COVID-19

How to maintain healthy relationships with homeworking employees

Feels like we’re living in a world of questions.

How long will the lockdown be required? What will be the eventual impact on the economy? How come you were never irritated by your partner’s poor dishwasher loading skills until now?

These are the big question and there are currently no definitive answers.

One thing we can say with relative certainty is that a crisis like this brings the behaviours of employers and their leaders into sharper focus, and details about how it was handled, how they were supported, encouraged and reassured during this time will live long in employees’ memories.

What is home working doing to employees?

Let’s look at what the sudden transition to home working is doing to our employees, because seemingly insignificant additional distractions and stresses all add up and should be taken into consideration.

The first COVID-19 homeworker wellbeing study, from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) provides useful insight.

In their survey, 60% of employees acknowledge that they’re exercising less, while a fifth admitted to an increase in alcohol consumption, and 30% say their diet had become less healthy.

The sofa, bed or kitchen table is a poor replacement for an ergonomic desk space. Hence, musculoskeletal complaints are significantly up, with half of respondents reporting new aches and pains, particularly in the neck, shoulder and back.

More troublingly, 64% report a lack of sleep due to worry, with a fifth citing specific concerns about job security. While half are unhappy with their new work life balance, and a third report frequent feelings of isolation.

Unsurprisingly, as the IES says, the survey ‘depicts a workforce with a lot on its mind.’
So how can HR and business leaders give themselves a better chance of nurturing positive employee relationships during this time?

Structure:

The transition to remote working poses a number of challenges, and a sudden removal of direct line manager oversight is commonly cited. Line managers may worry that their team won’t work as effectively without supervision, while employees can be left feeling that the organisation doesn’t know or care about their efforts or needs.

Establish a structure as soon as possible, where communication is regular and predictable, the expectations are crystal clear, and employees have ample opportunity to feed back on what’s working for them… and what isn’t.

Line managers should schedule regular check ins with their charges and set clear parameters about when and how they are contactable. For example, ‘a daily video catch up at 09:15, IM for quick questions, for anything urgent, telephone, and if you need me out of hours, text’.

Clarity:

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but given the IES figures around worry and isolation, the importance of clarity in this environment cannot be overstated. Radio silence about your organisation’s position and the likely impact on employees will exacerbate these fears considerably.

Ensure employees have an idea of the challenges the organisation is facing. And if difficult decisions must be made, they’ll land with a less disruptive splash if people feel they’ve been brought in on the situation.

People instinctively look to their leaders for cues on how to behave, how to feel, how scared to be. So leadership takes on a more pivotal role during this time, and it’s important for leadership to be visible and vocal. Project the attitude and behaviours they wish to see in their workforce, and recognise and celebrate those who do the same.

Interaction:

The widespread availability of video conferencing tools has undoubtedly eased the transition to home working for many people, delivering a channel where interaction is enriched by visual cues. For collaboration, meetings and discussion, these tools are a game changer.

But employers shouldn’t neglect the social benefits of video. The interaction employees experience in the workplace contributes to a number of crucial factors around workplace productivity and employee wellbeing.

These are the missing moments that leave the biggest hole. The chat by the kettle that serves as a catalyst for a great new idea. The chance snippet of overheard conversation that spawns an unexpected solution. Modern messaging tools provide channels that employers can use to create a facsimile of these ‘watercooler moments’.

Measures like this can help moderate people’s feelings of isolation and disconnect. For example, IM group chats or coffee break group video calls. Or just ensuring, where possible, that meetings factor in time for unstructured conversation.

Sensitivity:

This is a stressful situation for everyone. Familiar tasks take longer. Communication is disrupted and answers come via a more circuitous route. But the sudden shift to home working is just one factor in a cocktail of disrupted routine, school closures, daily alarming news, worry about loved ones, uncertainty and fear.

It’s important to evaluate performance through this new lens and appreciate that many employees will need to feel that their anxiety is acknowledged.

Line managers should stay alert to indications that people are struggling. Emotional displays, inattentiveness, distractedness, anger or aggression – uncharacteristic behaviours can often be mistaken by under-pressure line managers as poor etiquette or bad work ethic, but they can provide important red flags.

Asking the simple question, ‘how are you coping with the new set up?’ may illicit useful insight.

 

How we handle employee relationships during this time is likely to resonate with people for a long time. Done well, with structure, clarity and sensitivity, effective Employee Relationship Management can see organisations emerge from this period with an engaged, emotionally committed workforce, putting them in a better position to tackle whatever we face on the other side.

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