To say that the pandemic related to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has upended work as we know it is a vast understatement. Within the course of several weeks, the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace has been extreme – the virus shut down vast swathes of public and professional life for millions of people around the United States and globally, from restaurants, gyms and public spaces to making grocery workers, delivery workers and healthcare professionals the new “essential” workers.
For professionals who have the option to work from home, the shift from standard working hours to trying to maintain normality through stay-in-place or limited movement along with roommates, partners and spouses and children, this can be a trying time. The workplace is shifting, for how long no one knows, and the impact of COVID-19 on corporate culture and work-life balance is having untold effects. One such change necessitated by the pandemic that we have already witnessed is the need to work remotely.
Remote work has typically been a perk for senior team members or start-ups, though it has gained more popularity in the last few years – a 2018 study found that 70 percent of workers globally worked remotely at least once a week.
The shift from COVID-19 means that most company’s departments, from IT to sales and marketing to operations, are now working from their home networks. Meetings are now being held in Zoom, Slack, Skype or Microsoft Teams, requiring employees to learn about video conferencing and troubleshoot connectivity issues in real time. Many companies have found themselves caught flat-footed without remote work policies in place to help leaders and teams know best practice. Additionally, with the stress of potential illness, child and elder care and minimal outside contact, work is anything other than typical right now and the business-as-usual approach likely won’t help.
Below we discuss several ways companies can help their employees adjust to remote work, whether their challenges come from technical issues, balancing work output productivity with family obligations to changing processes.
Invest: Ensure that the technology that employees rely on for accessing the network of documents and tools necessary to get work done is reliable and built to last. Perhaps the set up that worked when only a certain percentage of the team was remote is no longer sufficient due to capacity needs or the need to add resources that were previously not online. Create a working team that includes leadership from multiple departments alongside information technology and cybersecurity to ensure all needs are met.
Communicate: Whatever the process needed to get the team ready for remote work, be sure to have a clear plan for communicating not only the shifts being made but also the timeline for implementation. Stress and uncertainty is already at record highs; giving your employees as much information as you know in a timely manner can provide stability in one key area of their lives. If plans change, don’t wait to share the updates. Put a face to the change and humanize the change management happening.
Inclusion: Strategic communication happens in multiple directions, and leaders must create space to have challenging conversations with their team on topics that previously may not have affected work. For working parents who are navigating distance learning solo to the partners of essential workers who are on heightened alert, and also those who have challenges due to mental health or disability, work may not always be a top priority. Give grace for the ways you may have to adjust to accommodate their needs without judgment.
Empathy: The typical “how are you” greeting no longer gets you the standard “fine, and you” reply as we work through the grief and strain of uncertainty related to coronavirus. You may find that some team members do not have an answer, or inquiring may uncover an urgent situation that requires a listening ear. Instead of avoiding asking the question, lead with empathy and the knowledge that you may need to step in as a resource to help or point a team member to the tools they need.
The most challenging part of maintaining and building a strong and inclusive corporate culture in the age of COVID-19 is the inability to gather in person. The shift to virtual meetings has challenged leaders and employees to remain engaged while connecting only through a small lens and microphone, alongside other obligations like managing households and teaching children. It will take a concerted effort from all to elevate how managers motivate teams, provide mentorship to individuals and teams, and strengthen internal relationships while making sure you’re not on mute and your screen is sharing properly.
There is no shortage of advice for those searching for best practices on managing virtual teams. The best advice centers around releasing the long-held expectations and obligations that we’ve collectively come to consider the usual work culture. An interesting article from Fast Company noted that because we no longer have the standards of work such as face-to-face, public accountability, it is not unusual for remote teams to become more unproductive. Their tips for overcoming this can be helpful (encourage video usage during meetings, try to coordinate a common start and end to the work day, post public updates on a regular basis, provide deadlines to encourage action) but could also shift unreachable standards on to stressed and strained team members.
A more empathetic management perspective for leading virtual teams could include:
Balancing productivity and connectivity, opportunities for humor and the need to keep pressing forward is a delicate dance for teams who are handling an unprecedented challenge. The following tools/tips can help bring teams together for various purposes while keeping information organized and bringing a bit of levity.
The pen and paper filing method of organizing projects doesn’t work in a remote environment, so adapt. Project management systems have matured into sophisticated platforms that help teams organize materials, chats, emails and other communication by project, date and urgency/deadline. Once you find the system that works best for your company and/or department’s needs, get the team trained and start shifting to the online platform for one less work stressor.
