Coronavirus: How can organisations stay close, while workers keep their distance?

Rick Kershaw, CPO
Coronavirus: How can organisations stay close, while workers keep their distance?

Like many of my HR colleagues globally, I am in the midst of working out how to best protect both the health of our employees and our business during the uncertainty wrought by the unfolding Coronavirus pandemic.

Many organisations worldwide have already been impacted heavily and the economy is taking a hit too. As the guidance and advice around what to do evolves, hour by hour, the only thing that’s clear is that everyone needs a plan. Jumping into action mode, I came up with a few solutions myself: We will make full use of our remote working tech and encourage people to work from home. We will conduct interviews for recruitment using Zoom. We’ll reassure our teams that they have full autonomy to decide what’s best for them – free from judgement.  

Really listening, showing empathy and acknowledging individual concerns will be absolutely critical. It is this that will make-or-break the trust employees have in the organisation in the long term.

“Perfect,” I thought, looking over the polished communication, all written up and ready to go. But upon further reflection, I wondered: “Will this truly keep our teams engaged, and set us up for success during this time?” 

Only then was I cognisant of a few more essentials that we really need to remember too:

1. Working remotely: One size does not fit all

While it’s fantastic that many companies now have the tech to enable their employees to work remotely (and this will no doubt come in handy in the weeks ahead) this will not necessarily solve everything. The truth is remote working does not work for everyone, especially not when it’s day in, day out, for an extended period of time. 

As human beings, most of us need and want to socialise. Even if just occasionally.  Personally speaking, I am energised by collaboration. Working with others helps me come up with some of my best ideas. It’s true that VTC technology is a great way to connect remotely, but it doesn’t always allow for that powerful ‘in the moment’ interaction. And unless ground rules for video meetings are laid down in advance – who will chair the meeting, for example – it can be difficult to make sure everyone is heard.  

What’s more, there will be some employees who do not have the appropriate space or set up to work productively at home. They may not have access to a strong wifi connection, or a desk to work at. They may even be sharing with housemates, who are all trying to work from home too. Finding somewhere to work safely and peacefully will be an additional stressor for them. 

So, if we find ourselves in a situation where flexible working becomes a serious hygiene consideration, and we do all decamp in efforts to stem the spread of infection, the shift – even in the short term – will be challenging for many. We need then to accept that one size does not fit all, and do everything we can to facilitate individual needs. 

2. Managing distributed teams

Many managers, some for the first time in their careers, may soon find themselves having to lead teams from a distance – with people distributed all over the country, or even in different parts of the world. This is potentially a good learning opportunity. But, it may also require more experienced managers to lean in and provide additional coaching and support. In these instances, clear goals, regular communication and – above all – trust, will be key ingredients to supporting ongoing productivity.

3. Being a sensitive and active listener

And as this situation unfolds, I can guarantee that most of us – if not all – will end up juggling many new balls outside of work. There will be multiple complexities to consider, such as the implications of self-isolation, caring for those who are sick, services like schools and transportation closing down, let alone ‘Where can I buy hand sanitiser?’ 

This is where, I believe, we can really act to support our colleagues and build stronger engagement moving forward. Really listening, showing empathy and acknowledging individual concerns will be absolutely critical. It is this that will make-or-break the trust employees have in the organisation in the long term. 

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the weeks and months ahead will remain uncertain, with untold challenges for everyone. However, I am also optimistic that we will grow from this. If we can remain agile, and adapt to the situation as it develops, we will learn even more about what is important to our employees, and how to support them as they grow with the business in the years ahead. 

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