Being Consistent About Improvement:
Three Ways to Better Support Employees During the COVID-19 Crisis

By Michael Schwendeman (Director, Research & Development) and Andrew Tenbrink (Research & Development Team)

Over the past four months organizations have taken action to support their employees during the COVID-19 crisis. As they continue to look for ways to navigate the challenges presented by working during a global pandemic, organizations need to be flexible if they want to remain effective. In a recently published article, our team at Denison Consulting outlined how organizations with positive cultures have successfully responded to COVID-19 by staying connected with employees and keeping them safe. Although these areas of focus have been greatly appreciated by employees, there have also been areas where organizations have fallen short in their response. Gathering feedback is a critical process that organizations can use to identify areas that they should target for improvement.

In an effort to identify some of these areas, we asked employees “What are the most important things that our organization could do to better support you during this crisis?” By analyzing nearly 2500 comments across 20 organizations using natural language processing, we identified major themes that were frequently discussed. These three areas of focus can help organizations continue to strive for improvement and provide their employees with the support that they need.

Understanding & Supporting Work-Life Balance

As organizations have increasingly relied on telework during the COVID-19 crisis the lines between work life and home life have become increasingly blurred. Historically, work and home life have occupied different physical spaces. Now, employees are forced to constantly accommodate home needs while at work and vice versa. These demands can make work increasingly challenging for employees especially if they are not receiving the proper support from their organizations.

Employees feel like their organizations do not fully understand the challenges that come with working at home. Instead of simply focusing on their work, many employees are simultaneously taking on the roles of teacher, parent, and partner. Juggling these roles can make it increasingly difficult to maintain a regular work schedule. Not to mention that many employees do not have dedicated work spaces in their homes. Instead of viewing these issues as threats to productivity, organizations should provide resources and craft work policies (e.g., flextime) that create flexibility for those working from home. Taking the necessary steps to properly support work-life balance needs can help employees by reducing stress and increasing engagement.

“I wish the chaos of home life would be taken into consideration for allowing staff to be flexible with their work day hours, if required to work from home.”
“There seems to be a lack of understanding regarding the reality of the challenges for working parents – especially of young children.”
“Understand that we are juggling a lot at home. Some of us need to take care of kids during the day, while trying to get work done, and allow our spouses to also get their work done. Some more flexibly on timelines would help.”

Compensating & Incentivizing Employees

The economic crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic has put massive financial stress on organizations and their employees. Due to these financial challenges, national unemployment rates have spiked and many organizations have been forced to close their doors for good. For those employees who have been able to stay with their organizations, there is much uncertainty surrounding the future of their employment. Organizations are being asked to make tough decisions regarding their workforces and these decisions have important implications for employees and the future of organizations.

Employees are understandably frustrated by the financial difficulties that have been brought on by the pandemic. Many employees feel like they have gone above and beyond to provide support both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic, but have not been fairly compensated. In many cases, employees have been laid off, furloughed, or had their salaries reduced. Doing as much as possible to make sure that employees are taken care of financially should be of the utmost importance for organizations. Organizations can be proactive by having open conversations about the needs of employees, removing any non-essential expenses, and creating new streams of revenue. By prioritizing employee compensation and taking a united approach, organizations can inspire confidence and support from their employees. Some organizations have done well to support this need. For example, Sheetz convenience store chain gave pay raises to their hourly employees and has continued to hire store employees throughout the pandemic. Similarly, Domino’s has increased pay for hourly employees, expanded paid sick leave, and provided compensation for employees who have been required to quarantine.

“Providing a hazard pay increase during this time would be nice. I know that this may not be possible given budgets, but there is definitely an increase in stress and most if not, all employees have put forth significant effort to make things work and conduct business as usual despite things not being usual.”
“Make compensating employees what they deserve a priority and stress that it is a priority. Pay cut aside, many of us have been going above and beyond in order to earn a raise this coming review, but we have no idea when that review may even happen.”
“No layoffs, if someone has lost a lot financially, help him or her get back on track.”

