Blog Post

6 Ways to Support Your Workforce Through Times of Uncertainty

Kimberly Cassady

Chief Talent Officer, Cornerstone

Be it a natural disaster or global health concerns, your organization is bound to encounter some unexpected external circumstances. It’s not always easy to keep your business running smoothly during these trying times—especially when crises are dominating headlines—but it’s up to HR to ensure employees remain motivated and reassured.

So what can you do to help reassure your people, when so often they look to you for knowledge, advice and expertise on such topics? Here are a few ways to support your workforce during times of uncertainty.

1. Plan for Specific Scenarios Before They Happen

HR professionals can’t predict the future but they can have a plan ready to go when employees and managers look to them for answers on how to navigate these difficult situations.

Contingency planning is especially important in the world of work. The economy, the political climate and several other factors impact how your business operates. Take an economic downturn, for instance. If the Dow were to drop significantly, it would likely require your organization to make staffing changes. Meanwhile, policy changes like new legislation around the gig economy and data privacy can impact employees’ day-to-day routines, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on what’s going on outside the office so that you can better prepare your workforce.

Contingency planning also means preparing for unlikely and potentially frightening events, like natural disasters and widespread illnesses. In the case of the former, it may be worth conducting training that helps workers know what to do if, say, an earthquake hits or tornado strikes (e.g., how to evacuate, where to seek shelter, etc.). You might also take proactive measures to purchase office rental insurance or move all paper files onto the cloud. Meanwhile, for health-specific cases, contingency plans might include rethinking how your business operates if employees need to work remotely for an extended period of time to limit risks. Conducting a "trial run" of sorts can ensure employees have the tools they need to work from home effectively. That way, if and when the time comes when they must avoid going into the office, they are prepared to continue working effectively from home. It will also be important to develop a plan for these employees who need to quarantine themselves. Brainstorm ways to keep them feeling engaged in their work and included on the team.

2. Communicate with Workers Early and Often

As employee expectations continue to change, organizations are placing increased emphasis on transparency. Many companies are sharing information that was once considered confidential with their employees, from business financials to data around diversity and inclusion. Communicating with transparency shows employees you value them and want to keep them updated on what’s happening across the organization.

Transparent communication is especially important when dealing with unforeseen circumstances because it empowers organizations to build trust and gain respect from employees. Telling your staff how and why you’re making certain decisions or taking specific actions will give them peace of mind that HR is there to protect them—whatever the circumstances may be. Prepare ahead of time so you are not scrambling when everyone is looking to you for answers. Most of what you would need to communicate can be preplanned so that you are only making minor adjustments when you need to act.

Take the current global health scare: The probability that you will have not just one, but multiple employees contract the coronavirus seems inevitable based on current information available. Have you thought about what you plan to say to them, their colleague, an entire office or even your customers? Conversely, have you trained your employees on what to communicate or how to act when they are faced with a customer who may be coughing and sneezing or showing other signs of flu symptoms in your stores? Protecting your employees and your brand require thoughtful consideration, planning, and training.

But it’s not just HR that must communicate with employees—it’s also imperative that managers and leads are comfortable speaking with their teams about these issues. Train managers on how they can effectively communicate these various scenarios to employees.

In the event that a member of your company is diagnosed with the virus, be prepared to communicate this information truthfully and sensitively to your staff without shaming these individuals. When they return to work, pay attention to how they are reacclimating and make sure their colleagues treat them with respect.

3. Lead by Example

HR leaders and C-level executives set the tone for the company from the top down. For organizations to succeed, senior leaders need to practice what they preach. Executives who fail to lead by example will leave workers confused about how they should act.

For example, if you advise staff to put their health first by avoiding unnecessary business travel, but then ignore your own advice by boarding a plane across the country for a conference a few days later, you will likely send a mixed message.

When leaders model appropriate behaviors, their employees know exactly what's expected of them. This allows them to focus on their work rather than spending time and energy second-guessing company policies.

4. Allow for More Flexibility

There has been a growing trend towards flexible work schedules over the last decade. This benefit not only helps employees successfully manage their work-life balance, from cutting down commute times to ensuring working parents can pick their kids up from school, it also provides employees with the support they need during times of uncertainty.

For example, allowing employees to work from home or encouraging them to take time off if they aren’t feeling well gives them an opportunity to recover and come back feeling refreshed and well-rested. Offering paid sick leave enhances productivity and reduces turnover. It’s also proven to slow the spread of disease. And during times of crisis, employers shouldn’t shy away from strictly enforcing rules around coming into the office. If someone is exhibiting signs of a cold, encourage them to work from home or even take time off to get better. If your sick policy is not robust enough to account for current health scare, or lead employees feel they have to come to work because of lack of pay or fear of disciplinary action, it’s time to revisit your practice—even if only on a temporary basis.

Consider scenarios where employees may be uncomfortable working in close proximity to their colleagues who have traveled, even domestically, or attended conferences, concerts or other large gatherings of people. Allowing fearful employees to work from home will help them to be more productive and focus on their surroundings.

But beyond offering location flexibility and paid sick time, organizations must actually foster a culture that empowers employees to work from anywhere in the event that the office closes for an extended period of time. Make sure every employee is reachable via multiple modes of communication, including phone, email and chat. Some organizations might even invest in portable technology or implement remote working policies that provide clarity and empower employees to act. Most importantly, employees must understand that they won't be penalized for working from home.

5. Offer Learning Courses on Relevant Topics

Of course, uncertain circumstances often require employees to make some adjustments to their day-to-day schedules, and it’s up to HR to provide them with the tools they need to carry on with their regular tasks. Learning and development programs that are accessible from anywhere can give employees the guidance they need to continue to thrive on the job.

For example, if your organization has adopted a more flexible work from home policy, a learning course on how to stay productive when working remotely can help employees manage their tasks and stay engaged. Meanwhile, online courses about stress management and mindfulness can help employees navigate worrisome situations—while simultaneously equipping them with important soft skills for the future of work.

6. Readjust Your Goals

In times like these, it’s important to understand that change is inevitable. Instead of attempting to minimize issues that are beyond your control, embrace these challenges by adjusting your organizational goals accordingly. Encourage employees and managers to be adaptable and be there to support and guide them along the way. Be sure to also apply these adjustments to other stakeholders, such as customers or suppliers. For example, be open to rescheduling client meetings where travel is required. Consider hosting purposeful and engaging virtual meetings instead. And if your organization is planning to attend a large conference, or is hosting its own, be realistic about your sales, marketing and client expectations given that some people—including your own employees— may not want to travel.

Making these adjustments isn’t always easy—and it might take some time. But by providing the necessary resources and support across your organization, employees will be able to navigate whatever changes may come their way.

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