Contributed by Jessica Mesmer-Magnus, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SPHR, an industrial, work, and organizational psychologist and a professor of management in the Cameron School of Business at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically affected workplaces worldwide. Not only are businesses trying to serve their customers and clients, but they are adapting “on-the-fly” to make payroll and to support employees who are working from home. Many employees do not have the experience or the tools needed to work virtually, and are often navigating this new work-norm while simultaneously being thrust into a world of homeschooling and dependent care. The need for alternate work strategies may be extended for an unknown period of time, and employers can’t take a “wait-and-see” approach. Although there is little research specific to managing employees during a pandemic, there are some takeaways that can be applied to help organizations navigate this situation.
- Provide your employees with ongoing tangible and emotional support to work remotely and balance new demands in both work and family roles. To be successful, employees need useful and ongoing support from their supervisors, coworkers, and employer. Even the most focused employees are apt to be more distracted these days. Consider offering tools/technology, adjusted work schedules and communication avenues, and just-in-time training to help your employees execute their work role more efficiently at home. Aim to go beyond their expectations for support; it will pay dividends down the road. Further, when work and home-life collide (as with telecommuting), it becomes far more difficult for employees to manage the stress that comes from both roles. Employees need to be encouraged to devote enough time each day to both their work and their non-work responsibilities. Employees with school-aged children or at-risk family members may need additional support. Overcommunicate support options, remind them of resources available in the EAP, and highlight any other benefits that may help them both instrumentally and emotionally.
- Provide consistent and clear communications to your employees, offering resources and guidance. All levels of the organization must be on the same page and delivering the same message. Failing to provide important information to employees in these uncertain times will lead to chaos in the grapevine and disillusionment among employees. Employees need to know how their pay, benefits, work situation, and expectations, etc. are affected and how the organization will protect and support them. Organizations have a real opportunity to reinforce trust within their workforce by communicating ethical, informed, and efficient decisions. It’s even more important than usual to show your employees how your organization is prioritizing them over all other concerns. Consider how you can cut costs that will help you keep afloat and continue to make payroll.
- Maintain contact among your employees to maintain esprit de corps. Loneliness and depression often occurs when employees who are accustomed to a face-to-face environment are forced into telecommuting. Employers must consider how to keep their virtual workforce engaged in their work and committed to their organization. Virtual organizations know that it is important to create and maintain connections across employees and have sought ways to do this using technology. Tools like videoconferencing, email, texting, and regular virtual meetings are effective, but they don’t create the connections among colleagues that are vital for effective virtual teaming. Services (e.g., Sococo, Moxtra, Tandem) provide employees a virtual workplace where they work “alongside” their fellow coworkers, and simulate many of the impromptu communications common in a face-to-face environment. Research has shown that simply working alongside someone else significantly increases employee productivity and engagement, and virtual workspaces can help accomplish this.
- Demonstrate your organization’s commitment to following federal, state, and local recommendations; lead by example. Employers must recognize that reactions to the pandemic may range from extreme fear/anxiety to perceptions that people are over-reacting. Employers must lead by example; this means demonstrating commitment to following government mandates, even if/when you do not agree with them. Doing so creates a sense of ease among employees that their employer and government are in alignment. Further, when leaders implement guidelines for disease prevention, such as deep cleaning, providing easy access to hand-washing and sanitizing facilities/products, and instituting social-distancing and work-from-home procedures, they are demonstrating commitment to upholding guidelines that benefit both employees and customers.
- Demonstrate your organization’s commitment to fellow businesses and the community. Emergencies such as this pandemic or catastrophes like hurricanes bring together people in unique ways to contribute toward the common good. Consider how your organization can support your community and fellow business-owners, and involve your employees. Your efforts will build employee perceptions of trust, commitment, and pride.
- Don’t be afraid of the “what-ifs” or “what will we do whens” that are inevitable during uncertain times. Be in the now. The current pandemic will forever change how we do work. However, this change does not have to be a negative. If you are effective in providing your employees with the support and resources they need to navigate these times, they will be empowered to find new and innovative ways to accomplish their work. They will be more well-versed and experienced in using various technologies in innovative ways. Employers should embrace this opportunity to re-envision how work can be reorganized in ways that are even more beneficial for organizational stakeholders.
- Successful employees are trusted by their organization, supervisor, and coworkers. For decades we’ve known that employees thrive in situations where they are supported by engaged supervisors and colleagues, given autonomy in how they do their work, and provided regular constructive feedback. Confidence that their supervisor/colleagues/employer trusts them to care about their work and know they will perform it to the best of their ability, even when there is no one there looking over their shoulder, is also crucial. Supervisors must resist the urge to micromanage their employees. Trust your workers. Determine how you can support them. Provide opportunities to build collaborations and confidence in their organization.
The bottom-line is that the Covid-19 Pandemic is changing the nature of work as we know it, and many of these changes are likely to remain long after the virus is extinguished. Embrace the opportunities this emergency is providing and help your employees to do the same.
Jessica Mesmer-Magnus, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SPHR is an industrial, work, and organizational psychologist and a professor of management in the Cameron School of Business at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She has over 20 years of experience in applied and academic settings, and is a regular contributor to professional and executive development workshops at UNCW’s Swain Center. Dr. Magnus is certified as a Senior Certified Professional by the Society for Human Resource Management as well as a Senior Professional in Human Resources by the Human Resource Certification Institute. Dr. Magnus has published over 50 peer reviewed academic journal articles, book chapters, and technical reports and has presented over 100 research-related presentations at local, regional, national, and international conferences. Her research has been supported by grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Army Research Institute.