Caring for your staff in times of stress

The longer the Covid-19 lockdown continues, the more critical staff care will become.

It could be the first time you and your team has separated from each other. Our team typically works across the country anyway with some of us in Auckland, some in Wellington and one in sunny Hawke's Bay. 

Getting used to the new normal in your office can be a challenge. Harvard Business Review says managers must offer encouragement and emotional support, to acknowledge stress, listen to employees' anxieties and concerns, and empathise with any struggles. If a newly remote employee is struggling but not communicating stress or anxiety, ask them how they're doing.

Once you ask the question, be sure to listen carefully to the response, and briefly restate it back to the employee, to ensure that you understood correctly. Let the employee's stress or concerns (rather than your own) be the focus of this conversation.

Here's what you can do to care for your staff:

Establish structured daily check-ins

Whether by audio or video call, email or chat, establish a daily check-in with your team. The contact must be regular and predictable - book it in the diary and try not to shift the meeting. 

Provide different tech options, if you can 

We use Microsoft Teams to video call, audio call and chat. Email alone is insufficient. 

Video calls are the preference and give participants many of the visual cues that they would have if they were face-to-face. It has so many advantages, especially for smaller groups - visual cues allow for increased "mutual knowledge" about coworkers and also help reduce the sense of isolation among teams. Video is also particularly useful for complex or sensitive conversations, as it feels more personal than written or audio-only communication.

Other great technologies our ACE members use are Slack for online chat and Zoom. At home, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are great for group chat and calling. 

If your company doesn't have technology tools already in place, there are inexpensive ways to obtain simple versions of these tools for your team, as a short-term fix. Talk to your manager. 

Establish rules of engagement 

We've heard a lot of ACE members have already implemented rules of engagement at their company. Remote work becomes more efficient and satisfying when managers set expectations for the frequency, means, and ideal timing of communication for their teams. For example, use video conferencing for daily check-in meetings, but chat when something is urgent. Also, if you can, let your employees know the best way and time to reach you during the workday, e.g. "I tend to be more available late in the day for ad hoc phone or video conversations, but if there's an emergency earlier in the day, send me a text." 

We recommend that managers establish these "rules of engagement" with employees as soon as possible, ideally during the first online check-in meeting. While some choices about specific expectations may be better than others, the most crucial factor is that all employees share the same set of expectations for communication.

Provide opportunities for remote social interaction

One of the essential steps a manager can take is to structure ways for employees to interact socially (that is, have informal conversations about non-work topics) while working remotely.

The easiest way to establish some essential social interaction is to leave some time at the beginning of team calls just for non-work items. Other options include virtual pizza parties (in which pizza are delivered to all team members at the time of a videoconference). While this may sound artificial or forced, experienced managers of remote workers (and the workers themselves) report that virtual events help reduce feelings of isolation, promoting a sense of belonging. And how good is pizza! Just don't count on getting any delivered at the moment. 

Offer encouragement and emotional support

Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion suggests employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crises. Effective leaders acknowledge the stress and anxiety employees may be feeling under challenging circumstances, and also provide affirmation of their confidence in their teams. Use phrases like ''we've got this'', or ''this is tough, but we'll get through it''. With this support, employees are more likely to take up the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus.