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Staff morale and COVID-19

COVID-19: managing the morale of your staff through the pandemic

Nobody could ever underestimate the humanitarian or economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s something we hear about every hour of every day and it’s extremely sad. But there’s another aspect of this pandemic that has the capacity to fly under the radar: the impact it is having on the wellbeing of staff working from home or other remote locations.

It’s true to say that anyone still in steady employment is fortunate, compared to those who have lost their jobs or had their hours dramatically reduced.

But one of the things we are increasingly helping clients with is the process of communicating with and managing a workforce that is no longer in the one office or building – which can no longer be checked in on through dropping by their desk and asking how they are feeling or taking them for a coffee.

Here are some of the feelings your workforce might have experienced or be experiencing in the current climate.

Novelty – at least for the first few days of working at home. But novelty always wears off, particularly when spouses and children are all confined to the same house.

Resistance – for people who don’t normally take work home, there may well be a sense of intrusion on home life. It’s much harder to switch off when you are always just three steps away from your desk.

Realisation – this pandemic has gone from something a lot of people talked about as a “far off” and obscure threat, to a situation that has at times meant no birthday parties, no holidays, no barbecues and, basically, no going out. The feeling of realisation can hit hard.

Resentment – your staff may well be asking “why is this happening to me?” or “why can’t I get two monitors?” or “why is my boss not making this easier?” These are quite predictable questions in the circumstances.

Anger – hand-in-hand with resentment goes anger. And the questions may become “why is everything that is happening at work making my life worse?” or “why did my spouse lose their job?” or “how can I pay the mortgage?”

Blame – working from home is often pretty hard work. It certainly isn’t the holiday it’s made out to be in the movies, nor have most businesses prepared rigorously for a scenario when it would become the norm. It’s not uncommon for employees to bemoan what they perceive to be a “lack of investment” in technology by their employer or a lack of cohesion and organisation.

Loneliness – more than two million Australians live alone according to 2018 census data and the Australian Institute of Family Studies has predicted that by 2026 lone-person households could outnumber those consisting of nuclear families. Some of your employees will suddenly be all by themselves, without colleagues or housemates to turn and talk to. They will be doing it tough.

Depression – the worst-case scenario is that someone in your team loses someone they love during this pandemic, whether it’s because of COVID-19 or other causes. They may not be able to see their loved one in hospital and they may not be able to attend their funeral. The experience will be extremely distressing for them.

All of the above are quite natural feelings for a workforce to experience. Unfortunately, there isn’t one magic solution that will fix them all.

But there are things business leaders, managers and even fellow team members can do each day that can help minimise negative feelings and make people feel comfortable in home surrounds that probably feel quite unfamiliar from a working perspective.

It starts with attitude. The biggest single thing we can all do right now is show empathy. To understand that everyone is doing it tough and commit to doing the little things that restore some kind of normality to our working lives.

This might mean scheduling regular wellbeing check-in phone calls with your employees or team members. Or even shooting them a text message to ask something as simple as “how are you?” and wish them all the best.

One upside to our modern technological times is that we have suites of software at our disposal that mean we can go some way to approximating the human contact that people are missing away from the workplace. Platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype for Business and Workplace by Facebook have combinations of features like video and audio calls and instant chats that make meaningfully staying in touch from afar easier than it has ever been.

However, all the tools in the world won’t count for much without empathy, understanding and a willingness to think about what it would be like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

These are the attributes that will help our workforce get through COVID-19 as best as it possibly can.

But also keep them firmly in mind for after the pandemic has passed. As hard as it may be right now to think beyond immediate timeframes, we should all still be thinking about how our workplaces can be better in the future.

Ruth Callaghan is Cannings Purple’s Chief Innovation Officer and a crisis communications expert with more than 20 years’ experience in corporate communications and journalism. Contact Ruth

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