How to Keep Employees Productive During the Coronavirus Outbreak?
We are now amid a pandemic, and the impact of the coronavirus is increasingly being felt across the United States. As someone interested in organizational behaviour, I've been thinking about how these unfolding events affect employees. These thoughts were most pronounced last week when I was forced to cancel my family's spring break plans and spend several hours interacting, over the phone and via email, with frontline employees working for various service providers. It was clear that these workers were under tremendous stress.
During one call with a ticket provider, I asked the agent how things were going, and he said that events were being cancelled by the minute across the country, which was generating a torrent of calls from disappointed, frustrated, and angry customers. I spoke to an agent at a transportation company who was stressed and irritated by the rules at her company that did not allow her to waive cancellation fees because I had already cancelled my travel plans using their website. I exchanged emails with a customer service manager at a theatre who thanked me when I expressed gratitude for the excellent service that she and her team had provided.
Since then, I have also been in touch with many faculty members, at my university and others, who are scrambling to convert their face-to-face classes to an online format and to learn how to use distance-learning platforms. Sadly, I have also heard from two former students who have already lost their jobs because of the economic distress facing their companies.
In short, this is an unfortunate time, and employees are under tremendous stress, both personally and professionally. For many, this stress is undoubtedly exacerbated by the need to engage in social distancing, which can make people feel even more isolated. What, then, can managers do to help workers navigate this difficult time?
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With the coronavirus spreading in more than 78 countries, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the public should prepare for a possible coronavirus pandemic in the US.
Companies are encouraged to explore letting their employees work remotely and to limit in-person interactions, replacing them with video and telephone conferences. Tech giants have already started implementing such arrangements, with Amazon, Facebook, and Google telling their staff based in select US offices to work from home.
As the numbers of infections and deaths continue to rise, companies must implement flexible working arrangements to protect their workforce while running their daily business operations. However, getting work done remotely can be a considerable challenge. Communication gaps can arise. Managers can also find themselves unprepared to supervise workers remotely. These problems can cause low productivity and poor-quality output.
As such, businesses are turning to technology to implement work-from-home arrangements and manage remote workers properly. Communication and collaboration platforms can help companies schedule online meetings, manage collaborative projects, and even provide training and direction to staff.
Fortunately, solution providers are trying to help. Google and Microsoft have both announced that they will be making features typically found in paid subscriptions of their collaboration platforms available to all users. Leading webinar platforms such as Cisco Webex, Zoom, LogMeIn and ClickMeeting are also offering extended free trials and licenses, as well as "Emergency Remote Work Kits," to companies hit by the coronavirus outbreak.
Through these developments, businesses can have the means to implement remote work arrangements for their staff quickly. Coronavirus is top of mind for company leaders, managers, and employees. Many employees are working remotely as a safety precaution. Now, HR teams are asking us: how do we drive employee performance during this time of uncertainty?
Not only is the barrage of bad news unsettling to employees, but working remotely can feel isolated and lonely, particularly for those extroverts. HBR found that two-thirds of remote workers are not engaged, and only 5% see themselves working at their company long-term. While these numbers reflect full-time remote employees, they give us insights into the importance of creating a positive working environment you typically have in the office while employees are remote.
Based on Reflektive best practices and insights from HR experts, we've crafted recommendations to boost employee success and help them thrive amid uncertainty. Whether you're part of an HR team, a manager, or an employee, these tips and tricks aim to build a solid foundation to align on critical priorities, stay connected, and build healthy behaviours during this time.
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Prepared or not, you find yourself the manager of a fully remote team. Likely, you have never worked 100%-remote, let alone managed a team in this setting. Add to that the overall unrest in the world and this task can seem overwhelming and daunting. Rest assured, at this moment, you're more essential than ever. Effective remote working teams don't just require the right technology—they need the right leadership.
Based on my decade of experience working from home and coaching on the subject, here are five strategies you can employ to manage your new remote workers The World Health Organization and our public health officials are coaching us on how to avoid contracting and spreading the coronavirus, but what about our mental health? How can we stay emotionally healthy when there are so much fear and anxiety around us?
Challenges for Remote Workers
Asking employees to shift to remote work arrangements can be demanding and difficult, especially for organizations that don't have remote work already embedded in their cultures. One of the biggest challenges in managing remote workers is ensuring effective and efficient communication. With team members spread out across various locations, coordinating work hours to schedule online meetings isn't easy. This can cause confusion that slows progress and delays in projects. Employees can also feel isolated and out of the loop, becoming frustrated with management. And don't forget – departmental meetings aren't the only types of virtual huddles that telecommuters depend on, as data from FYI demonstrates.
