Covid-19: A Psychologist on Play, Purpose & Potential

Play, Purpose and Potential for Motivation & Performance whilst working remotely: a guide for line managers.

Play, purpose and potential are three positive motivators identified by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi (ex-McKinsey & Co and co-authors of Primed to Perform) that often lead to increased work performance but are most at risk whilst we’re working remotely. See their piece in Harvard Business Review.

So what can people managers do about it? Read on for our nine practical suggestions for stimulating play, reinforcing purpose and nurturing potential.

Play (the motive that most boosts performance)

  1. Give your team an audacious goal. “Imagine if this time next year we could say we’d achieve X, what would have happened to get us there?” This could kick-off as a 45 minute group brainstorming challenge over virtual afternoon tea (everyone to bake/buy own scones, jam and cream).

  2. Have a fun problem-solving task running in the background such as how to celebrate the return to work on a budget of £500. Invite people to add pictures, films and notes to a shared folder.

  3. Put a playful provocation in the post to your team. [Post coming soon sharing something that went in the post from our CEO to everyone in the team].

    And remember to ask your team for ideas on how to inject playfulness into how you’re working. You don’t have to have all the answers.


  1. Keep your clients and customers alive in your team’s mind. You might ask each team member to dig out some customer feedback they’re proud of and reflect on what that customer might need now.  

  2. Keep your team connected to their why. Be the person who reminds others of why they do their job and what they enjoy about it. Can’t recall? Try thinking of a time each of your team members was particularly upbeat at work and what was happening – that should spark something.

  3. Review (and revise) the team why. This is about everyone in the team knowing the purpose of the team; not the activities of the team but why you do it. Depending on how your organisation is affected by Covid-19 there may be an urgent need to revise the objectives of your team – or it may simply be a good opportunity. Try this activity which then forms a neat basis for a first post-social distancing team meeting:

    – Ask each team member for the 1-sentence response they’d give the CEO if they asked why the team exists.

    – Invite each team member to come with a revised sentence of why the team exists (it’s purpose) in the light of where the world is now. (They might not want to revise the first, that’s fine, but you’ve provoked thinking).

    – Invite everyone to list what they believe to be the three most important things the team as a whole should continue doing, start doing and stop doing (nine in total).


  1. Remind each team member what you most value in them, how those qualities are making a difference now and why they’re going to continue to be important. For recent joiners, you might comment on specific qualities that made them stand out during the hiring process.

  2. Encourage low-cost CPD the whole team can benefit from. Two ideas we particularly like:

    – Every team member chooses a non-fiction book that relates to work/the specific work you do (even if only loosely). Agree a deadline. Read the book with the aim of picking up three ideas that could be useful to the team, why and how they could be applied. Everyone shares via a short film or live on a team call (5 minutes max).

    – Every team member to identify someone (inside or outside the team) they admire for a particular technical skill/strength/characteristic. Everyone commits to approaching their ‘person on a pedestal’ for a 30 minute conversation to learn more about how they got good it, any useful resources and tips on how the learner can build their skill. Some beautiful cross-team relationships could form because of it…

  3. Invite team members to access Strengths Profile (currently free during Covid-19). This is a tool that raises awareness of what an individual naturally finds energising. It can be the basis of conversations about how to better use the individual and collective strengths of the team – as well as identifying opportunities for growth by tapping into ‘unrealised strengths.’ When we use our strengths we’re more engaged, perform better, feel happier and give more discretionary effort. Even in an organisation with – and perhaps because of – significant interruption to usual workflow, reduced orders/customers and financial constraints, there is opportunity for personal growth. As a leader you can be a beacon of hope and optimism by sharing this idea.

Covid-19: A Psychologist’s 1-10 for leading a productive and healthy WFH team

Through our work conversations and coaching practice since social distancing began we’ve caught more than a whiff of mistrust and micromanagement in the air. Our founder, coaching psychologist Jessica Chivers, shares her 10 psychology-based tips to help people managers be productive and healthy, and facilitate the same in their teams.

  1. Regular 1:1s
    Continue to have regular 1:1s. It’s important team members know they have individual focus time with you. Some research from the 80s suggests a fortnightly cadence is optimal but you might want to switch to weekly and make them shorter. If you’re not getting them with your leader, send her/him a nudge with calendar invites.

  2. 2 minutes talk time
    Have a daily team call. Each team member, including you, has 2 minutes talk time: 1 minute to reflect on what went well yesterday and 1 minute to outline today’s priorities.

  3. 3 key things
    Develop a habit of identifying 3 significant tasks/outcomes to focus on each day. At the end of the day reflect on, and write down, 3 key things that went well and why[i]. The first helps you know when to stop for the day. The second helps you draw a line under the working day and go into ‘home time’ feeling relaxed and positive.

  4. The 4 quadrants of the Johari Window
    The Johari Window[ii] is a simple and useful tool for illustrating and improving self-awareness and mutual understanding between individuals in a group. Now more than ever your team are likely to be encouraged by you widening your ‘hidden pane’ and disclosing things about yourself you haven’t shared before. Why?  By telling others how we feel and other information about ourselves we reduce the hidden pane, and increase the open pane, which enables better understanding, cooperation, trust, team-working effectiveness and productivity.

  5. 5:1 praise v criticism
    Individuals in the highest performing teams[iii] receive a ratio of at least 5:1 positive to critical commentary. Simple ‘thank you, [name]’ and ‘I agree with you’ comments make it easy to create that ratio. This ratio also applies to marriage maintenance[iv].

  6. 6 Thinking Hats
    Psychologist Edward De Bono’s 6 thinking hats is a way to make better decisions[v] either as an individual or as a group. A particularly useful tool when you’re working remotely and looking for ways to increase engagement and feelings of team cohesion.

