For any workplace to function smoothly and productively these days, employee wellness is a factor that cannot be overlooked. With 31% of employees saying that they experience high levels of stress at their workplace, HR departments and senior leaders are doing everything in their power to make sure that employees are more engaged, productive, and happy at work. In other words, maintaining workplace wellbeing is of paramount importance.
In the wake of the Coronavirus
But what happens when a pandemic like Coronavirus hits you out of the blue? Not just one company or one economy, but the entire globe in fact is dealing with the fallout of this crisis. By the time this article was written, over 4.2 lakh people across the globe were already infected by this virus, with close to 19,000 fatalities.
And while the infection rate and the death toll have been nothing short of horrific, the economic fallout is equally unprecedented. According to a McKinsey report, the Coronavirus has resulted in major shifts in people’s daily behaviours. The reaction lasts for six to eight weeks in towns and cities with active transmission, and three to four weeks in neighbouring towns. The resulting demand shock might slash the global GDP growth in half, pushing it down to anywhere between 1-1.5%. While this doesn’t necessarily imply a recession, it’s still a fairly significant slowdown.
Apart from the economic fallout, you also need to face the ground reality of running a business in the time of a pandemic like this. When work-from-home becomes a norm across the world, and employees are struggling to deal with overwhelming fear and panic, how do you take stock of health and wellbeing at work, let alone performance management?
Before you think of anything else, you need to focus on employee wellbeing, as your employees are your chief assets. This is an extremely challenging time for them, both in terms of physical health risk and emotional and mental stress that accompany a pandemic.
Policy and management
The one thing that you can absolutely not do at this juncture is to follow a “business as usual” approach. It’s important to acknowledge the gravity of this crisis and build policies that reflect this. The best way to do this is to build and execute a plan that is based on the most conservative guidelines out there — whether that’s from your home country or the WHO. Keep in mind that this is a situation that changes every single day. So, any plan that you draw needs to have in-built flexibility to cater to things when they start going south.
Your policy needs to encompass both disease prevention as well as incident response. It might be a good idea to benchmark your efforts against industry leaders to figure out what the right policies (and more importantly, the right level of support) should be.
Build the right communication channels
You need to realize that workplace health and wellbeing are completely at stake now. There is so much panic and misinformation going around that a special responsibility lies with companies to make sure they’re communicating the right information through the right channels, and in a way that’s fast, seamless, and effective.
It’s important to ensure that you have multi-channel communication— which means, the same piece of information should reach employees through multiple and equally credible channels. Short videos, podcasts, and even weekly all-employee conferences are credible ways of getting the message across. It’s also important to ensure complete consistency, lack of ambiguity, and uniformity in communication, so that there’s no scope for misinterpretation.
You also need to establish two-way communication channels. After all, this is a time when your employees will have legitimate concerns that you simply cannot ignore. It’s important that you understand their issues — whether it’s around their fear for their health or their lack of flexibility because their kids are no longer at school— and create solutions accordingly.
Allowing for confidential reporting is also a great way to ensure health and wellbeing in the workplace. If employees are worried that they may have symptoms, or may have to quarantine themselves because they’ve been in contact with someone who has been tested positive, they should be able to communicate that and take the required steps without any fear of repercussions.
According to a McKinsey report, one of the best ways that companies have been responding to the situation is by providing clear, simple guidelines to local managers on how to deal with the Coronavirus. These guidelines are usually consistent with WHO, CDC, local Health Ministry, and other health-agency guidelines. At the same time, the companies have also provided autonomy to local managers to deal with situations as and when they evolve. Along with this autonomy, these companies are also making sure that they’re establishing two-way communication, providing a safe space for employees to share concerns, and overseeing adherence to policies.
Establishing policies around work
Of course, travel for work has become a strict no-no at this juncture. Even as the situation improves and restrictions start getting lifted, you will have to be very careful about your travel guidelines for a while. You also need to establish a tiered policy around remote work. This means, looking closely at the roles of every tier of the organization — while some tiers might be able to migrate to the work from home mode completely, others might be able to do some tasks from home, and yet others might have to stop working completely.
When it comes to your contract staff and wage labour— those whose roles can’t be shifted online — you need to try to compensate them to the extent that you can. It can be a thoughtful workplace health and wellbeing strategy, as the Coronavirus is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and it’s time to take the right decisions, even if they put a dent in your profitability. It’s important to note that people will remember how you treated your employees (not just your permanent staff, but also your daily wage contract staff) during this time of crisis. And this will impact your employer brand in a big way — one way or another. At the same time, make sure you don’t over-promise things that you will find hard to deliver at a later juncture.
Engaging with regulators and health officials
As an organization, you need to adopt a long-term, forward-thinking perspective on the COVID-19 situation. This means engaging regularly with public health officials, and local and federal regulators. Cooperate completely with the guidelines they state and establish close links so that you can get first-hand information, thereby enabling your employees to get access to correct information in a timely manner.
Once you have taken the necessary steps to ensure health and wellbeing at the workplace, you can focus on employee engagement and productivity.
Going the extra mile
Once you have your basic policies around travel, work from home, and health safety in place, it’s time to provide additional support. This can include things like:
? Advance salary payments for employees who need it. This can be especially important for wage labourers who might need to stock up on supplies as countries start going into lockdown.
? Counselling hotline or employee assistance programs for those experiencing mental and emotional health issues. You can also extend this facility to your employees’ family members.
? You can also leverage corporate insurance to reimburse medical expenses for all employees affected by the virus. Going above and beyond to ensure that the paperwork gets done and the reimbursements arrive on time will go a long way.
Building a virtual community
Since employees are now working remotely, you need to make an extra effort to build a sense of community. Here are some ideas:
? Encourage employees to share tips on working from home— what they find challenging, how they stay focussed, etc. This will not only encourage productivity but also create a bond among the workforce.
? You can assign work-from-home buddies — two colleagues, who may not work in the same team or even know each other, can stay in touch and help each other navigate the working from home scenario.
? You can go for a “call 5 colleagues everyday” policy. Each person will call five colleagues— just to check up on them and make sure that they’re doing fine.
? Many employees may not have a designated home office. You can share advice on setting one up — how to create an ergonomic workspace and which tools will help him stay productive. You can even have a contest where employees share photos of their home office. This is a tip you can remember while charting a performance management plan.
? Introduce simple ways of recognizing and rewarding good work. For instance, the Kudos app on Slack allows you to recognize and appreciate employees in a seamless, virtual way.
Evaluating your tech solutions
This is the right time to take a look at your existing software and make sure it’s in place. While most companies nowadays use cloud-based solutions that are great for remote work, it’s unusual to have the entire workforce operating remotely. This may put some added pressure on existing software. So, this would be a good time to conduct a thorough review and make sure everything is in place. You might even need some additional tools to help you navigate remote working more smoothly — a Zoom subscription would be well worth it.
We haven’t seen a crisis of this scale and scope in modern times. However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. While businesses are likely to suffer gravely, this is also the time to make sure that we put humanity above all else. This means ensuring that employees are safe, protected, and healthy. Once that is in place, your employees will naturally come together in this time of crisis, and building morale and ensuring a certain level of performance shouldn’t be too hard.