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Rick Kershaw, CPO at Peakon, shares his advice on how organisations should look to engage with employees during the COVID-19 pandemic

Organisations around the world have found themselves in unchartered territory amid the spread of COVID-19. How leaders handle this evolving situation could make or break the long-term trust their employees have in them, not to mention their future business success.

Where possible, companies are safeguarding the health of their employees and businesses by asking people to work from home. In recent years, in line with rising employee demand, numerous firms have invested in the technology to make this possible. As our recent Employee Expectations Report reveals, in 2019 flexible working was particularly high on the agenda, especially among UK employees.

But, while it’s positive that so many companies are ready to push the button on mass remote working, they may find that it’s not a silver bullet for managing COVID-19; it won’t necessarily mean ‘business as usual’ for the uncertain weeks and months ahead.

Because the reality is, remote working does not work for everybody, especially when it’s enforced for an extended period of time. So, as this measure becomes necessary to protect the health and wellbeing of employees in some industries, it’s important to consider the new challenges involved and how to best support your teams to keep your business moving.

Flexible working: One size does NOT fit all

As humans, most of us want and need to socialise – at least some of the time. Many of your employees will dislike and actively struggle with the long periods of isolation ahead. They may feel like they perform best when working as part of a team.

Of course, video conferencing will help us with ongoing collaboration, but it doesn’t always allow for those powerful ‘in the moment’ interactions, or solve the issue of loneliness. To encourage people to connect and feel more comfortable on video calls, it’s important to set ground rules (as to who will lead each meeting, for example) to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard. Make sure you check in with your teams on an individual basis too, as some people won’t be comfortable opening up in an online, group meeting.

Businesses must also recognise that some employees won’t have an appropriate space in which to work productively from home. They may not have a strong Wi-Fi connection or a desk to work at. They may be sharing with housemates, or trying to look after children, so finding somewhere to work peacefully will be an additional stressor. It’s important that employers and managers find ways to support the staff in these situations, and do everything possible to address individual needs on a case-by-case basis.

Managing distributed teams

Many managers, some for the first time in their careers, will have suddenly found themselves leading teams from a distance. This may be a good learning opportunity, but it will also require help from more experienced managers, additional coaching and support.

In such instances, clear goals, regular communication and trust, will be key ingredients to aid ongoing productivity. Encouraging team members to give regular feedback on their experiences will also allow managers to understand pressure points and take steps to address them – perhaps making them better managers in the long run.

Sensitive, active listening is key

Employees respond immediately to what’s happening around them. In recent days we’ve seen a surge in the number of employee comments about COVID-19 – a clear sign that people are looking to leaders for clarity on what to do. It’s vital, therefore, that organisations engage in a continuous dialogue with their employees, so they have a real-time understanding of their needs and expectations, and can always be in a position to take decisive action.

However, during the course of this pandemic, many employees will end up juggling many new things outside of work. The implications of self-isolation, caring for sick relatives, and schools or transportation closing down will no doubt create additional pressure. Going that one step further to support these individuals, while also being mindful and appreciative of efforts they put in against such a backdrop, is where companies can really demonstrate how much they truly value their workforce.

What’s next?

As the advice on COVID-19 evolves, ensuring that staff are safe and supported will be just as important, if not more so, than keeping the engine running for customers, suppliers, contractors and partners.

Current predictions are for the pandemic to get worse before it gets better. With strong leadership, and heightened levels of communication, appreciation and understanding, organisations will get through this – potentially emerging from the situation more in tune with their workforce than ever before.


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