Rather abruptly, much of the country’s workforce has moved out of the office environment and ‘set up shop’ to try and work from home. What is the impact of such disruption and how can employers best support their staff? Medical doctor Dr Tshidi Gule shares a few thoughts with us.
How do employees and employers grapple with staying productive and managing the disruptions to the workplace?
The workplace has had to swiftly adjust to a COVID-19 way of functioning. With employers and their employees having to comply with a new set of rules – although they’re temporary – everyone’s familiar rhythm is now a little bent out of shape.
Some businesses are allowed to run out of the newly set up home office while others are on hold until further notice. Will businesses be able to weather the consequences that come with an abrupt functional change? Many employers fear the worst – that their businesses won’t survive. Such changes can be felt by all involved, leaving some employees worrying about their job security.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having an impact on most business right now, in some way or another. For employers, with managers coordinating teams spread in all directions, there are instant challenges. So, how can management teams best navigate these?
Medical doctor, founder of MediSpace Lifestyle Institute, corporate consultant, employee wellness strategist and author of the book Rough Diamond, Dr Tshidi Gule shares her views on how to approach this.
Redefining productivity in a fragmented work set up
For all of us, our work is tied to our sense of identity. So, while employees are dealing with this transition, employers and their management teams are experiencing it as well. We’re all adjusting to a whole new working environment, which is actually now intertwined with our own personal spaces. Being restricted at home is a shock to anyone’s system – both personally and professionally.
“For a lot of people, home is a place of rest, not a place of activity, especially not work activity. So, I think what COVID-19 has done is force us to redefine what productivity is,” says Dr Gule.
Can a “makeshift home office” be a productive place for work?
This can be challenging for many whose homes are not set up for productive work efforts: some have limited home space, and many others have to work in a space that is shared with other home occupants such as a family of multiple ages, friends, peers and pets.
“So, trying to create a work space that allows you to almost simulate your office environment is the first challenge,” says Dr Gule.
Employers and employees who are working at home all need to figure out the most realistic, practical and manageable structure within their personal spaces. It can be done: “You’ve just got to start,” says Dr Gule.
Learn to lead by example
How can managers keep their teams engaged while everyone is working in different places? Managers have to lead by example.
Employees are naturally going to look to their superiors for guidance and mentorship, just as they always have. Things may have changed overnight but this behaviour will remain, and perhaps be amplified by the uncertain set of circumstances we all now find ourselves in.
Productivity may be somewhat fragmented right now, but teams can still find ways to work effectively together while they’re physically apart. “Unique situations, unfortunately, still require some balance,” says Dr Gule.
“People at home are a lot more difficult to manage,” she says. “It’s so important to communicate responsibly and to be responsive. If we’re not communicating responsibly, you are already losing your grip on being able to manage the crises that can arise on the floor,” she adds.
For managers, “the first thing to accept is that you’ve got a new world and you still have to lead. I think the unfortunate thing for decision makers is you don’t get to run and panic like everyone else.”
Managers will be feeling similar levels of anxiety as employees. “Let it out. If you don’t let it out, you will carry this panic over to your employees. So, it’s really important that there’s a space to vent,” she says.
Dr Gule recommends that managers figure out a solution to manage their own feelings and challenges. Take breaks from the constant stream of phone calls and emails as these can become overwhelming at times. Then, as a manager, you are better equipped to lead and maintain a sense of calm. Solutions to challenges will help to anchor the team and establish a workable rhythm. This will help to make the team more productive.
Establish a structure for connection
Many businesses already have a virtual infrastructure in some way or another. Managers can use what they have to establish connections and maintain communication within their own team, as well as with the various business divisions they liaise with daily.
Managers can use existing tools such as email, Microsoft Teams, Skype and Zoom to establish communication channels. Managers also need to outline communication flows that are very clear for teams. Employees will need guidance to understand what the reporting line is, how they can address concerns or issues, and what the process is for handling a particular kind of problem or how to engage all fellow colleagues on a specific project. Managers need to determine all of these things and ensure that teams are well informed.
“I think once you have a communication flow in place, a lot of things that could disrupt the productivity rhythm are actually managed proactively,” adds Dr Gule.
