August 28, 2020
It’s not happening quickly enough for some and too slowly for others, but most companies are in the midst of managing a return to work and grappling with a very different post COVID-19 world and what it means for employees. HR professionals are paying close attention to how well employees are faring and are looking to build new forms of employee care into company cultures and values. But maybe there is something more they can do to foster employee trust and safety?
Business executives and their HR leads have important roles to play in looking after employees’ emotional wellbeing, whether their teams come back into physical offices or continue to work from home. Indeed, many employers want to make changes explicit, in the form of pledges that document how they’ll support new ways of working and refreshed company values.
These pledges could help employees better understand what they can expect, what they can ask for, and what support is available to them as they navigate the inevitable uncertainties ahead. They are meant to provide at least some answers to the questions most employees have right now: If I’m returning to a physical workplace, how am I going to feel safe and comfortable about doing that? What if I’m in a vulnerable group or still shielding family members from potential infection? What are the long-term measures in place to make working from home a positive option, emotionally as well as practically, for me?
A new social contract
Employers need to be one step ahead of any issues that might arise, and also ensure they go the extra mile
Answering these questions puts new burdens on HR teams and can create anxiety for employees themselves as they consider their own priorities and concerns. For instance, if people are worried about losing their jobs if the business doesn’t recover sufficiently or quickly enough, they may feel they have to check their safety concerns for fear of marking themselves out for redundancy.
To boost and maintain morale, plus demonstrate due care and attention to the safety of the entire workforce, employers need to be one step ahead of any issues that might arise, and also ensure they ‘go the extra mile’ to provide reassurance to staff.
In a climate of great uncertainty, trust has become the new currency among the workforce. One way to be proactive is to draw up new social contracts with employees, which document what the organisation is or will be doing to safeguard employees and look after their overall wellbeing during and beyond this new period of transition.
What might such pledges look like? They aren’t meant to be formal, legal documents with terms and conditions. Rather, they are written statements that clearly detail the company’s plans, actions and priorities related to employees’ health, safety, and mental wellbeing post COVID. Their intent is to let employees know exactly what to anticipate, and who they can approach if they have questions or worries.
150 HR executives recently participated in a five-week collaborative sprint, hosted by the Josh Bersin Academy, to collaborate on a range of COVID-related workplace issues. Participants agreed that a heightened emphasis on safety and security for employees, not only physical but psychological as well, was a critical component of any social contract. Additionally, these executives reported a greater desire for employee voice in decisions that directly impacted their perceived safety. Participants suggested including some or all of the elements below when drawing up post-COVID social contracts:
- Greater work flexibility, across all roles and job levels
- Proactive health support, with added emphasis on mental health care
- Provision for ‘personal needs’ support, including offers of proactive help for employees with increased caretaking responsibilities (ideas proposed included contributions towards home help, online food vouchers, tutors for children not yet back at school)
- A stronger and more explicit stand on inclusion, equity and diversity. In the light of COVID, this might include consideration of employees’ ability to work from home effectively, issues involved in safely commuting, or other potential barriers individuals might face so that no one feels in any way discriminated against if they lack the ideal conditions for home working or returning to work.
In addition to generalised strategies and declarations, employers should aim to demonstrate their care and attention through proactive monitoring of employee sentiment and targeted intervention, as appropriate. Microsoft, for instance, monitored how well its people are doing based on those who took leave before the lockdown versus those that worked through the first stage of the crisis – based on the presumption that those who didn’t take a break were more likely to be suffering burnout and high levels of stress.
The company’s response has been to actively encourage people to take leave, reassuring them that this is the right thing to do. Hollywood film studio Legendary Entertainment appointed a return-to-work ‘tsar’ (a dedicated point of contact) to serve as the company’s ombudsman for workplace issues.
Businesses as diverse as Atlassian and Kern Health Systems report that they are achieving a rapid response to evolving employee priorities and concerns by assembling small groups to address identified needs with micro-solutions; that’s to say, measures the companies can roll out quickly and then adapt and build on, rather than waiting months to perfect a big ‘perfect’ solution.
Swiss insurance company Chubb uses the Slack chat platform to keep people connected, wherever they are. The use of Slack is extended to people’s families in the form of cooking channels and volunteers for tutoring employees’ children.
Going the extra mile to show you care about your people has never been more important. As you seek to smooth the way back to business as usual during this critical period of transition to the post-COVID workplace, that’s a mindset that’s really going to help.