Limiting and Streamlining Meetings

With many employees being physically separated from one another, organizations have made efforts to ensure that they can continue to communicate and collaborate with one another. One way that many organizations have tried to accomplish this is by using technology to host virtual meetings. Platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have become a central part of employee communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. These platforms have been used for formal work functions like team meetings, webinars, and town halls, but they have also been used to facilitate informal interactions like happy hours. Despite some of the positives achieved by virtual meetings, overly prioritizing staying connected with employees might be inadvertently making it more difficult for them to do their jobs.

Many employees feel like their organizations are not properly respecting their time. Given all of the challenges presented by the pandemic, employees are being overwhelmed by massive amounts of work. This can be extremely stressful but even more so if employees feel like they aren’t being given enough time to focus on critical tasks. While meetings serve an important purpose in the workplace, conducting too many meetings or not using meeting time wisely can be frustrating for employees. As video conferences are becoming more frequent, organizations should be intentional about how and when meetings are being used. This can be done by creating clear guidelines for communication channels that outline which channel should be used in which situation. For example, routine requests might be best handled in a well-worded email instead of a weekly virtual call. Making an effort to better preserve employees’ time can help increase productivity and encourage relationships built on trust.

“How can we streamline meetings? I’m on video calls from 8am-6pm. It’s a new level of exhausting. Limiting meetings and trusting our teams to execute would be very much appreciated.”
“I feel the organization has over corrected on the number of meetings and check-ins. I have a check-in every morning with one team, twice a week with another team, and virtual coffees and happy hours throughout the week. These don’t include meetings where actual projects are discussed. It’s cutting into my work time, which is forcing me to work later.”
“Encouraging participation via video is absolutely the right approach, but insisting video participation to the extent it feels practically mandatory communicates a lack of awareness and understanding for the occasional challenges that our people face in working from home under the current extreme circumstance.”

How Can Organizations Continue to Move Forward?

In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges for organizations. In some areas, organizations have mounted a strong response, but our research indicates that there are still neglected areas that organizations need to focus on in order to provide better support to their employees. This should not be viewed simply as a criticism, but as an opportunity for continued improvement. To maintain success, it is necessary to understand how we can do better. Overall, organizations can make the effort to continuously improve by gathering feedback and being flexible.

Gathering Feedback. It is extremely difficult to know how well you’re doing if you don’t take the time to ask for frequent and honest feedback. As the nature of work continues its rapid change, it will be extremely necessary for organizations to leverage the voices of their employees to understand both what is going well and what isn’t. Having these conversations builds empowerment, increases trust, and gives employees confidence that their opinions are being heard. Our data suggests that organizations have done well communicating to their employees but need to put more effort towards listening. Organizations can better facilitate gathering feedback by ensuring that opportunities for open communication are formally integrated into their systems like performance management (e.g., 360-degree feedback, performance reviews). Additionally, adopting shared leadership norms, like open door policies, can give employees a safe place to discuss any issues or concerns that they might be dealing with.

Being Flexible. Many organizations rely on consistency to be successful. This approach may have worked under normal circumstances, but when facing the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 crisis, it is necessary to be flexible. Already, organizations have been required to make massive changes to the way they do business (e.g., telework, new revenue streams). Being able to adapt to new challenges presented will continue to be critical. There is no way of knowing what the “new normal” of work will be after COVID-19, but organizations should be prepared to make the necessary changes to adapt successfully. Organizations can increase flexibility by getting employees involved. One way this can be achieved is by empowering decision-makers at lower levels, allowing decisions to be made quickly and efficiently by those in close proximity. Similarly, sharing information can be a critical part of helping employees adapt to new situations. Organizations can better facilitate information sharing by creating internal mechanisms for storing and distributing information like best practices and institutional knowledge.

Overall, we hope that these insights can help organizations maintain effectiveness during these difficult times. Our goal is to continue conducting research that is focused on helping organizations navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and build #RESILIENCE through organizational culture and leadership.

If you would like support in this process, please be in contact with us. We can help you achieve transformation right to the bottom line.

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