Human resource managers are dealing with a new way of handling teams and supporting businesses too. They now need to be able to handle additional panic and anxiety as they’re working without a clear set of guidelines for the situation. There just hadn’t been a need to handle something like this before. For these managers, Dr Gule suggests a similar starting point. Begin with the existing structures you may already have in place, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs). Use what you have and adapt.
Human resource managers can use these programmes to help employees cope with their emotions and concerns. Official information that is shared by government and health authorities can be shared with employees through these channels. This may be helpful since all of us are primarily concerned about the health of our loved ones and ourselves. Channel this appropriately within teams by using existing communication tools, such as email or even WhatsApp.
Dr Gule suggests that reminders of available resources and supportive communication help people to focus on their work while coping with their personal circumstances.
Many people are understandably concerned about how secure their jobs are during these uncertain times. People are worried about what safety nets are available if their ability to earn is compromised by this health crisis. Should they cash in their pension or provident funds? How will the pandemic affect their insurance premiums? Can they still afford to pay them?
The financial wellbeing of everyone right now is a grey area. There are many questions and employers need to address these even though they themselves are not certain of what the outcomes of this pandemic will be.
“The simplest approach is this: I think it’s very important to accept that in the next 3 weeks, 6 weeks, possibly even 12 weeks (so, the next 3 months) our economy is going to continuously feel the weight of this pandemic. It is likely going to be affected negatively in the beginning and then it will stabilise,” Dr Gule.
“I think it’s not the most responsible thing to give people long term advice about their finances now without looking at what’s actually happening,” she adds.
“It’s important for employers to emphasise that employees must retain their current funds. So, if you’ve got a provident fund, keep it in place. Pension fund, keep it in place. This initial panic of trying to cash in on whatever you have is so high risk because viruses come and viruses go. It’s important to remind the public. We had SARS, we’ve had swine flu… We’ve had these viruses come, and they go, and this one will do the same.”
“It’s important not to use COVID-19 as a defining moment of our financial wellbeing. Yes, it’s a pandemic. Yes, it is an unexpected strain. Yes, it’s going to hit the economy for a while, but it is going to pass,” adds Dr Gule.
Supporting staff through their health concerns
With infection rates increasing, it’s entirely possible that an employee or a member of their family will be affected by COVID-19 illness. This does mean that personal challenges will impact professional boundaries. Employees need to know that their employers care about this.
Again, Dr Gule suggests using the employee assistance programme structure or any other available employee programme. Many of these already have telephonic or other virtual connection mechanisms in place. Employees will already have access to these and can use them during this time too.
Many of these programmes have a hotline for psychological support. Make sure everyone knows about this helpline and who they can speak to about any concerns or worries. Some programmes also offer support for financial or legal challenges. If this isn’t available, it’s best to arrange it. Employees can benefit from this right now.
Guide those who want to get a sense of comfort from any policies they have to the appropriate providers. Employers won’t necessarily be able to give clarity on personal circumstances, but they can guide people in the right direction. On its own, this kind of care and support can be reassuring for people.
Dr Gule’s quick tips for managers
Everyone is feeling some level of stress right now, and for various reasons. For managers, Dr Gule suggests the following so they can ready themselves to be able to cope with the stresses of their own team:
- Have a clear daily communication plan: “First thing in the morning, try and be that source of comfort with news and daily updates. Start there, because it allows you to also consolidate what’s happening throughout the day so that you are able to plan what you want to communicate the next day.”
- Take time out for yourself every day: “If you’re not mentally healthy and sound, you are not going to have the capacity to assist and support your entire team. You’re going to fall into anxiety mode which is not going to be helpful for everyone else.” Managers need to take time out to remove themselves from the telephonic and email intense environment that they find themselves in for a set period of time each day. Take 15 to 30 minutes a day just to breathe. Managers can use that time to do some gardening, take a walk around their own back yards or spend time with their children.
- Respond to employees: “You might not have answers for everything that gets thrown at you, but be responsive. It allows you to be a reassuring figure, which is probably psychologically the most important thing that employees need right now.”