Work in 2020 has been like a roller coaster ride, with lots and ups and downs thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it has disrupted workplaces on an unprecedented level.
Employees are having to navigate change and uncertainty in how they perform their work. In some cases this has meant a sudden change to remote work.
According to research from Gallup, the number of work from home employees doubled from 31% to 62% in just three weeks at the beginning of the pandemic in the USA.
For other employees it may mean having to adhere to strict social distancing and hygiene measures. And for others, sadly, it has meant being furloughed or losing their jobs completely.
All of this is against a backdrop of other stressors as people are concerned for their health, their families, their financial security and are juggling home and work life in a way they may never have done before. And because of the nature of the pandemic, many employees may be also grieving the loss of family and friends.
For companies, this is all combining to pose challenges in helping employees deal with change in the workplace in such a short period of time. In many instances, change has been rapid… and even in the post COVID world there will likely still be a lot of upheaval.
The difference between change before and after the pandemic
At the best of times, change can be difficult to manage within an organization. Many people fear change, become set in their ways and are reluctant to adapt to new ways of doing things. Best practice to manage change includes communicating the change widely and consulting with employees to ensure they understand the change initiative, and lend their support.
The workplace changes forced by the pandemic have been carried out quickly, and largely without consultation. And while there’s a good reason for that - companies have had to act swiftly to ensure they can continue to operate while keeping their employees safe - it has meant that employees have been blindsided by change. And many of them may be struggling to adapt.
While some workplaces are opening up again, in other places there is still ongoing uncertainty as employees remain in lockdowns and under shelter in place orders and have to continue working from home.
Tips for navigating change in the COVID-19 environment
Supporting employees through change in the pandemic boils down to the ability to motivate your people to work together, providing them with clear goals and defined roles. It also needs to be realistic and take into account the broader context of the pandemic and to accept there are things that the company just cannot control.
So what methods should be used to help employees when they are nervous about change in the workplace? Some important steps to take include:
1. Having a business continuity plan
Keeping your business going is a key priority, and it’s important that your employees understand what your focus is and what role they will be playing in that. For some businesses, it may be that disruption is minimal. While for others, it may mean that corporate priorities change dramatically.
Tip: Make sure you have a business continuity plan that is easy to understand and easy for employees to access. Your plan needs to be flexible, because the goalposts can change at any time. Ensure your employees know about your plan and understand what it means to them.
2. Going digital
Employees have had to adapt to no longer being in the office and seeing colleagues face-to-face or attending meetings in traditional meeting rooms. Paper files are pretty much obsolete in this environment too.
Tip: Ensure you can replace these functions with reliable digital solutions. And then you need to support your employees as they adapt to doing business digitally. Some employee cohorts may need more assistance than others, so keep that in mind.
3. Focus on internal communication
More than ever before, internal communication is critical to keep employees informed about what changes are taking place in the organization, especially when things can change so quickly. For example, if your company plans to open offices back after the COVID outbreak, do not forget to prepare a return to work letter template in advance.
There’s a lot of information to share about change, including new policies and procedures, a change in priorities and even just finding a way to effectively connect teams and managers better.
Tip: This is yet another reason to embrace new digital technologies - tools like pop-up alerts or mobile push notifications can ensure that employees get the information they need, no matter where they are or what they are doing.
4. Make employee wellbeing a priority
As mentioned above, this is a stressful time for many people. While physical health and wellbeing is a focus (think masks, sanitizers, PPE etc) you shouldn’t overlook mental health and wellbeing. There are many different ways people may be affected. Some may be struggling with isolation, while others may feel overwhelmed by work and family life.
Tip: Make work/life balance a realistic outcome by having flexibility policies in place geared towards helping employees deal with change - and ensure managers stick to them. Other resources such as literature, online counselling or employee assistance programs can help too.
As the months have rolled on throughout the pandemic, some people who may have coped well in the beginning may now be struggling, so don’t forget to continually promote any resources or assistance that are available.
5. Be open and transparent at all times
The rumor mill can go into overdrive when you don’t provide timely and accurate information. When this happens, employees can become bitter and cynical and distrustful of anything coming from management.
Tip: It’s important that you are honest with your employees about what is happening, even if the news is bad. And it’s also important that when the time comes to return to the workplace that employees can trust the company has their best interests, wellbeing and safety as a priority.
6. Empower your employees and trust them
Remote work is a nightmare for a micromanager, but is liberating for employees who don’t like a micromanager constantly breathing down their neck. You need to be able to trust your employees to work effectively while they are located away from the office. Some managers may not adapt to this very well and may create issues that can become toxic. It’s important that your employees have a consistent experience regardless of who their manager or team leader is.
Tip: Managers need to be accountable. Sometimes senior executives have no idea about how managers treat their team members. Ensure your managers understand what your corporate policies are about flexibility and hold them to account with a behavioral standard.
7. Get feedback from employees
On the surface it might look like things are working well, whether you’ve got employees working remotely or are beginning to work from the office. But you won’t really know for sure unless you ask your employees. Properly supporting your employees through change means you need feedback to identify any problems so you can implement a solution. The longer a problem festers, the worse it can become for employee engagement and productivity.
Tip: Survey employees to find out what issues they may be encountering with their work arrangements. Look at other options for employees to provide feedback - perhaps even anonymously, so you can see if there are problems with technology, working arrangements, management styles or physical health and wellbeing.