(This is the second in a two-part series about combating COVID-19 employee burnout. Last week, we examined the importance of “extreme self-care.”)
This article won’t insult your intelligence by saying we are living in unprecedented times. We’ve all heard that ad nauseum. Instead, it will encourage you to use your brains, along with business experience and savvy, to help bolster your employees’ and organization’s well-being.
To accomplish that ambitious goal, you’ll need to crank up your use of four time-honored HR and management tools — communication, leadership, training and reliance on front-line managers — agreed a group of experts recently interviewed by Workspan Daily.
And there’s apparently no time to dally. A national Gallup poll shows organizations are facing a substantial drop in favorability ratings from employees and managers as the pandemic drags on, making working from home business as usual for the foreseeable future. That mid-June poll showed that United States employees and managers are about 20% less likely than they were in May to strongly agree that:
- They feel well prepared to do their job.
- Their employer has communicated a clear plan of action regarding COVID-19.
- Their immediate supervisor keeps them informed about their organization.
- Their organization cares about their overall well-being.
Two PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) studies show the rarified air of corporations’ upper echelon is out of touch with reality. Board directors were almost unanimous in saying their companies had done a good or excellent job managing the transition to remote work (98%) and handling employee relations (97%). A separate PwC survey of workers found only 37% said their organization had been very effective in collaboration during COVID-19 while only 29% gave their employer high marks for creativity and coaching.
This is what the experts we talked with have to say about kicking those four HR management tools into high gear to help your employees improve your organization’s operations:
Create and maintain a culture of openness and transparency. “Over-communicate,” said Bernie Dyme, president and CEO of Perspectives Ltd., a national employee-assistance services provider. “Be as honest and transparent as you can be. Don’t give any false hopes but don’t be overly pessimistic. Give them updates – ‘Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know.’ ”
Tom Gimble, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a national staffing business, practices such communication, which he calls “happy realism.” In a recent WorldatWork Expert Insights webinar, he emphasized that to maximize effectiveness, communications should be visual, using tools such as Zoom, as well as verbal. “I tell our people to keep their video on. It is our time to answer the bell. We have a saying – IAATY – I am accountable to you. I don’t want someone on audio when he is out walking the dog.”
Ernst & Young LLP (EY) made it easy for its people by creating an internal website with all COVID-19-related resources, said Mike Weiner, EY Assist Leader. “We’ve had astronomical use.”
One message leaders should communicate is letting employees know their emotions are typical and where they can go for help, said Cindy Persico, vice president of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) division of Health Advocate.
Besides the regular Zoom-style meetings, randomly check in on employees, several of the experts suggested.
Another way to let employees know you are thinking of them is to send out small tokens of appreciation from the company and manager, said Deirdre MacBeth, a WorldatWork content manager.
“Use any avenue (of communications) to provide employee involvement and engagement,” MacBeth said. “Let them know they are doing a good job. Make them feel connected to the organization.”
Hopefully, one fatality of the pandemic is the last vestiges of the “There’s no crying in baseball” management style.
All the experts we talked with emphasized the need to empathize with employees.
“You need to have empathy with the employees and the situations they are in,” Gimbel said. “It’s never been more important.”
“Practice empathy,” Dyme said. “Accept their personal views, which are based on their experiences. Listen to people – what they have to say. Don’t judge.”
Leaders need to be “very open and transparent about issues people are facing,” said Jill Havely, Managing Director and Midwest Region Leader – Employee Experience, Willis Towers Watson. “People are dealing with grief, stress. Be proactive in addressing issues. Encourage dialogue. Leaders should communicate in authentic personal ways – share their struggles.
“Build a sense of trust in leadership.”
You may need to take a different tact when it comes to day-to-day operations, Gimbel said. “You may have to micromanage. No one has been through this before. In a crisis, you don’t always have a chance to teach. Tell them ‘Do it and I will explain it later.’ If you are afraid to micromanage because you would offend someone, you are wrong.”
Gimbel also recommends leaders institute self-reporting metrics, saying people have more accountability and sense of ownership when they track their own metrics.
Upgrading workers’ skills faces new challenges both in content (who envisioned an overnight need for training in remote working skills?) and delivery systems (Zoom has become a household word and verb in the past few months).
EY’s dedicated website has links to training webcasts that are continuously updated in such areas as developing resources on how to work effectively from home, Weiner said.
“We are promoting overall well-being, such as emotional and physical health, as well as providing information for various populations like caregivers,” he said. “We are consistently adding to the resources we offer our people to help them navigate life both in and outside of work.”
EY has also been promoting its “We Care” campaign, which was instituted in 2016. “Our We Care campaign helps people recognize the signs when someone may be struggling with a significant personal matter,” Weiner said. “It’s been updated to help our people recognize those signs as we work virtually.”
Expect an increase in EAP usage as the pandemic continues, predicted D’Ann Whitehead, partner in Mercer’s Health business. “In the early days, EAP utilization did not go up in the U.S. That makes sense, because people were more worried about basics, such as whether their internet could handle Zoom meetings.
“But usage is starting to climb. We’ve seen a 20-30% increase in China (which dealt with the pandemic earlier than the United States),” she said. “We will probably see increases like that.”
With that increase in demand, “make sure the EAP resources you promote are actually available, said Whitehead, citing the shortage of mental-health providers.
Resilience is one common training topic recommended by the experts. “You need resilience coaching,” Persico said. “Help employees identify what they have control over and what they don’t.”
She also recommends mini training sessions of 15-20 minutes, when appropriate, instead of the Zoom standard of one hour.
MacBeth suggests that the pandemic may be a good time to encourage employees to further their career skills. “If there are learning opportunities to help employees improve their skill sets, make them available,” she said. “Give them the opportunity to learn something new.”
Training will also likely cover such complex societal issues as the effects of COVID-19 on daily life and social-justice issues, Dyme said.
“As a leader, you need to focus on coaching, training, support tools and resources for managers,” Havely said.
Reliance on Front-Line Managers
Havely touched on a main target of training – front-line managers, who are key to the success of any HR-related initiative.
Willis Towers Watson research “consistently shows that managers are even more important now than they ever were before,” Havely said. “Managers were not equipped to handle this – nor should they be expected to. Training for managers needs to provide tools and resources, such as training to be able to support employee well-being and to be able to identify risk factors for emotional distress, substance abuse, depression and more.”
Mercer got confirmation of the importance placed on managers during a recent mental-health webinar it hosted for employers. “We had four sessions and polled participants regarding their top concern,” Whitehead said. “And, every single time they said the training and support of managers and supervisors was their No. 1 concern.”
According to Gallup studies, managers can account for up to 70% variance in employee engagement.
Gallup says leaders should get better at having one-on-one conversations with managers as well as providing tools and resources, especially on how to manage remote workforces. Leaders also should regularly clarify the organization’s mission and direction to help managers establish priorities.
Don’t focus just on management issues in that training, Whitehead said. “We need to remember that they’re people too. They are dealing with all of this too. Pay attention to what their personal needs are and they will do a better job of managing.”
Building on the Past
Just like reliance on established HR and management tools, an organization’s pre-pandemic culture will help determine its success, Dyme said.
“If going into this you had a positive, transparent culture, you will be more likely to keep your employees engaged and hold on to your workforce,” he said. “If your culture wasn’t so good, use this time as a way to start building anew. Be patient. It may take a while.”
What’s Working for you?
What are you and your organization doing to help bolster your remote workers’ well-being and engagement during the pandemic? Let us know and we’ll share some of the innovations with your fellow WorldatWork members.
About the Author
Jim Fickess writes and edits for WorldatWork.