COVID-19 is suddenly and drastically changing the way we work. For employers and employees, this represents a host of challenges — even for industries that don’t rely on events or travel. Companies big and small have made the decision to close offices, and employees who have never worked remotely are now assembling home workspaces.
For employees who are parenting, the prospect of caring for children, educating them at home, or trying to find emergency childcare replacements means their “home office” might not be a very functional place to work right now. For employees with elderly or vulnerable relatives, caring for loved ones while trying not to put them at risk is a frightening burden.
Even for employees in the simplest scenario — people who live alone and can work from home — the task of translating a normal working day into these new circumstances will be a headache at best.
Aside from the practical and financial concerns your employees must deal with, one of the biggest crises they’re beginning to experience is a drop in morale as worry and isolation set in.
Even before we started practicing social distancing, three-fourths of people reported feeling lonely. Now that so many people face the prospect of not interacting with others for a considerable amount of time, our collective mental health is at risk. Humans thrive on social interaction. Even if they think they’ll enjoy working in their pajamas for a while, the reality of not seeing familiar faces regularly can have a detrimental impact.
In the days ahead, it’s vital that employers prioritize personal interactions while employees adapt to a new working life. Workplaces are already acclimating to the transition’s technological requirements. For example, Zoom has seen a significant increase in downloads, and software companies are quickly readying new offers. But it’s emotional connectivity that will make the difference between a workforce that survives — or succeeds — and one that does not.
It’s not just in times of crisis that these adaptations will be necessary. The habits we’re learning now are likely to stick around, which more quickly ushers in a new era in which work is more flexible and less dependent on physical interactions and workspaces.
What we do now to prioritize authentic employee engagement could pave the way toward a successful future. In this trying time, you could discover new ways of working, innovative solutions, and — most importantly — a new level of empathy with your colleagues that could see you rising to future challenges with a more united front. After all, an engaged workforce is 17% more productive, even in noncrisis situations.
Here are a few ways to start:
1. Stay physically present on the screen. For leaders looking to support remote employees emotionally, active listening will be paramount. Good videoconferencing software is your tool. When you’re on a video call, stay physically present — don’t navigate around your screen while the other person expresses themselves. Give them the same care and attention you would if you were sitting across from them.
2. Move from flexibility to malleability. Flexible working has been the trend for a while, but crisis times call for greater malleability. That means finding new ways to work so your employees can keep adapting to their family situations. For example, every person on my staff currently has a child. When daycares close and they’re faced with working from home and caring for their children at the same time, we’ll have to apply a whole new level of creativity to how we work — think hosting spontaneous video meetings or taking unplanned breaks in the day.
3. Plan your reactions for the unexpected. We can’t predict every situation that comes our way in the coming weeks, but we can prepare our reactions for unexpected changes. Interruptions will happen, and your tact in acknowledging this will show how much you understand the situation and appreciate your employees.
4. Make time for feedback and peer-to-peer support. Sharing the details about trials and successes is even more important now. Set aside dedicated time to connect with employees, hear about their struggles, and gauge how the transition is going. Further boost morale by connecting employees with supportive networks where they have space for peer-to-peer support meetings.
5. Practice gratitude. This one might be the most important of all. Employees now face many challenges and take time away from their families to show up digitally for work. Whether you send a personal email, recognize team members by name on a call, or send a care package, every little act of appreciation could help your employees get through the day.
As this situation continues, the economic impact on both employers and employees could be significant. Adding financial stress on top of social isolation is can increase depression and anxiety. Companies can play a large role in making sure their employees stay connected to others and engaged in their work while they manage their lives.
Through this crisis, we might find better ways to work and methods to combat the loneliness and depression that were already rising to new levels. Wouldn’t it be great to face this battle together and emerge with employees who are more engaged in their work and companies that are in a better position for success in the future?