Upskilling remote workers can also be difficult. Companies need to institute programs to train remote workers and support their professional development. Some two-thirds of remote workers say they want to receive more training. Staff members who aren't used to a more flexible schedule may also find themselves procrastinating due to distractions that they didn't previously have at the office. Their productivity can take a major hit. To compensate, they may also work beyond usual hours and experience burnout. An estimated 22% of remote workers find it difficult to unplug from their work.
Stay Calm and Positive
Given the massive amount of uncertainty with the coronavirus and ensuing panic, all of your employees will be more on-edge than usual. Some will feel anxious about what's happening or may happen in the future. Others will feel angry, while still others will feel completely apathetic thinking, "What's the use in trying?"Outside of your role as a leader, you can, and should, feel whatever you need to feel. But in your role as a leader, you will best serve your team by being a voice of reason and calm. The more you can show up from a place of empathy, respect, understanding, and peace, the more those under your leadership will have the ability to calm themselves and to do their work.
Work extra hard to communicate in a level manner, emphasize verbal support and encouragement, and if at all possible, avoid criticism. Your workers won't be at 100% during this time, but by being a source of stability, you maximize the productivity that your employees are able to have in this situation.
If you are a manager of employees who are new to remote work, reach out and check in with them a couple of times a day. They don't have a routine down yet and may feel guilty or like they're cheating if they take a break. Managers need to set expectations and suggest a method to do the work. Discuss the need to take time to have lunch or to go outside for a little walk. Offer ideas that will help your employees to better manage this whole new routine of working from home. As a worker, you need to create an environment of control for yourself so that you're able to handle that you may be working from home for a while.
Communicate frequently with your employees
During stressful situations, it's essential to have a plan in place for how you'll communicate with your employees. You need to have a way to update your employees on any coronavirus updates that affect the business and their work schedules.
Try to err on the side of communicating more frequently than you need to, even if nothing new is happening. Frequent communication will put most employees at ease and show them that you're aware of what's going on.
On the other hand, radio silence could make employees feel like you're either uninformed about the coronavirus, are ill-prepared or are not taking it seriously.
As an entirely foreign company, we have employees all over the world, and we use Slack to communicate and build connections with each other. Especially now, when everyone's dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. We've got various work-related channels that help us stay on track, but we also knew that we'd need a space for all employees to talk about non-work things too.
Our #Family Slack channel is where employees share news about what's going on in their part of the world, something that's comforting right now. We have people sharing photos of their new pet coworkers, parents sharing homeschooling tips for their kids, others sharing pantry recipes, and more. It started as a way for us to connect as a remote company, but during this coronavirus crisis, we're using it as a comfort blanket, trying to inject some normalcy into our strange days.
We encourage everyone, from our founders to employees, to share what they feel as we navigate these challenging times. It's easy to feel scared and alone, even when working as a team online, but hearing how everyone is doing can help. If your company isn't used to working remotely, why not host a regular online video conference where employees can get together to chat in person? It can help alleviate some of the isolation we're all feeling, even if we're at home with other family members. We just set up a weekly Zoom call company-wide that anyone can join and they don't even have to speak if they don't want to! They can just sit and listen to everyone else talk as if they were in a coffee shop or the company lunchroom.
When you're in the office, you spontaneously interact with your staff, and they spontaneously interact with you. When you're all remote, you need to be much more intentional about communication. Your staff needs will dictate what makes the most sense in terms of daily check-ins, but you want to keep some line of communication open. At the more formal end, you could schedule daily, stand-in virtual meetings with your staff, where you check in and check out each day to make sure everyone is staying on track. Popular times to institute these check-ins include 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.
On the less formal end, you can send a quick message to each team member asking how they're doing and if there is any area where they need your support. The need for daily check-in may subside over time once your team has settled into the rhythm of working remotely. Nevertheless, in the beginning, these touchpoints can make sure you keep everyone connected, and no one slides too off-track during the transition.
Focus on Achievable Tasks
One of the most significant risks given the current climate is having your staff fall into a state of learned helplessness, meaning they've experienced repeated stressful, uncontrollable situations. Hence, they begin to believe that they can't do anything to control or change their situation, even when the power for positive change is available to them.
Approaching tasks with certainty not only leads to better outcomes but serves three critical purposes. First, it puts your team in a better position than falling victim to paralysis, where nobody can finish or accomplish much of anything. Second, it serves as a positive redirection away from distressing thoughts. Third, it builds a sense of self-efficacy or the belief that you can accomplish your goals. Self-efficacy is an antidote to learned helplessness.
Help your team to focus on what they can do with certainty instead of drawing them back to what they don't know and can't control. For example, what projects can still happen even in a remote setting? What email still needs to be answered? What meetings will move the workflow forward?
