Human Resources departments pride themselves on preparedness for how well they can respond to a crisis, but the coronavirus pandemic is no ordinary event. To help managers maintain employee performance and engagement, Gartner Inc. has identified six initiatives HR can implement. In a news release, the firm noted that “Organizations need to focus on employees’ emotions related to the coronavirus pandemic to restore productivity and deliver on employee experience.”

Brian Kropp, chief of research for the Gartner HR practice, said most organizations have focused on scenario planning and operational responses to ensure business continuity during the COVID-19 outbreak. “However, these plans often do not address, nor impact, employees’ ability to focus on their work.”

Gartner said the outbreak was leading to employee anxiety, frustration, and burnout. “When left unattended, these feelings can affect employees’ productivity and engagement, leading to poor work quality, errors, and eventually influencing an organization’s ability to survive in these difficult times,” it said.

The six activities Kropp of Gartner identified to help managers at all levels are 1) sensing employees’ need for support 2) promoting dialogue to build understanding 3) using objectives to create clarity 4) reinforcing organizational values to reduce the likelihood of misconduct 5) tailoring recognition to acknowledge employee efforts 6) driving engagement via innovation.

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In a Q&A with TechRepublic, Kropp drilled down into how the recommendations came about and how best to implement them in a rapidly changing workplace.

Mickey Meece: Did organizations reach out to Gartner to seek guidance in this area? Are there examples of issues HR teams are trying to address during this crisis?

Brian Kropp: Yes. There are a whole set of issues that HR is struggling with right now. The first is, how do you support the health and safety of your employees during this time? They have also been focusing on the question of how do you enable your employees to work remotely in a productive way? And most recently, what do you do about compensation when your employees are not able to come into work? Then, from some of the clients we work with in Asia, they are asking the question of how do you determine if it is OK for employees to come back to work post-coronavirus?

Mickey Meece: Without a doubt, emotions are fraught during these uncertain times. How can leaders read between the lines of emails, short phone and video conversations, and app chats to determine when an employee might need assistance?

Brian Kropp: Employees are stressed. They are uncertain about what is going to happen in many situations. They are communicating using new tools. This can easily create misunderstanding within the workforce. The best advice that we have for managers is that you need to first trust that your employees are working hard and trying to do the right thing. But also, if you are noticing something that doesn’t seem right, you, as a manager, need to invest in spending time communicating with them one on one. Most employees need additional support right now, and they are expecting their manager to provide it.

Mickey Meece: What is the best way to implement these initiatives?

Brian Kropp: One of the most effective strategies that we have seen from companies is to actually use the screen on their employees’ computers to communicate with them. What they have done is simply change the background image that employees have to remind them of the things that are the most important right now. It is a simple, easy, direct way to connect with your employees.

Mickey Meece: Are these steps only valuable during this crisis? Or will they stick because we have entered a new normal?

Brian Kropp: The world, and the nature of work have fundamentally changed because of COVID-19. We are conducting the largest pilot in the history of the world about changing how people work. Before the outbreak, roughly 5% of the employees that could work remotely full time actually did. When this is all said and done, we will see up to a sixfold increase in the number of employees that work this way. This will create a fundamental change in the nature of work.

Mickey Meece: In what way do you anticipate this pandemic will lead to permanent changes with regard to how to manage remote workers?

Brian Kropp: There is a fundamental decision that managers will need to make about their employees. Do they trust their employees to get work done or do they want to monitor them to make sure they are doing work? Depending on which way a manager decides to go, this will fundamentally frame the relationship between employees and their manager.

Here are the six steps from Gartner to help managers:

Sense employees’ need for support

“Managers need to recognize signs of distress among their people, both directly through conversations and indirectly through observation. To facilitate regular conversations between managers and employees, HR should provide managers with guidance on how best to broach sensitive subjects arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, including alternative work models, job security and prospects, impact to staffing, and tension in the workplace. This guidance can include discussion guides, training, or email reminders with the latest updates on the situation and general principles for how to deal with it.”

Promote dialogue to build understanding

“To ensure communication efforts help, rather than hurt, engagement, managers must have a two-way dialogue with employees. Two-way communication with managers and peers provides employees with the information and perspective they need, while allowing them to express and process negative emotions and improve their feelings of control. HR leaders should help managers create opportunities for two-way dialogues that focus on a realistic picture of both the positive and negative implications of the current COVID-19 outbreak.”

Use objectives to create clarity

“A direct link between individual performance and the achievement of business goals can boost employees’ confidence in the importance of their job even in a challenging business environment. Clear objectives and regular updates on possible changes will help ensure employees maintain focus, energy and a sense of purpose. HR leaders can help managers reassert the link between employees’ work and organizational success by providing visibility into the current organizational goals and translating the organization’s vision into their employees’ context.”

“One of the top engagement drivers for employees is seeing their work contribute to company goals,” Kropp said. “Employees who feel confident about the importance of their job to the success of the organization feel less anxious about their job security.”

Reinforce organizational values to reduce the likelihood of misconduct

“Work well-being has the greatest impact on feelings of psychological safety—an unpleasant employee experience can negatively impact psychological safety by up to 35%. To make matters worse, during periods of uncertainty, employee misconduct increases by as much as 33%. Apart from modeling the right behaviors, managers should encourage whistleblowers to call out unethical behaviors, remind staff of the channels for reporting misconduct, and highlight punitive measures for noncompliance.”

Tailor recognition to acknowledge employee efforts

“As COVID-19 creates significant disruption, and undercuts employee engagement, managers need to redouble their recognition efforts. Effective recognition not only motivates the recipient but can serve as a strong signal to other employees of behaviors they should emulate. Recognition can take many forms other than monetary rewards — public acknowledgment, tokens of appreciation, development opportunities and low-cost perks. For organizations facing a slowdown in business, managers can take this opportunity to provide development opportunities to employees who normally do not have capacity. This reinforces the organization’s commitment to the long-term success of the employee.”

Drive engagement via innovation

“While managers and employees may understandably become more risk-averse in this uncertain environment, it is these times of change and disruption that innovation and risk-taking become even more important for employee engagement and organizational success. The disengaging effect of constraints on innovation and risk-taking are particularly severe for high-potential (HIPO) employees who tend to have a stronger desire for these types of opportunities. Even when the organization has constraints on new investments, managers can emphasize the need and provide opportunities for incremental innovation or process improvements. This can be particularly meaningful if it addresses a challenge the team or organization is facing related to process disruptions or business impact.”

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