Home Articles A corporate psychologist weighs in on working from home and COVID-19

A corporate psychologist weighs in on working from home and COVID-19

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If one of your employees is diagnosed with coronavirus, what is the best way to inform other employees to avoid panic? 

With a heightened sense of fear amongst the population, it is critical to provide fast and clear communication to help establish the facts of your situation. Employees are looking towards their leaders for behavioural guidance, so staying calm and objective is necessary. 

If an employee notifies you that they have tested positive for COVID 19, through the health system they will be looked after in hospital. However make sure you understand the procedures they have already followed and directed by their local government health unit.

Following this, identify their work colleagues who they have been in close contact with and ask them to work from home and monitor their health for 14 days.

For the broader team, inform them of the situation through whatever communication tools you would normally use e.g. email, messaging tools, apps etc. It is important to reiterate the current policies you have in place for working from home.

Provide information sheets and direction to the government health website that guides people on what to do. The essential part is getting the information out quickly and providing clear direction for how people can continue working.

More on managing employees in the coronavirus pandemic

How can employers help support the mental wellbeing of their staff in a time like this? 

It is important to recognise that everyone is going through a collective unusual circumstance, with worry about their personal situation and what the future will hold. For example: Who can look after their children if schools close? Will their job be around? How will they buy food/essentials when there is panic buying? 

To support your staff, this is a time to be truly flexible with work arrangements and provide the means to continue being as effective as possible given the circumstances.

For office bound jobs, this might mean moving to online video communications so everyone can work from home. For all the jobs that require physical labour or face to face contact (e.g. service, retail, construction industries), providing clarity on work expectations is essential. The clearer the information on what to do and the changes employees are allowed to make, the less confusion in the workplace.

You can also inform your staff that they can get support from a psychologist if they have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If that doesn’t exist the government provides assistance to all Australians through its Mental Healthcare Plan initiative.

How can you keep staff motivated/maintain staff morale when there is so much uncertainty for the coming weeks? 

There are things you can control and other things you can’t. The external environmental factors are not controllable and how they will affect people’s mindset will vary. There is global widespread fear and you shouldn’t pretend this doesn’t exist or that your business circumstances are the same.

Set realistic goals of what is achievable for your business over the next few months, define the delivery, and have processes/policies in place that enable your staff to work as flexibly as possible. Giving employees options to help with their personal life will keep them engaged with their work.

What are some team bonding activities that can be done virtually?

Set-up more virtual environments to keep team meetings flowing and communication open. You’ll still need to set clear guidelines with the use of any communication mediums, but always  ensure there are ways for people to connect. This means allowing people to also just be able to have just social chats and ‘downtime’, as this will help continue with the relationship building and bonding that is essential for any team.

If the business is affected negatively/performing badly as a result of the pandemic, how can you encourage positivity?

Be honest and open about what is going on, but don’t react to unknowns. Deal with what you have in front of you by setting short term goals. Change and adapt quickly, don’t keep doing the same thing hoping things will change.

COVID 19 is going to be around for sometime yet and the lagging effects on the economy will be felt for months to come. Communicate to the business any changes in the strategic plans and what opportunities there might be.

And now, some advice for employees working from home

How do you ensure you are communicating effectively with your colleagues and still checking in with the boss to show you are working even though they can’t see you?

Working from home is like having a long distance relationship with your employer. The rules of engagement and communication are different. 

Upfront it is important that you have a clear understanding of what the working hours are and what is expected from you during this time. You need to be much more transparent than usual and make sure you set up regular calls to provide updates to your employer. These updates should include what you are working on, any barriers you are currently facing, and what support you need from your boss/colleagues. 

It might feel like you are over communicating at the start, but by doing this you will provide a clear line of sight. Part of this is to ensure you set short-term goals and establish clear weekly deliverables. No one likes to be micromanaged, therefore it is about providing transparency around the tasks that need to get done. Then updating at appropriate points what has been achieved via whatever communication tool preferred – phone, email, online docs. 

Utilise communication tools and apps that are effective for remote working. Many of these show if you are online or communicate to a colleague that you have stepped away for a period of time from the computer. It is always good to use video or conference calls so there is still a certain element of togetherness and connectedness in the team. When you are able to see and hear people, you can connect on a deeper level, even when working from home.

How can you stay focussed when working virtually?

To stay focused when working at home you need to create a dedicated work space that is not distracting. For example, remove all non-work items and devices from this workspace. Once you have this, develop a daily work plan that includes writing a to-do list and a strict schedule on when you will be working or taking breaks. 

It’s important to make a clear separation between work and personal life. Plan for personal activities around your work arrangement and expectation of working hours.

How can you keep spirits up among your team when working virtually?

It is important that you set up regular catch-ups / virtual calls with your team. This can be either the first thing in the morning or at the end of the day (generally referred to as “Stand-ups”). By doing this, the team environment can be maintained by everyone sharing what they are working on and what’s coming up tomorrow. It is also important to celebrate successes and give recognition for jobs well done.

More broadly, there are things you can control and other things you can’t. The external environmental factors are not controllable and how they will affect people’s mindset will vary. There is global widespread fear and you shouldn’t pretend this doesn’t exist or that your business circumstances are the same.

Set realistic goals of what is achievable for your business / teams over the next few months, define the delivery, and have processes/policies in place that enable your staff to work as flexibly as possible. By providing clear guidance of what is expected it will keep your team focused and committed to delivery.

How can you still feel professional and stay productive when working from a home set-up?

Get ready as you would for work. People are creatures of habit – so try and maintain as many good work habits that you can as it will ensure you stay focused. You don’t need to be in formal work attire, but it’s important to get changed out of night clothes. You should be prepared as if someone is going to knock on your door as this will set you up for the day.

Make sure you are planned and aware of all your commitments for the day. Keep with set meeting times and dial in early. If you have kids or people in your home whilst you are working, try and locate yourself in a room where you aren’t interrupted. If that is not possible, wear a head-set to take calls and not be distracted with external noise.

How can you stay feeling connected with the broader team?

Establishing and getting employees used to online communication tools e.g. skype, slack, google hangouts, available is worthwhile. Aligning everyone on the same communication tools will help with team cohesion.

While in-person communication might not be possible the next best thing is video conferencing. It is important, and good manners, to turn on your camera during video conference calls as it will ensure a certain level of connectedness between team members.

When you are able to see and hear people you can connect on a deeper level, even when working from home. In fact, research suggests that we deduce feelings, attitudes, and beliefs about what someone says not by the actual words spoken, but by the speaker’s body language and tone of voice.

The non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent – ie. if words and body language disagree, one tends to believe the body language. 

There should be leeway for casual chats just like if you were in the office. Designated virtual coffee catch-ups or virtual lunches, might sound weird but they still work. Everyone has a laugh, lightens the mood and people still get to connect.”

Rudy Crous is a corporate psychologist and the CEO and co-founder of Shortlyster, a HR tech platform that matches organisations and candidates together for overall job, team and culture fit.

Rudy Crous is a corporate psychologist and the CEO and co-founder of Shortlyster (a HR tech platform that matches organisations and candidates together for overall job, team and culture fit).
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