The COVID-19 pandemic is quickly changing the way organizations function day to day. Basically overnight, anyone lucky enough to still have a job – from SMB owners themselves to their staff members who are able to work from home – has transitioned to a remote work environment as organizations look for ways to maintain business continuity in the face of adversity.
The change from the office setting to the working-from-home arrangement has come with its fair share of challenges. There are the obvious ones, such as supplying employees with the tools to continue working, whether it be a secure connection or hardware like a laptop. Hopefully, your IT department has gotten your remote team up and running quickly and without too much difficulty.
Then there are challenges that are less straightforward, especially when it comes to the well-being and performance of your remote team. Along with the pressures of continuing to get work done out of the office, chances are that your team is facing considerable stress and anxiety. The pressures of juggling work, home life and a mountain of uncertainty can significantly influence your team members' emotional states, which may have an unexpected impact on the quality of their work and your organization's security.
Stressful times ahead for workers
Under regular circumstances, your team is sharp, professional and diligent. That's why you hired them, after all. Unfortunately, these are not normal days. Unsurprisingly, surveys are showing that stress levels and depression are rising quickly as people become more anxious about the impact of COVID-19.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 701,000 jobs were lost in March, bringing the unemployment rate up to 4.4%. While most of these jobs were in service sectors such as hospitality and retail, the shockwaves of economic uncertainty were felt throughout the country.
A Gallup poll conducted from March 30 to April 2 found that 40% of employers had frozen hiring, while 33% had reduced hours or shifts, and 13% were cutting jobs. The same poll found that 4 in 5 workers stated that the coronavirus was having a negative effect on their workplace.
Combine the economic uncertainty factors and fears of health risks from the pandemic with the need to manage home life – especially with school-aged children in the house – and it's safe to say that your team has a lot on their plates.
Addressing the risks to your organization from employee stress
Beyond your concern for the well-being of your team as friends and colleagues, especially working in the closeness of an SMB team, there is an increased risk that your employees may make mistakes in their work or even unintentionally threaten the security of your organization.
Stress from the outbreak opens us up to all kinds of negative behaviors and effects, including not sleeping enough, poor eating or exercise routines, excessive drug and alcohol use, and other issues that can impact our effectiveness at our jobs.
We can see the effect in errors we make performing tasks that we have done for years. Maybe we are less aware that an email might be a phishing attempt to gain access to our company. During irregular times, we are less likely to be at our best.
Picking up on the signs that your employee may be dealing with more stress than they can handle is an important responsibility for managers. However, it becomes difficult to notice when we lose regular contact with members of our team.
The importance of face-to-face interactions for SMB owners and managers
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19 hit the United States, signs were already showing that additional support was needed. According to a poll conducted by Cigna, some 61% of American workers reported feeling lonely.
Various companies had begun instituting mental health support programs, which have become even more crucial now as organizations look for ways to continue operations while taking care of their teams.
Under normal circumstances, most managers find ways to be in direct, face-to-face contact with their office-based team. With daily standups and weekly meetings (both one-on-one and departmental), there are plenty of structural opportunities for managers to see their team in person. Then there are the less formal encounters, like walking around or running into folks while grabbing a cup of coffee in the break area. Some managers are known to do "walkarounds" in their department, having quick chats with their team without being overly inquisitive.
Experienced managers can pull this off without it being too awkward. The purpose of these face-to face encounters, beyond the productivity benefits associated with being in the same room, is to help managers gauge how an employee is doing.
Does someone look like they are going through a rough time? Has somebody stopped taking care of themselves, or do they look unusually tired? These can be indicators that a manager might need to pay closer attention to how that person is doing.
All of these signs become much harder to pick up on when a manager loses those in-person interactions with their team. In hopes of helping managers provide their employees with the support they need while working from home, we have cobbled together a few tips.
1. Maintain regular team contact.
Organize a daily call with your team, similar to the standup. Give briefings about what is happening with your organization. This is important to not only keep people up to date, but also remind them that they are still part of the bigger team. These daily meetings are also a good opportunity to provide them with clear and honest communication about where the company thinks it is headed. Reducing ambiguity about the future can go a long way in reducing stress levels.
If you feel it necessary, schedule a one-on-one meeting with a team member to replace the informal chats you used to have in the hall.
2. Seek out technologies to remotely monitor their work.
Use solutions to track their work – not because you don't trust them, but because people are under stress and mistakes can happen.
Remote employee monitoring can help you track their work to notice any signs that the employee is struggling. This process may also help to enforce security policies, preventing a stressed-out team member from accidentally violating rules that could harm the company. [For help finding a solution, see our buying guide and reviews for the best employee monitoring software.]
3. Give them some space.
Don't be overly inquisitive. Your people are under enormous pressure right now, so don't add to their stress.
Employees want to feel that you trust them enough not to be constantly looking over their shoulder and checking in. Let them work, and have your software do the quality and security control.
4. Implement the buddy system.
Being part of a team means taking responsibility for one another. Even for a well-intentioned manager, it can be difficult to check in with your team members to the extent that you might feel is necessary. This is especially true as teams scale up.
One solution here is instituting a buddy system where team members can be paired off and tasked with communicating regularly with each other. This is similar to the buddy program used during the onboarding process for new employees. It has the added benefit that employees have the opportunity to speak with a person on the team who can raise a red flag if needed, without requiring them to speak directly to their boss, which might be a deterrent to opening up about their stress.
5. Reinforce standard security practices.
Hold a session to go over tips for how to work securely at home, and let your team know that they can ask questions.
Team members may be used to protections at the office like working on the local network, and being able to communicate face to face if something looks a little phishy. They are probably going to have a lot of people asking them for information over chats, emails or even phone calls, and it might be hard for them to verify that it's not a hacker looking to take advantage of the situation.
Remind them that if someone contacts them and asks them for information or even to transfer funds, they should reach out to the other person on an alternate channel, like a phone call, to verify that the request is legitimate.
6. Stay social.
Encourage employees to maintain social connections with each other, either with Zoom lunches or coffee/water cooler breaks. Being cooped up in our homes, with or without managing stir-crazy kids, we all need a way to blow off some steam and talk to other adults about things other than work or chores.
7. Establish expectations that match reality.
Everyone is feeling pressure to show they bring value to the team, especially with the uncertainty of the future that might bring about layoffs. Setting expectations for what you believe your team is capable of producing here is important, since it can be a real balancing act.
On the one hand, your team needs to produce, but at the same time, they need to know that their management acknowledges the difficulties of being productive under the circumstances and will cut them a reasonable amount of slack.
It is better for you as a manager to get out in front and have this conversation about what is expected, rather than playing catch-up later when your team is losing productivity and totally frazzled.
8. Make yourself available as a resource.
Above all, your employees should feel that you are there for them. If they don't feel like they can come talk to you about their stresses and make reasonable requests to make their current situations more workable, then you have a fair amount of work ahead of you.
Let them know in no uncertain terms that you are there to support them through this period. While you expect them to remain dedicated workers, they have lives outside of their day jobs that have become increasingly complicated. The distinction between work hours and home life has been smudged beyond recognition as they try to balance conflicting parts of their day during the same timeframe. At the end of the day, their duties and obligations to their families will and should win out.
So, how should you as a manager handle the current reality? With grace, of course.
If you have built a qualified team, this is the time to show them that your company was the right organization for them to join. Be that listening ear if they need it, and be prepared to offer flexibility where it is both reasonable and good sense to give it.
A bit of grace now will go a long way, both in retention over the long run and in your team's shorter-term ability to snap back into action when these external stresses die down and we adjust to our new normal.