At the beginning of 2020, working from home was often viewed by employers and workers as a privilege that few were able to take advantage of regularly. By the end of this year, remote work has become an accepted and, at times, a dull reality of life as the COVID-19 pandemic continues on.
While working from home offers employees new benefits such as a more flexible schedule (and often a more comfortable wardrobe), many have reported feeling mentally and socially disconnected from their team or organization. As impromptu discussions in the hallway and the ‘meeting after the meeting’ are no longer available socialization options to employees, these feelings of isolation are understandable and natural side effects of working in virtual silos. However, if these feelings of detachment are left unchecked, they can lead to obstacles in employee productivity and overall happiness, which may ultimately result in major inefficiencies or unwanted employee turnover.
Today I’ll cover:
- Creating the right environment for remote employees
- Ideas for strengthening team camaraderie in the virtual environment
- Fostering an Encouraging Atmosphere
Overcommunicate In Order to Avoid Confusion
Working from home has required employees to be more proactive and intentional when communicating with one another in order to avoid unnecessary conflict. In a remote environment, communication between colleagues is often reduced to written messages via email, text, or chat. Without vocal cues or body language to contextualize the sentiment of your message, recipients can easily misinterpret your meaning or intention, leaving them feeling anxious or frustrated. In order to negate these unnecessary misunderstandings, it is important to be extremely clear about what you’re trying to say.
For example, a short email that reads “Please do this again” may sound like a straightforward message, but its curt nature may be interpreted by the recipient as “The work you submitted was subpar and I am frustrated that you’re not getting this right.” Instead, surround your directive with encouraging language to both build the confidence of the recipient while being specific about what parts of the work need to be redone. This is especially important when a power dynamic is involved, i.e. a conversation between a manager and their employee. A more productive version of your email could read “I thought you did a nice job with this work project. However, XYZ needs to be redone in order to [insert rationale].” By being mindful of your word choice now, employers can avoid addressing unnecessary concerns or fears their employees may be having later on.
Make Meetings More Meaningful & Avoid Meeting Fatigue
While in-person interactions are currently prohibited in the interest of employee health and safety, virtual interactions through streaming video are a great way to foster connection between employees. Many companies have invested in software solutions like Zoom or Microsoft Teams that teammates can access from home to provide a safe alternative to in-person meetings. However, many employees can choose to turn their camera off during meetings. In order to create clearer channels of communication,
consider requiring everyone to turn their cameras on during virtual meetings to increase attentiveness and foster more authentic conversation. Keep in mind that meeting fatigue is a real phenomenon, and remote work can exacerbate this frustration since all meetings are now conducted in the same virtual and physical space. While managers may intend for increased virtual face time to foster a sense of connectedness, too many virtual meetings can ironically work against efforts to increase group affinity, resulting in employees feeling mentally drained and less willing to meaningfully contribute to the group discussion. Try to reduce unnecessary meetings to avoid leaving your employees feeling burnt out.
Dedicate Time for One-on-One Conversations
Finally, there may be questions or concerns that employees don’t feel comfortable sharing in a group setting. As busy managers notoriously have full schedules during the workday, it can be hard for employees to find time to bring their concerns to their manager’s attention, and they may even question whether their topic is important enough to warrant a discussion. It’s important that employees feel heard and valued, especially in a remote setting where messages can easily be misconstrued. Managers can be sure that employees are supported by holding dedicated and recurring virtual office hours where employees are welcome to bring up topics important to them. By proactively making themselves virtually available to employees, managers can forge stronger connections with their direct reports and strengthen team buy-in.
Steps to Strengthen Your Team’s Bond
Making time and virtual space available for socialization is crucial to retaining a strong and connected workforce. In order to maintain trust and a sense of camaraderie among employees, managers have been forced to get creative with group interactions that are outside the scope of work-related tasks and projects.
High-energy and engagement group interactions like virtual trivia sessions, games, and quizzes can enable team members to create deeper ties with one another. Examples of fun and easy games are “two truths and one lie” or home scavenger hunts. For a more relaxed approach, managers can hold virtual happy hours or craft nights on a weekly or monthly recurring basis, where team members can get together to participate in a shared and casual activity. To keep employee morale high, introduce an interesting question that all attendees must answer or ask team leads to acknowledge a specific employee for the good work they have recently done. Note that employers don’t have to facilitate all of these informal meetings either- in fact, managers may find that extending ownership of workplace culture to employees helps to foster a stronger sense of unity (and additional creative ideas).
Finally, it’s important to repeatedly remind your management team and employees that we are living through an unexpected time during which whole organizations have had to make accelerated and major adjustments in order to continue functioning. While some organizational expectations may remain the same, other look very different. For instance, work must still be submitted on time but wearing a sweatshirt to a meeting is now permissible. Emphasize patience and understanding to managers and employees alike, as each individual is dealing with their own unique set of professional and personal challenges in the face of remote work during this global pandemic.