Fear of the unknown is one of the bigger triggers of anxiety, so if you're able to remove some of that fear through education, do it. Your company should explain how they're keeping employees safe, outline the self-protection guidelines for employees who are still required to be on-site, and increase awareness of coronavirus risk prevention. They will appreciate seeing that you're aware of this and are handling it appropriately.
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One caveat when talking about a public health crisis like coronavirus: beware of the unverified health information found online. Only communicate information from verified sources like your local and national public health officials, other government officials, and the World Health Organization, as these are created and communicated by members of the scientific and healthcare communities. When in doubt, do not pass the information along.
Understand and be aware
Empathy is one thing, but understanding and awareness at a grassroots level are also important now. You need to be able to recognize the signs of stress in your employees, and if they're feeling "off." Too much stress can lead to anxiety and other physical illnesses as people try to cope with it.
The best way to help employees is to get to know your team and try to notice any obvious changes in behaviour that are uncharacteristic for them. For example, are they:
Missing online meetings? Only using audio and turning off their video cameras during online meetings? Are they not responding to messages in a timely manner (keeping in mind that everyone's "norm" might have changed if they're now working from home and have to deal with new distractions and challenges)?More irritable in communications with you?Were they taking more sick days than they used to? My remote company uses the Standuply app in Slack to do a daily stand-up meeting with employees. We cover the usual status updates, but we also inquire about employee health and wellness, so if something changes, we can go back and compare it to previous messages. This tool helps us get to know employees and also stay updated so we can spot these changes and reach out if needed.
You can also encourage employees to practice self-care activities while on the job and reassure them, and it's OK to take whatever steps they need to manage their stress. For those working at home, it might be listening to relaxing music as they work or connecting with family and friends throughout the workday. For those still working at physical locations, that might mean giving employees more regular breaks (especially for frontline workers) or providing them with free meals or snacks to thank them for continuing to work during this tough time.
Many baby boomers are managers out there, and they need to take over the role and inquire about how each member of their team is really doing. Don't try to plow through the work. Touch base with the person and get them to talk about what they're thinking and worried about. Showing compassion and empathy during this time is critical. Now is the time to be a champion inside your organization so that the employees feel like they're not alone, and the company does care about them.
With so much outside of our control, one thing within our control is how we take care of ourselves. Tell your employees to have times when they're on and off the clock, even as they're working from home. Encourage those working with you to take time to sleep, to exercise, and to generally engage in whatever other activities calm and rejuvenate their heart, mind, body, and spirit. These activities are essential for everyone to stay calibrated.
Finally, consider having some virtual team meet-ups. Enjoying lunch or a coffee together can maintain the sense that you are not alone, and everyone is working together.The stress in the workplace right now can feel overwhelming, so ask yourself, what do I need to do to get a handle on it? How can I problem solve and make things better? Resilience is hardwired into us. You need to tap into this trait to get some control over your life. Navigate through life in real-time, and tell yourself I'll bounce-back or better still, bounce forward.
Let employees know you care.
You want to have an open-door policy right now, and that translates to telling your employees, "let's talk." A manager can help the employee feel like you are there for them. Be transparent with what you know. You will increase loyalty and retention as a byproduct because of your concern. People want something to hold onto right now. The company is a great thing to anchor to. Talk to your employees about what they can do to reach out to customers. It's customers that you're going to want to keep or get back once the economic climate changes. So help your employees. Coach them, mentor them.
As a business owner, the most important thing you can do is to ensure that your employees are safe. The best way to do this is by practising good hygiene and avoiding physical contact, like shaking hands with others.
Have cleaning procedures in place and regularly wipe down all surface areas with antiseptic. Disinfect commonly used surfaces, like doorknobs, tables, desks and handrails, and encourage your employees to wash their hands immediately upon entering the room. All of this will lower your employees' risk of exposure to the virus. And if one of your employees starts feeling under the weather, you should let them stay home with no questions asked.
It's most definitely NOT business as usual right now, and it won't be for a while. As we deal with so much uncertainty around us, it can be such a help if company leaders can help alleviate the stress and anxiety employees might be feeling. There's only so much you can do, of course, but by taking care of things on your end, you'll set a good example for the future and, hopefully, provide them with some comfort in these stressful times.
The coronavirus is here, and it is disrupting our way of life. Those who are fortunate enough to keep their jobs will need to find new ways of working. During this difficult time, managers need to be especially mindful of the stress and anxiety of their workers. By providing more open and honest communication, empowering their employees, and removing roadblocks, managers can help make this stressful time less overwhelming.
Beyond these actions, managers should be virtual, if not physically, available and present for their employees. Indeed, we know that social support can help people cope with stress, so social distancing needs to be more about physical separation than social or psychological isolation as we deal with this pandemic.