The casual stop by at a coworker’s desk to shoot the breeze, catch up on how the family is doing, or trade gossip is paused. Teams still want to find a way to connect and talk about offline topics without having to send a formal email or pick up their cell phone. A solution for this connection can be found in the company’s project management system, or separately in a tool like Slack. The chat function means teams can share texts, GIFs or emojis as a way to bond and continue company culture.
Don’t lose sight of the ways you can support your entire team, especially diverse employees, during COVID-19. Mentorship will require a more concentrated and creative effort to counter the stress of the pandemic but it’s not impossible to provide support for your team. Fast Company has some great ideas; below are a few select suggestions.
Ensure adequate time for providing and receiving mentorship both inside and outside of the organization. You may need to level up or down on time commitment, depending upon the brain and time space that you and the mentor or mentee have available. Be intentional about the sessions and plan out the goals and track results.
Eliminate ambiguity about the goals of the mentorship. Are you helping someone with their leadership skills, connecting them with the right people to assist with answering questions or being a soundboard for bold ideas? Knowing how your time is being utilized makes it easier to share time.
So now that we have some tools, tips and suggestions for acclimating to the new normal of workplace cultures during the pandemic, what does the future look like for workplaces once the pandemic is over?
Several weeks into the stay-at-home orders and implementation of social distancing, some states have begun conversations on what reopening public life will look like. The standards for restaurants, places of worship, churches and other arenas of life will look like are shaping up differently than office life. With the move to work from home and the rise of “essential workers,” the Western ideals related to the value of labor and how people perform and are paid are changing.
Other predictions and gaps that have been exposed as a result of the pandemic include the following:
Until a vaccine is successfully developed, tested and distributed widely, social distancing and work from home look to be the new normal for most professionals. The impact of the new normal means that until schools and childcare facilities open to the public, companies are going to have to adjust their expectations of working parents. Additionally, with the continued risk of exposure to COVID-19, many employees will not feel comfortable returning to an office setting. This should not prevent companies from supporting workers’ mental health needs and make accommodations to ensure their physical health by increasing IT capacity and ensuring employees have the tools needed to succeed from afar.
Death to the open floor plan. No longer will floating desk policies work for coworking or multi-office companies. Companies are already outlining what the future of the office seating plan will look like, and it looks like a return to cubicles and partitions and the rise of staggered work schedules. While some will celebrate the changes, managers will need to ensure that diverse employees continue to have access to the resources and management to ensure their voices are heard.
Another gap exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic is the need for guaranteed paid time off for all workers and equal pay for equal work for women. Kanarys founder and CEO Mandy Price put it like this in a Dallas Innovates piece:
The importance of paid sick leave has never been more pronounced than during this pandemic. Workers who fear losing pay, or their jobs, if they fail to show up for work are more likely to ignore the first signs of the infection, such as a cough or fever. And yet, a large percentage of U.S. workers lack access to paid sick leave. According to Pew Research, only 43 percent of part-time workers get paid sick leave and when it comes to the bottom 10 percent of income earners, fewer than one in three have this benefit. Additionally, disparities in access to paid sick leave disproportionately exposes Latinx and Black workers to increased risk of illness. Nearly half of Latinx workers and more than one-third of Black workers report having no paid time away from work of any kind.
The “Fight for $15” movement has been making consistent progress toward ensuring a minimum salary of $15 per hour for all work. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed that the most essential roles in our society – delivery, grocery workers, manual labor in factories and warehouses – are also the most vastly underpaid. More Americans should support the activists who are working to ensure that not only are essential workers paid fairly but they also have access to protective gear to keep themselves safe as they keep the wheels of commerce moving.
Mandy Price in the previously mentioned Dallas Innovates article sums this up well: Without financial security, families are not able to be safe during a pandemic. Lower-income people are less likely to have savings to fall back on in such a time – and because of the racial wealth gap in America, black and Latino families are less likely than white Americans to have a safety net. While the median wealth for white Americans was $171,000 in 2019, it was just $17,600 for African-Americans.
Though uncertainty remains about what work and public lives will look like as society attempts to reestablish norms and work around the COVID-19 “new normal,” we have an opportunity to collectively determine the priorities: equal pay and paid leave, acceptance of remote work, technologically-based mentorship, team building and more. Together, we can ensure that work and life are balanced for the betterment of all and that we accommodate the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace.
© 2020, Kanarys. All rights reserved