COVID-19 shattered workplace norms and prompted emergency responses from companies across the U.S. Six months later, companies are shifting from lockdown mode to "business as usual" — with some differences. For many, this return to a semblance of normal operations means examining which employees still need help.
There has been a particular focus during the pandemic on the impacts experienced by caregivers, particularly those of young children or the elderly. That inclination is also reflected in employer benefits. But everyone, from twenty-somethings living with three roommates to parents of four kids, is feeling strain, experts told HR Dive.
"Every situation has some level of disruption," Michael Weiner, director of EY's employee assistance program, told HR Dive. Social distancing and remote work has worsened rates of anxiety and depression, as workers are more isolated now than potentially ever before, Weiner said.
While some employers have turned to wellness programs to protect workers, the new normal requires managers to step up and ensure everyone — from caregivers to single young workers — is treated fairly and given the space they need to do their work and find a balance.
"Everyone's been impacted," Keith Kitani, founder and CEO of GuideSpark, a communications solutions company, said. "There can't be one size fits all. You have to trust your leaders and managers to evolve."
Emerging from emergency thinking
When employers were first reacting to lockdown orders, most were operating on an emergency basis, Kitani said. In other words, everyone across the company did what they had to do to get by. Six months later, a different challenge has emerged as it looks less and less likely that COVID-19 will have a true "end date" for some time, Kitani said.
"Now what do we do? Do we provide equipment? Perk spending? What about culture?" Kitani said. "What does this mean as we move forward?"
To reduce uncertainty, employers will need to lean on and empower managers, Kitani said — especially as each team may have deeply varied needs. While HR can reduce uncertainty by providing guidelines for budgets, leave allowances and so on, managers also need to be able to act independently.
"It's going to be impossible to put a policy in place to support every single [individual]," Kitani said. Empowering managers to make decisions for their teams "gives them the ability to do the right thing."
Approaching the work from that point of view may also help employers preserve a sense of fairness across an organization, Adam Pressman, partner at Mercer, said in an email, especially if employees "feel they have a voice in designing a flexible work approach that works best for their life situation."
In addition, employers offered new and expanded benefits to fill gaps where they could — and not just for caregivers. Weiner mentioned that EY offers not only backup care for parents, but also resources for pet owners, help for individuals after medical procedures and the ability to purchase equipment for home offices to ensure all of the organization's employees have the assistance they need during this time.
The loss of the "softer side of culture," as Kitani called it, impacts everyone, top to bottom, and may contribute to feelings of isolation.
"A lot of that stuff happens in informal ways," Kitani said, including through chats before and after meetings and in common areas. Soft culture was hard to execute at an organizational level before, Kitani said, and the remote-nature of many kinds of work during the pandemic only makes it more difficult.
Teams have opted to use Zoom and other virtual forums to bring people together, Pressman said, but managers may "forget to be intentional about connecting with the individuals on their team, listening to them and working to understand and empathize with their work and life situation."
That individual-level management is key during what could be a mental health crisis; sometimes the only sign someone is struggling is a sudden dip or change in work performance, Weiner said. Managers should ask how employees are doing beyond the performance problem alone — and that may be enabled via new forms of "watercooler chat."
"You didn't want to spend five to 10 minutes talking about non-work stuff in a meeting, but now that stuff is lost," Kitani said. Now that time may be one of the few times a manager can catch up with direct reports and catch potential issues — just one of a few changes brought about by this new world of work.
Keep fairness top of mind
To ensure everyone feels heard, Pressman said employees should have some choice regarding their work situation. But employers will need to map out boundaries regarding how far those choices reach — be it location, hours worked or otherwise.
"Mapping out these boundaries while incorporating employee desires and preferences will be an important component of having an approach that is viewed as fair and equitable," Pressman said. Some of the workforce also may not be able to work remotely. Flexibility for an on-site job may require an employer to allow more choice regarding when and how the work gets done, Pressman added.
Fairness may also encompass an expansion of benefits to all employees rather than a certain subset. For example, EY expanded a partial paid leave program that was originally intended for individuals dealing with family matters to be available for any personal leave, Weiner said; "If there's an individual who needs to take some time, they don't need to explain why."
And now, more than ever, managers may need to "be thoughtful about the softer sides" of culture, Kitani said. When impersonal communication, like email, are the only options for some workers, training managers to be mindful can go a long way in preserving an organization's cohesive culture.