Reopening during a pandemic: A guide to supporting your employees
It’s been a while since we’ve been through a pandemic of this level—since 1918, to be exact. Although these times are confusing, exhausting, and even scary, there are many lessons we’ll be able to take with us and use for the rest of our careers (and lives, for that matter). As a company, this is your chance to show your people that you genuinely care about them and that you’re all in this together.
For those of us in tech and similar industries, we’ll be working from home indefinitely (and it’s about time!). But obviously, if you’re in the manufacturing, retail, or food service industries, that’s not an option. If your company needs to reopen, this post outlines some things to consider to keep your people safe before getting them back to work.
We spoke to a few of our customers to figure out how they’re safely managing the return to work (if they are). This article outlines the plans and ideas our awesome customers shared. The main takeaway? Empathy is key.
Start gathering information rapidly and regularly
A modern day pandemic unfolds 24/7 with almost daily updates to best practices and ideas for keeping people safe. This is a chance for your leadership team to shine and to make a commitment to your employees to meet regularly and discuss:
- What new information do we know about the effects of COVID-19?
- How might this affect our people?
- What are other companies in our industry doing to mitigate risk to their employees?
- How can we best communicate changes to our people?
Try not to think of this as a one-time conversation—we don’t know how long the coronavirus pandemic will last. Encourage your leaders to rise to the occasion of committing to the due diligence of staying informed. When the leaders of your company have as much context as they can get, they’re more likely to make the right decisions on behalf of their team. Mike Oliver, VP of HR and Risk Assessment at Miller Electric says,
“We all meet virtually every Monday morning and one of the first things we talk about is, “What are the COVID19 updates? What are we doing as a company and how are we impacted, and how are we showing up for one another?”
With a well-informed leadership team, it’s time to start regularly surveying your people. Use an anonymous survey tool (surveymonkey is a great option) to quickly take a pulse of how the organization is feeling overall. It’s crucial to regularly ask your people how they feel about:
- Stress level
- Ability to manage their energy
- Whether or not they feel safe
- Whether they feel supported by their manager
- If they have reliable childcare
- If they’re considered particularly at-risk
- If there’s anything else they’d like to share. (Always try to leave an open section where people can leave their thoughts on anything.)
Once you have an idea of how everyone’s feeling, you can write more empathetic communication that feels genuine to your employees (because it is!). Your employees are the heart of your company, so understanding their unique situations and underlying fears is really important.
Communicating to your masses
Don’t get frustrated if you find you’re having to repeat new policies and changes to your people. Change is hard! It feels redundant to you the sender of these messages, but keep in mind that research shows that people need to hear information multiple times and in different ways. Although she’s not planning to return her employees back to work any time soon, Jessica Reeves, VP of HR and Risk Management at Anaconda Inc. reminds us:
I always tell all the leaders, 7 times is the minimum of any real important information that you need to repeat it. 7 times, in different ways, in different mediums. It’s actually scientifically proven that 7 is the magic number that they’ll go, “Hey, I remember someone saying something about that.”
Some people are auditory learners; some like Slack; others need visuals; still others live in their email all day. Think of every way you can share updates to your teams—then think of more—to make sure you get the message across.
Since gathering in large groups isn’t a good idea right now, think of what your other choices could be:
- Video conference
- A recording of the video conference (for those who work flex hours)
- Email with video embedded containing the same content
- Messaging app (Slack, G-Chat)
- Internal company podcast
- Video from the office of the CEO (or other leader)
You may need to write new policies
It sounds like a big undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t reinvent the policy-writing wheel by starting with a blank document. Has your company made a pandemic-like policy before? Most of us probably haven’t, but you may have something related to a natural disaster. Maybe you had to write a policy for H1N1. Another option is to use the structure of an existing policy from another company and adapt it to fit your voice, culture, and values.