Remote work is not without its challenges. However, managers armed with proactive solutions and creative ideas for team building are better situated to foster a strong sense of employee connection in the face of social isolation. Remember:
- Leverage clear and careful language in emails/texts and use video when possible to contextualize your message and avoid misunderstandings
- Look for creative ways to foster a sense of unity on your team through virtual interaction without creating meeting fatigue or employee burnout
- Extend grace to all and make yourself available to employees to increase feelings of trust and validation in employees
Speak with Launchways for more virtual workplace guidance, including resources for employees who are struggling with isolation during COVID.
This year’s McKinsey and LeanIn.org’s annual Women in the Workplace study reports that 25% of women in the workforce are considering changing their careers or leaving the workforce altogether. Rachel Thomas, CEO of LeanIn.org in Palo Alto, California stated, “This translates to millions of women leaving the workforce…It could wipe out all the hard-earned progress we’ve seen for women in leadership.”
In another study, conducted by the National Women’s Law Center, shows that 865,000 women left the workforce back in September 2020 when their children went back to school or began remote schooling from home. However, mothers with children in school are not the only group of women who are facing this struggle. The Women in the Workplace study also reveals that black women, due to concern for their health and safety, are more likely than other employees to consider leaving the workforce.
That said, according to Thomas, “women are less likely to share their concerns about work/life balance or talk about being parents at all with their managers because they’re worried it will derail their careers.” She continues, “Even before the pandemic, women were acutely aware of the ‘motherhood penalty,’ which assumes working mothers are less productive than working fathers and puts them at a disadvantage in terms of pay, promotions, and work experiences.” The concern for black women is highlighted by Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose and Inclusion Officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers, when she says “This reluctance to speak up is especially pronounced for Black women who are concerned about being stereotyped as angry.”
Manager Involvement is Key
Keeping employees in the workforce is a responsibility that often times falls to their managers. Erica Salmon Byrne, chair of the Denver-based network of 300 companies, Ethisphere Institute’s Business Ethics Leadership Alliance, says, “The manager is the linchpin of a fair and equitable workplace – they really set the tone…In all of our data, the vast majority of employees (67%) who have a concern – if they raised it – they raised it with their manager.”
“This is especially true during the pandemic because the solutions human resources offers don’t always work for every employee, Schuyler said. For instance, during the pandemic, employees at PricewaterhouseCoopers who are struggling have the option of taking extra time off, going on a sabbatical, or working a reduced schedule, but those solutions aren’t the answer for every employee.” Schuler continues to share the effects this has on black women in particular, “Black women are often the breadwinners of their families, so to say, ‘Your option is to go on a sabbatical or go to 60% time with 60% pay’ doesn’t fill the gap and doesn’t help.”
She adds, “Managers are in the best position to have meaningful conversations with their employees about what solutions would work and then go back to senior leadership and say: ‘This policy is great, but what I’m really hearing is people need to have something different.’ Managers are also in the best position to understand how to implement HR policies to meet the needs of individual employees.”
Discussing Challenges with Employees
In an attempt to facilitate these important conversations, PricewaterhouseCoopers and other companies are offering managers talking points to create a dialogue with their employees – asking them about their situations, the issues they face, and how they – as managers – can support them. “For example, a manager can say ‘Help me to understand what I can help you with, and I’ll make sure this doesn’t derail your career,’” suggests Schuyler.
Christy Kenny, Director of HR Client Relations and Talent Management at Public Service Enterprise Group, a publicly-traded energy company in Newark, N.J. says, “Often general questions such as, ‘How are you doing?’ don’t get at the heart of the problem…But if you ask an employee what’s working and what’s not working in terms of their schedule, you start to get at the answer.”
Public Service Enterprise Group suggests that their managers ask employees more direct questions:
- Are you getting the support you need from your peers? Is there anything we can be doing differently as a team?
- Are you encountering new barriers in your work? What can we do to ensure your success?
- How is your work schedule going? Is there anything you need to adjust so that the schedule is sustainable going forward?
- What gets in the way of doing your job?
- What is the most frustrating barrier?
- How can I help remove barriers?
- What resources do you need to make things easier for you to do your work?
Accommodating Your Employees
Asking the kinds of questions listed above had a big impact on Public Service Enterprise Group. Kenny says, “From these conversations between managers and employees, Public Service Enterprise Group decided to expand its definition of flexible work hours.” She continues, “In the past, flexible work hours meant starting just an hour early or an hour late, but now it’s about customizing the workday to meet the specific circumstances of each employee…For instance, a flexible workday might mean allowing an employee to start work at 6 a.m. so she isn’t working while her children are doing remote learning.”
Additional solutions that managers might consider could include allowing the first few hours of each day to be “meeting-free” for working parents so they can dedicate that time to preparation or providing a specific time frame where they are not expected to be in any virtual meetings. Michael Matthews, Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Corporate Responsibility Officer at Synchrony, a consumer financial services company in Stamford, Connecticut says, “It’s incumbent on managers to create and foster environments where employees can come to work as their authentic selves.” He adds, “Does a single mom have to explain away some of her challenges or, as a manager, do you partner with employees to look for solutions? Are you more understanding about interruptions, start and end times, and are you looking for ways to accommodate their needs?”
The modern workplace as we knew it is likely gone forever. COVID-19 has turned many industries and their respective workplaces upside down. For most office and administrative positions, employees are now working remotely – and there’s a chance they’ll never return to the office full-time.
Schools have been equally affected; the majority of public and private schools have sent students home to learn remotely at least part-time.
These two trends create quite the challenge for working parents. They must balance their daily work schedules, which likely include several virtual meetings and many other responsibilities, with the schedules of their children who are now home part—or all—of the day.
As an employer, you’re still trying to get the most out of your employees with children at home. However, it’s clear that the balancing act they are attempting is no easy task.
In this post, we’ll outline some strategies that employers can implement to support their staff with children during this challenging time.
Specifically, we’ll recommend that you:
- Be aware of all your support options
- Be flexible
- Consider long-term outcomes
- Be cautious
Be Aware of All Your Support Options
There are most likely certain laws and other processes that are already established that you can implement to support your employees with children.
First, consider supporting your employees by contributing to their child care costs. The Internal Revenue Service allows companies to claim a tax break of 10 or 25 percent of child care costs for their employees (up to $150,000/year – click here to learn more about this credit). This obviously might not apply to every employee, as some parents understandably want to avoid sending their children to a daycare provider during COVID. However, there are still many parents in the workforce who would be willing to consider daycare options if their employers help cover some of the costs. Consider setting up a meeting with your employees and HR leadership to discuss if this is a realistic way for your company to help your employees.
Second, be sure you understand all the benefits options that you are already offering to your employees. If you have an employee assistance program, identify the services therein that would be most beneficial to your employees at this time. Work with HR to send out a reminder to all of your employees about those services. For example, perhaps your employee assistance program offers free sessions with counselors or time-management coaches for your employees. If you aren’t up to speed on everything that’s offered under your employee assistance program, schedule a meeting with HR so they can help you become better acquainted with it. Then, pass on that knowledge to your employees who need it the most – in this case the employees with children at home.
COVID-19 has most likely created many challenges for your business. Understandably, your mind is probably racing about how you can improve inefficiencies and reduce costs in order to increase profitability. However, don’t let this mindset keep you from being flexible with your employees that have children at home.
Raising children takes time. With parents and their children primarily constrained to the house during regular daytime hours, the time commitment required to keep those kids fed, dressed, and focus on their schoolwork increases significantly.
You must understand that your employees with children will experience interruptions during the workday – there’s no way to avoid it. Penalizing your employees for these interruptions will backfire.
Instead, show empathy towards them and their situations by being as flexible as possible. Perhaps the 8:30 AM Zoom call will need to be pushed to 9:00 AM. And when it’s time for that meeting, forgive the background noise that might be sneaking through their microphone.
Work hand-in-hand with your employees to determine the areas that they’ll need the most flexibility, and try to determine if there are any particular times of day that are difficult for them to stay 100% focused on work (for example, lunch time with the kids, or early-morning when setting up their child’s remote learning station).
Consider Long-Term Outcomes
Employers have been faced with many difficult decisions in 2020. As is the case with any decision in the business world, you must weigh the anticipated costs and benefits of your decisions. As you consider ways that you can support your employees with children during the pandemic, you must also weigh the costs and benefits of those decisions.
Contributing towards child care costs or ramping up your employee assistance program (as we’ve discussed in previous sections) are expensive strategies to pursue. However, take a moment to consider what the long-term outcomes of these decisions might be.
The pandemic will end eventually. The economy will improve, and there will be opportunities for your business to get back on track. When this time comes, would you rather have employees who are satisfied with how they were treated during COVID, or would you rather have employees who felt they weren’t properly taken care of and supported?
When the pandemic ends, having motivated, happy, loyal employees will likely be your most valuable asset.
The last topic we’ll discuss in this post is the need to be cautious. Already, companies have been sued by employees who are unhappy about their employers’ accommodations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employment law experts expect this trend to continue, unfortunately.
Work with your legal counsel to ensure full compliance with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). This act requires, “certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to covid-19.” Learn more about the FFCRA by clicking here.
As you make decisions related to approving or denying FFCRA leave for your employees, don’t forget to consider how your decisions will either increase or decrease the risk of facing lawsuits or government fines. As we spoke about in the previous section, don’t be afraid to make sacrifices in the short term to protect yourself and your business in the long term. For example, if you aren’t sure whether to approve or deny an employee’s FFCRA leave request, it may be better to err on the side of caution and approve the leave so that you reduce the risk of potential lawsuits.
Employees who have children at home during the pandemic are facing significant challenges. Balancing daily work schedules with the schedules of their children is not an easy task, and there will certainly be scheduling conflicts that affect their work to some degree.
Employers should be empathetic of the circumstances of their employees with children at home.
Some strategies that employers can implement include:
- Being aware of tax breaks and employment benefits that are in place that benefit both the employer and the employees.
- Being as flexible as possible with employees
- Keeping a long term perspective, as the pandemic will end someday and having happy employees will be a very valuable resource at that time
Of course, employers should also be aware of FFCRA regulations and regularly consult their legal counsel about leave decisions during the pandemic.