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Supporting Staff during Uncertain Times

May 27, 2020 • Keith McLemore

Supporting Staff during Uncertain Times

During these uncertain times, HR can be proactive and take steps to support staff returning to work after workplace and school closures.

Workplaces will undoubtably look different when staff return to work and into the coming school year. With the likely prospect of some combination of intersessional school calendars, longer holiday breaks, and teleworking, HR will be pushed into new territory. Proactively developing strategies to manage teleworking and employee mental health will help HR successfully navigate these uncharted waters.

Teleworking

In March, when workplaces and schools closed, an HRX post addressed HR considerations for remote employees. Now that employers have moved beyond the logistics of the new format, the focus should shift to making teleworking easier for employees and ensuring they have the support and tools to be productive.

Collaboration

Providing a means to collaborate is essential to a positive work experience and feeling connected to coworkers. Platforms like Google Docs and Teams allow users to edit and update documents simultaneously from virtually anywhere. This sharing affords transparency and encourages participation. Devising a set of best practices to provide guidelines for expected behavior is also a good idea so collaborators know how quickly to respond to messages and expectations regarding deadlines. 

Face-to-face contact

Email and instant messaging are notorious for being tone-deaf as they lack the non-verbal cues and empathy of face-to-face communication. While communicating verbally and visually via mobile devices with friends and family has become the norm, it is still a new frontier in some workplaces. Front line supervisors and team leads can reap the same benefits using a video chat platform to humanize the remote experience for their employees. If used wisely, the quality of employee output will likely improve along with accountability. 

Equipment and software

Identifying equipment and software needs for remote workers is crucial, and purchasing additional hardware may be necessary. Remote employees may have a short list of items they feel will help them better perform their duties from home. A determination will have to be made regarding what, if anything, will be reimbursable. These items should be reflected in your telework policy (see below) with clear instructions. Keep in mind that while the Department of Labor (DOL) doesn’t directly address whether employees must be reimbursed for home expenses used in telework, employers can’t require nonexempt employees to pay for business expenses if those expenses reduce their earnings below minimum wage. In a similar vein, employees who need devices as an accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) should not have to pay for them.

Employers will have to decide if employees can use personal devices for business purposes. It also may be necessary to decide what levels of access employees will have to networks and databases. Working remotely brings risks. Employees will need security training and installation of district security software.

With so many people working remotely, it’s especially important to provide employees with easy access to technical assistance. The designation of a point of contact within the IT department will help teleworkers get the assistance they need in a timely fashion. HR should ensure employees know who to contact as well as provide tip sheets and references for employees to use to solve technology issues as they arise.

Telework expectations

Developing and communicating with employees telecommuting expectations and procedures creates a framework to hold everyone accountable and maintain peak performance. Procedures commonly cover topics including:

  • Eligibility
  • Equipment and cybersecurity
  • Home office equipment reimbursement
  • Expectations of work hours
  • Communication methods

Supervisors should remind employees about the need to abide by not only telework requirements but existing policies, as well. Take care to ensure employees are treated consistently to avoid discrimination claims. Additionally, be aware of the challenges and risks associated with nonexempt teleworkers and overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Nonexempt employees should accurately track hours worked, and overtime should be approved in advance.

Regular check-ins

While an abundant body of research points to remote workers being more effective and engaged, individual performance can vary. Conducting check-ins facilitates accountability. Setting up virtual meetings or calls at regular intervals creates expectations with implied consequences for failure to meet them. The key is getting employee feedback on what communication style works best for them. Be careful not to overdo it, though, as levels of mistrust can rise uniformly with the frequency of check-ins.

Mental health

After living in the shadow of a global pandemic for several months, most everyone is aware of the primary factors to consider for maintaining our physical health. The effect on employees’ mental health, on the other hand, isn’t so well-known. With rising levels of anxiety, fear, and unrest, HR must also formulate strategies to reduce the negative impacts on employee mental health as much as possible.

Communication 

Before addressing business strategy with staff, it’s a good idea to first acknowledge that employee safety and health is the top priority. For supervisors not living with school-age children or those at a higher risk of severe illness, it may be easy to forget that everyone’s situation is different. Ensuring a uniform message is delivered across all levels of management will help maintain morale and put employees with unique situations at ease. Weekly virtual meetings are also a great way to keep the communication channels open. Front-line supervisors should be given instructions on best practices for the meetings. For instance, supervisors should:

  • Ask how employees (and their families) are doing and feeling.
  • Make sure employees feel heard and understood.
  • Connect employees with resources for self-care, including mental and physical health breaks.
  • Ensure staff can access food and other essentials.
  • Encourage open communication.

Of these, open communication is especially important so employees can voice concerns related to the pandemic. Now is a great time to remind employees of the availability of your employee assistance program (EAP) or other resources to provide additional support. EAPs typically offer counseling sessions over the phone at no cost.

On-site workers 

Most education entities currently have at least a small percentage of essential employees physically coming into the workplace and will likely see increased numbers over the summer. Support should be given in the form of publicizing cleaning procedures and social distancing measures and providing protective gear as needed to alleviate fears of being vulnerable to exposure. Additional information is available in the HRX post, Return-to-Work Preparation.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has provided guidance that checking employees’ temperatures is allowed. Enacting the practice at worksites provides demonstrable evidence that the well-being of employees is highly valued. A good rule of thumb is to test everyone that reports to work to avoid claims of discriminatory bias.

Flexibility 

Your employees are likely experiencing additional stress related to their finances or caring for children and/or vulnerable populations but may not voice those concerns. Communicating the availability of (and being open to) options like telework, flex or alternating schedules, virtual meetings, and leave can help reduce stress. It may be necessary to also relax policies and adjust guidelines as needed to remain empathetic to the realities of the new norm. Earnestly making it known that this is a non-judgmental situation will go a long way to laying the groundwork for positive mental health.

Looking ahead

Although not all education jobs translate to telework, getting a plan together early for those that do will provide a framework for success that can be modified as the global situation evolves. As schools begin to reopen at varying levels over the summer and into the coming school year, the mental health of all employees shouldn’t take a back seat to business operations. An empathetic approach by HR to each employee’s unique needs will set the stage for positive outcomes.


Keith McLemore is an HR and compensation consultant at TASB HR Services. Send Keith an email at keith.mclemore@tasb.org.


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Tagged: COVID-19, "Employee performance", "Epidemic Response", HR