What a difference a year makes. Going into Labor Day weekend 2019, the U.S. was beginning its 19th month with an unemployment rate at or below 4%. Workers were concerned about slow wage growth in a tight labor market.
Fast forward to Labor Day 2020: Who could have foreseen the drastic ways our lives have changed? Unemployment numbers rose to 4.4% in March and then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, leading to a recession, with unemployment spiking to 14.7% in April, 13.3% in May, 11.1% in June, 10.2% in July, and 8.4% in August (just released today).
One of the biggest changes companies and employees have faced is a pandemic-induced at-home work model, but many employers have not changed their playbooks to keep up with the challenges posed by remote work.
This Labor Day, companies would be wise to develop plans that approach business in a new way, according to one workplace authority.
“Many companies have addressed this on a month-by-month basis, hoping to return employees to their workplaces as soon as possible. But as is becoming increasingly clear, the virus and its effects are not going away anytime soon, and companies are scrambling to create a vibrant workplace and a positive culture to ensure that remote workers are successful,” said Andrew Challenger, Vice President of global outplacement and executive and business coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. “We are in this for the long run.”
In a Challenger online survey in June of 150 Human Resources Executives, 33.3% said all of their employees were working from home, while 40% said most or part of their workforce was working remotely. Google has stated that 200,000 of its employees can remain working from home until next summer. Half of Facebook’s staff is expected to be remote within a decade. Twitter announced its staff can stay home permanently.
“Employers need to be creative in figuring out new ways of doing things. They may be nostalgic about the way things used to be, but they should not get stuck on trying to return to the old ways as quickly as possible,” said Challenger. “This can lead to unsafe reopenings of offices or rushing to get teams back together physically. Schools are experimenting with this as the new academic year begins, and many are rethinking in-person learning, as student infection numbers rise.”
“Embracing a work-from-home culture will keep employees safe,” said Challenger.
In order to transition to distance working, companies must build the right culture. It will boost morale and increase productivity, which leads to increased profitability. It can also position organizations to bounce back into whatever the future holds.
“Employees are a company’s most valuable asset, and a positive culture is needed to take care of those employees,” said Challenger. “The new normal may involve remote working for a long time to come. It is better to accept this and spend your efforts on improving a company’s culture with a work-from-home model.”
- A new culture for working well during the age of COVID should include many of the following:
- Be flexible. Many workers are juggling family and professional responsibilities at the same time. Talk to all employees to find out what is going on in their homes. Offer flexibility with schedules. Agree to hold meetings at unconventional times. Emphasize that productivity counts more than adhering to an exact schedule. Be clear regarding final deadlines, but if someone is able to accomplish their goals in a shorter amount of time, that is cause for praise, not criticism.
“Allowing employees to be in charge of their day and their goals offers them the freedom and flexibility they need to make all aspects of their lives work. This will build trust between the employee and the employer, and will result in a better work/life balance and better productivity on the part of the employee,” said Challenger.
- Communication is key. Managers must make sure they are in contact often with their workers to answer questions, understand needs, clarify goals and deadlines, and manage expectations. They also must make clear the company’s mission and values. This is what the culture should represent. Set up regular times for one-on-one meetings, as well as team meetings, via videoconferencing. Distribute a quarterly survey to get input from all employees as to how engaged they are feeling and what could help to improve this. Take time during online meetings to congratulate strong efforts and team successes. Instill psychological safety so the workplace is a space where all employees feel secure in speaking up and contributing ideas. Let them know you welcome feedback.
- Ask the experts. Tap into the experts in your company who already excel at dealing with remote teams. A global or regional manager will already have several suggestions for being successful in overseeing team members who are not in the same location.
- Make it a family affair. Welcome employees’ family members and pets to sit in on virtual social gatherings or even business meetings from time to time. These loved ones are probably nearby during much of the workday. Helping them understand what the business is all about and including them as valued members of the company’s extended family will build strong bonds between employers and employees.
- Set up mentorships. For some newer or less-experienced employees, or people who struggle with technology or social media, set up a network of employee volunteers who can offer mentoring services.
- Share experiences. Working from home can be isolating, lonely, and trying. Employees need to feel they are part of a team. This can be difficult to do when they are never around one another. Pre-pandemic, a lot of sharing was done around the watercooler or chance meetings in the hallway. Now, those encounters need to be planned and encouraged by management. Virtual employee gatherings should not only be about business. Team leaders should be creative and encourage people to connect by scheduling trivia nights, coffee gatherings, cocktail chats, or birthday celebrations. Employees should be encouraged to be active on social media and allow colleagues to view the activity. This is a great way to share the many aspects of employees’ lives and to get to know each other better.
- Encourage cross-training. To facilitate employees fully understanding what others are doing, employers should cross-train their workers. This can lead to improved efficiencies by allowing a fresh set of eyes to assess how work is being accomplished and suggest improvements. It can also open up job opportunities by employees learning skills needed for other positions.
“This helps build relationships, which are the backbone of a healthy, positive company culture. Companies that do well at this now will have a jump on a successful relaunching of their offices in the future when some of the pandemic’s restrictions ease,” said Challenger. “Those that have perfected their cultures to be inclusive, empathetic, and compassionate will retain the best talent. Those that have ensured their workforces are trained well in technology, social media, and communication skills will have the employees they need to face the future successfully.”