How COVID-19 is changing the employee experience
Before COVID-19 became the dominating force in our lives, the boundaries of employee experience were fairly defined. Everything that happened within the office was the organization’s responsibility. Everything that happened outside the office was the employee’s responsibility.
Those artificial barriers came crashing down when the pandemic forced employees around the globe to turn their homes into their offices. Now, there’s no divide between the employee experience and the experience of employees. Managers have to transition from being a leader to being a parent or a partner at a moment’s notice. And there’s no relief from work-life or home-life because they’ve become one and the same.
Unfortunately, most companies are still struggling to navigate this sudden change in the employee experience. HR teams, in particular, are feeling the brunt of this stress as they try to figure out how to take care of their employees with increasingly limited resources. In this article, we’ll highlight ways the employee experience has evolved and provide a framework for HR leaders to manage these changes to the best of their abilities.
How the employee experience has evolved
As the boundaries of the employee experience have blurred, the roles of employers and HR teams have become more ambiguous. While confusing, this isn’t a problem to be ignored.
Now is the time to pay attention to the way employees are being affected by the pandemic in order to come up with a plan of action that makes sense for your own organization - based on existing resources, bandwidth, and company goals.
Below we share some of the key ways that COVID-19 has changed the employee experience.
Home and office life must coexist
Before COVID-19 caused many employees to work from home, life was segmented into two parts: life in the office and life at home. For some people, it was challenging to balance both, but it’s proving to be even more difficult now.
You may be wondering what is the difference between the current experience of people required to work from home during a crisis and one of a typical remote worker? It may be tempting to compare the two, but there’s one key difference, which is that people are being forced to stay home. This has huge implications that even the most practiced remote employees are having a tough time adjust to:
- No childcare. Because schools and childcare facilities are shut down, parents are trying to find ways to establish normalcy for their children at home. This means finding time for homeschooling, providing extra meals, and scouting out safe activities to keep kids mentally and physically stimulated. This doesn’t always mesh well with 9 a.m. Zoom meetings or work days that go past 5 p.m., and it’s forcing working parents to stretch their time (and stress) management abilities. Even when people eventually return to the office, many activities, summer camps, and schools will still remain closed or limited - leaving parents in a similar position with childcare.
- No way to differentiate between personal and professional spaces. Employees usually have the luxury to take breaks from work, whether that’s eating lunch at the sandwich shop down the street or taking a walk with a colleague for fresh air. Now those options are far and few between and employees have limited ways to get relief from their desk or their home.
- No way to find stress relief. Being forced to stay at home also puts a halt on the activities, rituals, or processes people usually turn to for stress relief. After a long day of childcare and work, the option to go to our usual yoga class or our weekly dinner with friends is no longer available. Without a healthy and reliable outlet to turn to, that stress just continues to pile up and weigh heavily on the minds and bodies of your workforce.
As a result of this messy merging of home and work life, employees may find that their productivity and engagement levels are significantly impacted. Or that there’s more confusion around our daily roles and responsibilities - whether it’s as a parent or an employee. This, in turn, can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and even burnout.
Unfortunately, without a way to relieve these symptoms, we’re likely to see an uptick in mental health issues during this time. This is where any employee wellbeing resources your company offers can prove to be incredibly valuable.
People are grieving but have no outlet
Right now, many people are experiencing a rise in complex emotions. These can take the form of anger, sadness, anxiety, and - very commonly - grief. But grief has many causes and doesn’t manifest itself in the same way for everyone. It’s important to consider all the possible reasons why your employees may be grieving at this moment, instead of assuming that everyone’s experiences look the same. This can include reasons such as:
- Having a partner who works in healthcare or in another frontline position
- The loss of a loved one due to the coronavirus
- Layoffs, furloughs, or colleagues leaving
- A loss of normalcy
- Experiencing all the negativity in the news and on social media
The challenging part is that there’s no outlet for this grief - the rituals people once relied on to channel their emotions are not available to them. There’s also limited space for emotional recovery since people feel pressure to be ‘professional’ for work and need to pay their full attention to being a parent or partner when they’re not working. That’s why it’s so critical for leaders to be acknowledging this grief by sharing their own, making it ok to bring these emotions to work, and providing the space employees need to take things at their own pace.
The path forward is uncertain
One of the biggest changes to the employee experience is the uncertainty employees are facing. While feeling some uncertainty at work is completely normal, the number of unknowns has greatly increased as a result of the pandemic. Not knowing the answers to questions about the future of your company or position there may cause a lot of angst, anxiety, and even departures. These are a few questions that may be on the minds of your employees right now:
- Job security. Will I be laid off or furloughed? What happens if my partner loses his or her job?
- Roles and responsibilities. Will my job change? Do I have to continue to take on the extra workload of my teammates who were let go?
- Professional development. Is my company still invested in my growth? Or do I need to find another company to work for?
- Return to work. Will things actually go back to “normal” at the end of this?
What must be stressed here is that it's okay to feel that uncertainty. This is a learning process that many people around the world are going through together. Sharing ideas and being open about how this uncertainty is affecting everyone is the best way to move forward.
The role HR leaders can play
It’s easy to offload all the responsibility of these changes onto HR teams. But the truth is that HR leaders are also feeling lost and overwhelmed - just as other employees are. It’s not fair to put the entire burden on them and it’s the responsibility of every leader in the organization to step up and provide support where they can.
For HR leaders who are struggling with how to respond to these changes in employee experience, we recommend taking a step back and use this framework to guide their actions. Ask yourself:
Is this something we control?
The good news is that there are many things within a company’s control to make the changes in employee experience a bit more bearable. For instance, temporary policy changes, such as instituting flexible working hours or a no-meeting rule before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m, can be implemented. Similarly, if it’s within a company’s budget and ability to do so, consider expanding existing wellness offerings or introducing new initiatives - like a budget for employees to more ergonomically set up their home offices.
Is this something they can support?
Unfortunately, not everything is directly within a company or HR team’s control. If you recently had to make the difficult to lay off several team members and the rest of your workforce is suffering as a result, it’s challenging to make that pain go away. But you can still find ways to be supportive, whether that’s by investing in more trainings with managers to help them have empathetic conversations with people. Or encouraging your employees to freely take mental health days so they’re taking time to recover from being overworked.
Is this something we can refer?
Finally, there are certain things that your company may or may not be able to control but shouldn’t be handled by managers to begin with. Mental health, for example, is an area that managers aren’t trained to handle. These are issues that should be handled by a professional, and your managers should simply serve as the middle person to connect employees to the appropriate resources - not serve as counselors. It’s important to know where to draw the distinction so that your leadership isn’t taking on responsibilities that they don’t need to - after all, they’re human and susceptible to burn out just like the rest of the organization.
Using this framework can help HR leaders figure out what they have the power to do, without becoming overwhelmed by feeling like they have to “fix” everything. Also, while this may seem daunting, remember that this can be an opportunity for teams to get creative and build the future of work. It’s a great time to listen to employees, share ideas, and try new initiatives.
Now is the time to think critically about the questions this new world of work brings. This includes asking: what’s most important to my employees right now? How can we make them feel safe at work once things normalize? Will things ever normalize? These questions are scary but important to start thinking about, even if you don't have the answers right now.