To help write new office policies, here are a few recommendations from the CDC at the time of this article’s publication:
- Changing layouts to put at least six feet of distance between desks or workplaces
- Installing physical barriers between workstations
- Temporarily closing large gathering spaces
- Refraining from large events
- Being intentional about staggering shifts and breaks
After the leadership team gives their input on the policy, consider showing it to a few employees and ask:
- Is this easy for you to understand?
- Do you think we left anything out?
Nobody likes to be told what to do, or feel like they don’t have a choice in a matter. If wearing a mask is a requirement but frustrating to some employees, you can get creative. Get everyone to understand why masks are required. The team at Miller electric recorded a quick video for their people to help explain the reason behind the decision. One C-suite leader even details what it’s been like since her husband tested positive for COVID-19.
This might be a good time to revisit your company values
Your company values are the backbone of law and order at your company. They’re more than just words painted on a wall or pinned to a desk – they’re a framework by which every employee should be making decisions. They guide everything from decision making, to how employees are expected to treat one another. Your values are the things you can point to when you see questionable behavior, and to help keep progress on track. If you’re asking your employees to take surveys and not to hold back with ideas or feedback but you don’t have a company value of embracing feedback, you won’t get honest responses.
Consider adding values around:
- Continuous learning
- Ownership (at all levels!)
Make a list of everything you would need to do to open back up.
As simple as that sounds, this new world of workplace health and safety might be more effort than you think. Write down everything. Writing it down in a long list helps you and your leadership team get a grasp on how much of an undertaking it is to be back in person again. You might write down items like:
- Signage about hand washing
- Signage to remind employees about social distancing in crowded areas like break rooms or kitchens
- Rearranging furniture or workstations to allow for 6 feet of space
- Barrier installation
- Company-wide training on new safety policies
- Empathy training for managers
- A deep clean of the building
- Finding a hand sanitizer vendor
- Re-initiating contact with vendors for trash, food delivery, etc.
- A checklist for what to do if an employee tests positive
Consider that last bullet point above– ‘A checklist for what to do if an employee tests positive‘. It might sound rigid and cold, but you might be glad you have a repeatable checklist for how to empathize with and support a very sick employee, as well as what the protocol is for cleaning the office, closing it again, and re-opening. Giving everyone the same empathetic treatment is important, along with instructions on who to reach out to or what to do when they’ve recovered.
Implement a peer recognition tool
There are bound to be people who are going above and beyond right now. Implementing a peer recognition tool gives everyone a place to celebrate those people while keeping your distance. Recognition at all levels of your business will help keep your team close knit, and celebrate the employees who go the extra mile, even when not everyone can see it.
If you need support, speak up!
Whether your company has 10 or 10,000 employees, you shouldn’t have to handle this alone. Remind your leadership team that this is a chance for employees to feel cared for. You’d be surprised how easy it is to ask for help on Linkedin. You can search for someone with a higher or similar title in your industry, and message a question or two. These people are in a people ops role just like you, and likely love to help people.
You will find your way through this– when things get hard, lean on empathy. Empathy for your leaders, employees, and the families who rely on them.
“We can lean into that trust, which is one of our core values, and extend grace to people where they need it. If somebody tests positive, well, what are we going to do? Take care of yourself, #1. When the symptoms subside, you can log in and do your work and not miss a beat. We’re here to take care of our employees. That’s the #1 way we’re talking about bringing our people back to work,” Mike Oliver told us.
Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. This might be a pandemic, but it can also be a defining year for your organization and the culture you want to create.
Keep in mind that the suggestions above might not be applicable or feasible for your business or organization, and that the CDC recommendations are only up to date at the time of this writing. Every company is unique and information is constantly changing. We hope this can be a resource for things to consider when putting your employees’ wellbeing first during a global pandemic.
- Local SHRM chapter – to get more local perspectives.
- The people in HR are geared to help people.
- National SHRM website
- The US Chamber of Commerce – has been really helpful for businesses putting out a lot of COVID related resources.
- On-demand webinars from top brands like Workday.
- Reach out to a leader at an organization you admire via LinkedIn.