Over the last few weeks the environment has changed dramatically when it comes to work and life. As an HR leader, I can remember other times of crisis in the past, such as when our employees had their homes destroyed by tornadoes. We have to deal with the logistics of this from a work perspective, because HR is often the hub of policies around working remotely or being flexible for those that have personal needs that limit their availability for work during emergencies.
However, I can’t stress enough the need to embrace compassion for our people.
Think of it this way: when our local schools asked a few days ago if families had wifi at home, I know there are some families that do not have it because they can’t afford something that most of us consider a basic fact of life. Some of those children were getting free breakfast and/or lunch at school to help fill gaps in their nutrition that they weren’t getting at home.
When you think about taking care of your people, that care for the basic components of life should be part of the equation.
The Science of Doing Great Work: Tips for Working Remotely
Before I jump into some of the tactical ideas to help support your employees during this time, I want to point out something for those (you or your employees) that might not be accustomed to working from home.
When you’re in an office, you have a fairly rigid schedule and setup. At home, that’s not the case. One of the biggest challenges for many, even though it technically shouldn’t be different than working in an office, is prioritizing what to do. The science we know on how the brain functions shows us that we have a limited amount of capacity to focus.
Focus for an hour? Sure. You can do that. Focus for six hours? Not likely.
For that reason, it’s important to approach your to do list strategically. For those things that you find hardest to do because of their greater demand on mental capacity (creative work, strategy meetings, etc.), do those earlier in the day or when you have uninterrupted time (which will be a challenge for those with kids at home during crisis times). For those things that require less mental energy (responding to emails, for instance), save those for later in the day when you are naturally in a lower state of focus.
If you make this change, you will probably be surprised to see the difference in what you can get done, how creative you are, and how you feel. For more on this you can read some of my takeaways from Two Awesome Hours, where a doctor explains this in much more detail than I could.
Oh, and skip answering emails right before that big meeting (even if it’s virtual). You will use your much-needed focus and acuity on routine messages and fail to have that focus when you need it during the meeting. Trust me on this one. If you DO have a big meeting you need to be “on” for, then take a walk outdoors without your phone for 5-10 minutes in the last half hour before the meeting begins. That can help to refresh your energy and focus.
Those big meetings include creative ways you might support or cover your employees during this time. Or maybe one of these options that you never quite seem to have time to get to…
Okay, let’s get into the nuts and bolts here on how to support employees during a crisis. I am going to assume that you are already following all of the existing guidance from other sources on preventing the spread of disease and that you are educating your people on that.
You can support them:
In the words of a friend, how you treat people during tough times says more about you than how you treat them in good times.
When possible, offer flexible work arrangements, but don’t have the mentality that people need to “be available all the time” just because they are virtual.
Many companies have already enacted work from home policies, but consider this: millions of workers are deskless, meaning they work in a profession that does not require them to use a computer or desk to do their work. Can the retail clerk work from home? Or the gas repair serviceperson? Or the nurse? No, they can’t.
To support these types of workers, some companies are offering paid time to their workers that can’t or shouldn’t come into the office. While that is a budget issue for many small businesses, it also helps to ensure that people don’t come to work sick simply because they can’t afford not to have a paycheck.
I am right in the middle of this decision right now as a nonprofit board member. We voted yesterday to pay our workers for the next two weeks for their normal work schedule despite them not coming to work. This includes part time workers as well. This is not what we planned to do with the savings, but if there was ever an emergency this is it. We can’t do this indefinitely, but for now, we’re trying to do the right thing.
One other facet of this is for those of us that do have jobs we can do remotely. With several states (and more coming) canceling school right now amid the virus concerns, any parents will be working with children underfoot, and it’s not an easy task. I have tried this many times and it always creates additional stress for the entire family, so be considerate of that. In the end we need to get away from thinking about work as a number of hours in an office and more about the productive work someone is able to accomplish, and that concept may become a silver lining in this entire situation.
Also, if someone’s kid runs in while they are on a conference call, have some fun with it and do not take it seriously. These are uncommon times.
Don’t assume that someone working from home is going to be available all the time. When my wife is out of pocket and I have the childcare responsibilities at home, I work from 4-6am, spend time with the kids to get them fed, work 10-2, pick up kids from school, and then work after they go to bed. It’s not easy but it is better than trying to be “on” from 8-4 when I am juggling a kid on my lap and nobody (neither work nor home) is getting the best I have to offer.
Consider on demand pay as a way to help employees manage the financial stresses they are facing.
Over the last year, I’ve started really watching this on demand pay area very closely in my daily work and research on the HR technology provider landscape. Essentially these tools (many payroll providers now offer this as a service or through a third party partnership) allow workers to access their earned wages before payday.
For instance, if Marietta works 13 hours on Monday and Tuesday and has to stay home Wednesday to care for a sick child, she may not have the funds to cover prescriptions or copays in an emergency. On demand pay allows Marietta to get access to some of her earned wages before payday, allowing her to do what needs to be done to care for her child.
There are various flavors of this on demand pay in the market, but if you are running an HR department then it’s worth checking into. This is much better for employees than other options, like payday loans, which rob them of their future earnings through high fees and interest.
Consider highlighting or coordinating virtual development opportunities.
Work needs to get done, but if my schedule is any indication, pretty much all training and live events are being called off for the near future. Creating virtual development opportunities helps to keep workers engaged and performing at their highest level. For many people, working remotely can be a lonely experience, so creating opportunities for social learning or flipped classroom-style learning can meet multiple needs at the same time.
For reference, flipped classroom is where you do some solo learning on your own and then join a group discussion to talk about what you learned, how you can implement it, and what others think is important. It creates stronger social connections and better retention of the learning concepts, but it also allows time together to be productive learning, not just a one-way lecture where everyone listens to someone speak for an hour.
A related idea I saw a company implement last year was what they called the “nerd club.” Each employee could use an hour during lunch to teach others about something they felt passionate about. It allows each person to show off their expertise, build the knowledge of others, and create stronger relationships.
Care. Really care. That’s it.
If you do nothing else, just love on your people. We must be people-oriented. It is a tough time for many. People are worried, stressed, and scared. Some have actually lost loved ones to the virus, so any conversation about it will be emotional for them.
There are times to look at the data, leverage metrics and analytics for decision making, and develop long-term strategies for the business.
Right now, though, everything we do must be done through the lens of caring for and supporting our people. We can and will get through the challenges ahead. We just have to keep the “human” in human resources.