVID-19 Pandemic: Supervisor Tips & Tools for Motivating Remote Staff to Stay Engaged and Productive

This guidance is designed to support supervisors in helping to keep University of Pittsburgh employees engaged and productive while working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the latest COVID-19 resources and guidance from the University, please visit For additional COVID-19 resources for faculty and staff, please visit

Are you a supervisor facing the challenge of maintaining productivity and motivation for yourself and your staff members who are working remotely? Consider these tips and tools. While not all points may apply to your area,  some may add additional options to your existing toolbox.

What might this temporary work situation be an opportunity to do? It can benefit all of us to shift our thinking from challenge mode to opportunity mode. Many supervisors dream of a time when the daily tasks of our typical workdays calm down a little so their teams can focus on longer term, bigger picture projects. This is that time. Think big, think creatively, and think in all directions.

Think AHEAD — This can be a moment for strategic and long-term planning. Examples include:

  • Updating budgets, timelines, risk plans, and other planning documents you plan to use going forward in your work.
  • Establishing updated metrics and goals that you can use to track progress.
  • Reading University- and unit-level strategic plans and communications and determining possibilities for your future activities to align with those plans.
  • Considering ways that you can improve diversity and inclusivity in your internal work environment as well as in your outward-facing initiatives.

Think BACK — “Quiet” times can be used to gather and examine data on previous initiatives, such as:

  • Reviewing existing data to determine whether projects are meeting objectives.
  • Collecting new data using survey tools like Qualtrics. People have more time right now than they usually do to complete those surveys thoughtfully.
  • Encouraging your team to join you in reflecting on recent efforts by asking questions like: What has worked well for us in the past year and why? What hasn’t worked as well and why? This can translate into productive discussions related to future initiatives.

Think DEEP — Make a plan to do a deep dive into systems you currently have in place. This might include:

  • "Spring cleaning" your email account, creating and organizing email folders.
  • Organizing and cleaning up folders, drives, Box, and other document storage.
  • Cleaning up data and labels in databases and document management systems.
  • Catching up on data entry and other backlogs.
  • Defining and employing consistent labeling conventions for documents and emails.
  • For essential personnel—working through any backlogs of repair requests.

Think ACROSS — Brainstorm ways that your work can impact others. This could include:

  • Offering your specialty or administrative services to units whose work touches yours.
  • Asking your colleagues what your team can do for them, both now and in the future.
  • Brainstorming ways your team can help others in the community through volunteer efforts that also maintain everyone’s safety.
  • Staying informed and up to date with University, community, regional, and national news in order to keep your efforts aligned with constantly changing needs and safety protocols.
  • Keeping in touch with other managers to compare notes on what’s working.

Think GROWTH — Downtimes are ideal for developing ourselves and our teams. Consider:

  • Encouraging employees to engage in professional development topics through free resources like LinkedIn Learning (accessible through the Pitt Portal), webinars, books, digitally available articles and other publications, podcasts, TED Talks, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), etc.
  • Building discussions around professional development materials with your team. You might ask questions like: What did you learn from this? What surprised you? What does this make you more curious about? What insight does this bring to what we do? Based on this, what might we want to try?
  • Earning continuing education/professional development credits toward certifications.
  • Participating in webinars and other online sessions offered through the University.
  • Visiting the websites of your applicable professional organizations. Many such organizations are populating their pages with relevant, on-demand career development material.
  • Getting comfortable and versatile with software (especially for remote work!), like MS Teams, Skype for Business, Outlook email and calendar, Zoom, and GoToMeeting.
  • Learning, employing, or updating a task management platform (ex. Outlook, Todoist, or others).
  • Talking to staff members about areas where they currently want to grow or learn on the job. This could be a chance to get employees cross-trained in order to respond better to future demands on workplace flexibility.

Think WELL-BEING — It is crucial that we all sustain our physical and mental health. Prioritize:

  • Checking in with your colleagues, faculty, students, and staff on needs for support and offering to assist where possible.
  • Continuing to recognize and highlight employees’ exceptional efforts.
  • Finding ways to creatively maintain the team’s social interactions and still have fun.
  • Having discussions on setting boundaries around work and non-work spaces, times, and devices. Some employees may need clarity, reassurance, and guidance on creating work “zones” and defining clear start and end times to work days as well as appropriate lunchtimes and breaks.
  • Sharing ways your team has discovered to stay focused in a non-office setting. For example, some who are accustomed to ambient or “white” noise at work may be aided by websites like Coffitivity, which replicates the sounds that might be heard in a coffee shop or café.
  • Encouraging employees to maintain (or even enhance) normal levels of physical activity both in the home and outdoors where appropriate social distancing is possible.
  • Reminding staff members to keep in contact via phone, email, FaceTime, Skype, and other virtual methods with family, social groups, faith communities, and other support systems.

Think NOW — Importantly, there are some tasks that are critical or perfectly situated for doing right now, like:

  • Drafting upcoming announcements and communications.
  • Reviewing content on websites and SharePoint to check for accuracy, typos, broken links, current information, etc.
  • For on-site employees—thoroughly cleaning and sanitizing spaces and equipment.
  • Brainstorming with your staff ways that your team can provide unique value to the University during this period. Talk with your team about what you have to offer that no one else does. What new form might it take? For example, could you perform a typical function but on a different platform (e.g. email, newsletter, online, video, webinar, or social media)? Or is there something specific that your team does that could help the University community manage this particular situation better?

Even if we might not know for sure when this period of remote working will come to an end, it is nevertheless a finite situation. Maintain regular, honest communication with your team. Talk about what you and they want to do during this period, the systems you might employ for doing it, how you will gauge your success, and ultimately how you plan to transition and merge these efforts together with existing priorities and structures once regular working operations resume.

In the meantime, now is the time to think creatively, work collaboratively, and be alert to the opportunities around us.