As the COVID-19 outbreak continues, those of us in people functions have a special role to play. It is of course not the same as the very difficult jobs of health care professionals, public servants, and first responders. That’s a different set of requirements all together. It is, however, a vital responsibility with outsized impact on our companies, institutions, non-profits, and communities.
Much has been written lately about the unique nature of our roles. The work of people operations, human resources, internal comms, meeting and events, learning and development, coaching, and employee relations is unique in its ability to touch people and impact their lives. This is abundantly true when lives are so in danger of being disrupted.
In these times, we have a special duty.
I don’t mean our duty to provide clear guidance on remote work policies or to remind colleagues to wash their hands for 20 seconds or to sneeze into a tissue. Nor do I mean our moral obligation to encourage pro-social preparedness, rather than anti-social hoarding. Or to stay home when we might be infected. Or to keep six feet of distance from other people. As vital as all those measures are for ourselves and for the most vulnerable amongst us, we have another imperative.
Humans are social animals. We thrive on relationships. We require engagement.
As isolation becomes a matter of safety and moral duty, we have another countervailing responsibility. We have a responsibility to connect with each other. To continue to foster relationships and engagement, even as our traditional channels of doing so are no longer viable. This is as true at the individual level as it is at the company or institution or community level. Much has been written about the value of community. A robust sense of community saves lives in heat waves, it thwarts terrorism, it enhances economic opportunity. A sense of belonging and shared purpose propels businesses to success. It is vital to personal happiness.
So how do you do that when every meeting’s been cancelled, and every event has been postponed? How do you do that when every employee is either not able to work or is sitting in their own home office alone?
That’s the imperative. And it requires creativity, thoughtfulness, and resourcefulness.
Communicate clearly and deliberately.
We all aim to communicate transparently in situations like this. You should also consider more deliberately how you communicate. There are as many comms plans as there are organizations and what is right for your employee set may vary. Some organizations will already have a plan in place for this situation, many will not.
If you do not already have a comms plan, it can feel like a lot of things to consider. Here’s what I consider the most important to focus on initially:
- Identify your primary source of information and track it. For many, this will be the country or city health department.
- Track the experience of other localities as case studies. For example, we created a timeline for the Washington outbreak and established the time between the initial case and the initial call for social distancing in the county was approximately 5 weeks. This isn’t set in stone, but helps bound the potential timelines for you.
- Understand when you need to communicate directly with all employees and when a traditional comm practices whereby messages are cascaded through managerial hierarchies is more appropriate. There are trade-offs to each, particularly when information is updated as rapidly as seems to be the case.
- Evaluate your employee groups and estimate the different levels of disruption a remote work mandate will cause. Engage the managers in addressing the different needs of those groups in a situation where social distancing is required.
Create new rituals.
Work is more than a set of tasks, it is a collection of daily rituals. As those familiar rituals are disrupted, you as a people ops professional have an outsized role in fostering new ones. Give your managers best practices for remote work. These should include practices like holding a daily morning standup with their team or a regular check in at the end of every day. Encourage them to reach out more often, more informally without a specific agenda or set of to dos.
Enable feedback in every interaction.
In a fully remote environment, you and your managers will no longer have the benefit of nonverbal cues that allow you to read a room. The faster you adjust, the more productive you will be. This a place for technology, and not just video conferencing or simple multiple-choice polls. That’s not a good enough substitute for what you get in a live meeting.
Here is the product plug, but one whose value I believe in and have experienced firsthand. Consider ending each meeting with more than five attendees with an upvote-downvote poll. Nearly every one of ours ends or begins with an open-ended question, “any thoughts, input, or concerns?”
Everyone in attendance – either anonymously or with attribution – types in their thoughts and everyone else is able to upvote the concerns they share. The result is a prioritized list that unlocks conversation and provides an opening for everyone present. I don’t have to read your body language to know you have something to share. I don’t have to single everyone out individually by turn or graciously wrestle the attention from the most vocal person. And as a bonus, no one has to take notes on the conversation. It’s all there.
We get more from work than work. We get social interaction and connection. It will never be a perfect substitute, but there are ways you can foster those coffee talk moments. As a hybrid work force with 40% of our employees working full time remote, we have some ideas that have worked for cultivating community across distance:
- Hold virtual lunches over video conference. Set a calendar invite and make sure video cameras work.
- Do home office “cribs-style” tours. A willing remote worker volunteers to give everyone else a tour of their home office via video chat.
- Play a trivia competition at a happy hour. Again, send a calendar invite and have everyone compete in a trivia contest while sipping on their favorite beverage.
Include your entire work community.
Don’t forget about the people for whom this isn’t just work from home, this is no work at all. If your company hires contractors, ask how they are being compensated during this period. Inquire what is happening to the caterers, to the cleaning staff, to the drivers, to the parking lot attendees, and to the freelance writers and creatives. Insist your company has a plan to take care of them. And point to other companies who have committed to these professionals.
This will pass. With what ultimate impact, we don’t yet know. You can trust, however, that the efforts we make during this time in connection, community, in culture, and in our relationships with each other will pay off. That impact will sustain.