Managing Employees as COVID-19 Settles in for Winter

November 18, 2020

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With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise and colder weather in much of the country pushing more activities indoors, U.S. employers may not be rushing to recall employees who have been working from home back into the workplace. But whether maintaining the status quo or making changes to work arrangements, employers will benefit from considering the following guidance as the colder months pose new challenges for employers and employees alike.

1. Ask for employee input.

Much has happened since COVID-19 began disrupting the way we live and work in the spring. If a change in working arrangements is on the horizon for your organization, socialize the plan or plan options with your employees, as their opinions on working in proximity to one another, customers or business partners may have evolved as well. Whether you conduct a survey or speak with workers directly, take this opportunity to hear what’s on their minds and give them a voice, which can establish trust and build rapport. Ask about their preferences and biggest concerns, their thoughts on timing or particular approaches you are considering, ideas they have to improve the process and what might be keeping them up at night.

2. Examine your time-off policy.

Your employees may be sitting on more unused vacation days than typical for this time of year, which could disrupt your business at the end of the year if everyone takes time off for the holidays. Placing limitations on the use of vacation days to maintain business continuity may be necessary for the health of your business, but it is likely to be an unpopular decision and will require smart communications. If you don’t typically allow employees to roll unused days over to the following year but decide to do that this year, determine – and communicate – now whether that will become a permanent benefit or will be a one-time occurrence. Not setting those expectations now has potential to create an employee satisfaction/engagement challenge next year if that benefit later is withdrawn.

3. Think about the holidays.

How employees spend their time away from work could present challenges for organizations with employees working onsite. With the approaching holidays, which typically see families and friends gathering in person, consider a communication from your CEO encouraging employees to stay safe while enjoying their deserved time off. If your organization intends to ask employees about their holiday activities or screen them differently upon their return, communicate that ahead of time.

4. Highlight open enrollment.

If your annual enrollment window for 2021 employee benefits remains open, point out the cost-saving potential of health saving accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs) in your benefits communications. With reported virus cases increasing every day, more and more workers will be facing increased medical bills, and these benefits can help offset expenses and ease concerns. Additionally, with more Americans out of work now than a year ago, more people may need to provide coverage for their significant others or dependents for the first time. This may call for a more careful review of benefits plan options than usual to ensure a comprehensive understanding of what is covered and what is not. If your organization hosts a benefits fair in partnership with your benefits administrator, encourage the administrator to underscore these points and offer related guidance for your employees.

5. Continue promoting mental health and wellness.

COVID-19 has impacted the health and wellbeing of people everywhere, and not just among those who have tested positive for the virus. Its indirect effects – including financial uncertainty, lack of interpersonal contact, child and senior care challenges – have caused significant distress among millions of people. The holidays, which are a stressful time for many people, are likely to exacerbate the situation, as will the lack of social connection for some employees living and working alone at home during the colder months. This makes it all the more important for employers to support the mental health of their workers. Continue to promote the services offered by your EAP and other health and wellness benefits, and encourage managers to check in on employees and offer them support.

6. Evaluate your performance management process.

If you didn’t adjust your performance management process this year to accommodate for pandemic impacts, consider whether you need to do so for the next review period to ensure employees have an equitable review experience. Take a look at your performance review framework, including timing and the evaluation criteria used in your materials, both for employees and managers. Pay close attention to requirements out of sync with other policy updates you have made, such as changes in attendance or time-off policies. If you make changes to your performance review framework or guidance, consider a webinar or other communications to highlight those changes to your people.

7. Maintain leader presence.

Even though we are several months into the pandemic, the need for senior leaders to stay visible remains just as imperative today as ever. If your leaders have not been communicating with employees on an ongoing basis, now is the time to engage. Whether sharing next year’s strategic plan, expressing gratitude for employee efforts around the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday or reflecting on your employees’ achievements in the face of adversity to close out the year, there are plenty of opportunities to connect with workers now … and commit to ongoing communications in the coming year.

8. Build a community.

If you haven’t already, consider using your internal collaboration/social platform to launch a virtual community where employees can share experiences and ideas, and offer support to one another with virtual learning ideas, solutions for safely celebrating the holidays or other topics. To forge stronger connections between leaders and employees, encourage executives to participate and share their own experiences, being careful that their contributions aren’t insensitive to workers who may have had to make bigger sacrifices at the hands of the pandemic.

9. Equip your managers with resources.

Managers are employees’ most trusted source of information. In conjunction with updates from leaders or your corporate communications team, remember to equip managers with resources and additional background to help them amplify communications and provide local context and support for their teams. Empower them to collect employee feedback and share it with company leaders, as appropriate.