  7. 7 People (not work) days a week
    Like a parent, you’ll no doubt think of your team 7 days a week. But that doesn’t mean working 7 days a week. A brilliant boss creates an atmosphere where the team knows they can be open about work worries and personal problems and be in touch with you whatever the day should they need to. Be a role model for your team and step away from the job on days off.

  8. 8 hours work day maximum
    6-7.5 hours in 4 or 5 x 90 minute blocks with recovery time in between is actually better than 8. That’s based on the ultradian rhythm[vi] our bodies go through day and night. The first 3 of the 90 minute blocks should go on your 3 key things and the remaining 1 or 2 on other work tasks or reviewing and finalising the 3 key things.

  9. 9pm phone cut-off and 9 hours rest
    Note ‘rest’ not ‘sleep.’ Most adults need7-8 hours sleep to start the next day refreshed. Having at least another hour of quiet, calm downtime (think meditation, yoga, talking with partner or stroking the dog whilst stretching gently in front of your nightly 9pm Netflix hour – mine is currently Billions) aids sleep. Smartphones after 9pm are an absolute non-no.[vii]

  10. 10am daily team call
    Early enough to have a full day ahead and late enough to have had a wholesome start (Joe Wickes 9am PE lesson and porridge with berries, nuts and seeds?). Rotate the Chairing (Edward De Bono’s Blue Hat) and remember to give each person 2 minutes of talk time sharing their 3 things that went well yesterday and 3 areas of focus for today.



[i] Research by positive psychology scholars such as Martin Seligman, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Robert Biswas-Diener have found active reflection on things that are going well and why leads to greater wellbeing. In a two-week study where participants were asked to write down three good things that happened during their day and why, the researchers found an uplift in self-reports of happiness and positive effects were still being observed up to 6 months later. It’s important to write down what went well and not just to think it because this brings structure to your thinking and causes you to linger longer on the positive experience. It’s important to consider the why as well as the what, because this increases your sense of perceived control and agency.  In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You WantSonja Lyubomirsky discusses eight ways gratitude boosts happiness.

[ii] Devised by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham (Johari is a contraction of their names) in 1955. The Johari Window represents information – feelings, experience, views, attitudes, skills, intentions, motivation, etc – within or about a person in relation to their group, from four perspectives:

1) Open quadrant: what is known by the person about him/herself and is also known by others
2) Blind quadrant: what is unknown by the person about him/herself but which others know
3) Hidden quadrant: what the person knows about him/herself that others do not know
4) Unknown quadrant: what is unknown by the person about him/herself and is also unknown by others

Find out more about the practical application of the Johari Window here.

[iii] See https://hbr.org/2013/03/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism

[iv] See the work of psychologist Professor John Gottman: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/

[v] Six Thinking Hats was created by Edward de Bono, and published in his 1985 book of the same name. It forces you or the team to move outside your habitual thinking style, and to look at things from a number of different perspectives. The hats are white (look at the facts); yellow (where you probe for the positives); black (devil’s advocate/consider the downsides); red (feelings, hunches and intuition); green (focuses on creativity and new possibilities) and blue (used to manage the thinking process). This technique facilitates team cohesion because everyone ‘wears’ the same hat at the same time. Mindtools.com is a resource we often signpost to clients and coachees and they give a good overview: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTED_07.htm

[vi] The pioneering sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman discovered something he named the “basic rest-activity cycle” — the 90 minute periods at night during which we move progressively through five stages of sleep, from light to deep, and then out again. While it’s much less well known, Kleitman also observed that our bodies operate by the same 90 minute rhythm during the day. When we’re awake, we move from higher to lower alertness every 90 minutes. Other researchers have called this our “ultradian rhythm.” Read more by the founder of The Energy Project, Tony Schwartz, here: https://hbr.org/2010/05/for-real-productivity-less-is

[vii] 9pm cut-off for smartphones: https://hbr.org/2018/09/sleep-well-lead-better and how sleep affects anxiety: https://digest.bps.org.uk/2019/11/21/a-lack-of-sleep-causes-anxiety-but-dont-worry-about-it/

COVID-19 Working from home with children

A number of coachees and clients have been asking us for help around how best to plan a working day when you are caring for for children. We know there will be a big difference between what an employee with two children aged 11+ and a furloughed spouse at home can reasonably do in a day compared to a single father with a primary school child.

We have created a 1 Day @ A Time FOCUS PLANNER (there are a few pdf versions below) to help you think about and plan the day ahead.

If you have young children and you’re co-parenting use the two-column version (shown in picture) to plan each day together to avoid overlap/ensure there’s always one person ‘on-call’. Then the other person is free to focus, go into flow and get their work done. If you have older children you might stick it up where they can see so they know when you are focussed and when you can be interrupted.

How to use the 1 Day @ A Time FOCUS PLANNER

As a bare minimum we suggest:

  1. Identifying the THREE MOST SIGNIFICANT THINGS you want to get done today.
  2. WHEN EXACTLY you are going to focus on each one.
  3. HIGHLIGHTING the time slots you will be working on each of the three most significant things.

Even if you have the whole day available (e.g. older children and/or a partner who is available to take care of them all day) we think writing down three key things you want to get done today is good idea because:

  1. It helps you stay focussed when other things threaten to derail you.
  2. It’s almost certainly going to lead to a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.
  3. It allows you to know when to stop.
  4. If you’ve shared your planner with the family it helps them to know when you are working on one of your 3 significant things and when you’re ‘happier’ to be interrupted.

THE 1 DAY @ A TIME FOCUS PLANNER TOOLS (pdfs)

We hope you find these useful. If you’re on social media we’d love you to share how you’ve used your planner – tag us @TalentKeepersUK on insta and twitter or our LinkedIn page.

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