Since the government urged the nation to work from home where possible, 54 percent of businesses in the UK have responded, implementing remote working practices for employees to keep their businesses operating.
As our current circumstances change at an unpredictable pace, many businesses have been forced to adjust to these working practices on the fly. Under normal circumstances it typically takes 6 to 12 weeks for a smooth transition from on-site to remote work, considering new management styles and preparing employees with the practical tools they need - in the last month, many UK businesses transitioned in a matter of days.
This leap to remote working means that the role of the manager and leader has shifted, bringing new challenges in continuing to deliver tangible business results, whilst also responding to the unique people management needs presented by a newly remote workforce.
Prior to this current tumultuous time, people spent more hours with their colleagues than their loved ones during the working week. Businesses spend untold amounts on developing attractive corporate cultures and working environments to ensure that employees are happy, inspired and productive while in the workplace, interacting and collaborating with their colleagues.
The challenge facing people managers today is how to sustain this company culture and continue to nurture relationships whilst being apart, in circumstances that are anything but business as usual.
Taking the Lead
The core skill of a great manager is fulfilling business goals through the work of others. This is no mean feat and requires a unique skill set including organisation, decision making and most importantly, empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person and is a skill that most of us use in our daily lives as we navigate our relationships with the people around us.
Research from leadership development consultancy DDI, found that empathy is a "critical driver of overall performance" for management, however, the study also found that only "40% of frontline leaders" were "proficient or strong in empathy."
Now more than ever, it is crucial for managers and leaders to understand and exercise the art of empathy as part of their management approach to connect with their team members and relate to their unique working situations as they negotiate brand new challenges.
Empathy in action
The workplace can be a great leveller. Whatever an employee’s home environment and personal circumstances are, once present in the workplace, they all (theoretically) have equal working conditions and opportunities to thrive. When employees are forced into a ‘working from home’ environment, the balance shifts. Research shows that those in high income jobs are most likely to have been able to adapt well to remote working.
However many employees are now juggling childcare responsibilities, the care of elderly relatives and may not have a suitable working space within their home. This situation is understandably extremely stressful for employees, but with a manager who empathises with their situation, and works together with them to find a solution, this will essentially support both the employee’s needs and the business’s goals.
Tips for handling environment issues empathetically:
Listening: Having empathetic conversations is a critical piece of being a great manager. Employees may not wish to share details of their personal situation, however asking questions, truly listening to the employee and suspending judgment are skills needed to assess the situation as a whole and devise a suitable solution.
Flexibility and alternatives: With full households and unrelenting responsibilities, employees may require alternatives to normal procedure. For example, if the employees' children use the kitchen table for school work during the day, perhaps the best opportunity to sit at the table and focus is after 8pm. Providing alternative arrangements shows respect for the employee’s role and empathy for the less than ideal situation.
2. Mental Health
Working remotely can sometimes make people feel isolated and disconnected from the rest of the company. In our current circumstances, loneliness is becoming a common crisis for society as a whole, and sadly, people who are already isolated and lonely may become more vulnerable than ever. As a people manager, it’s important to learn about the employees that you manage, their living arrangements, family setup and if they are at risk of any health issues.
Employees may feel uncomfortable raising an issue about mental health without context, however, if a manager is actively engaged and aware of the employee’s circumstances, they may be able to identify changes in behaviour or communication as signs of loneliness, anxiety or more complex mental health issues.
Tips for handling mental health issues empathetically:
Communication Styles: It’s difficult to gauge someone’s wellbeing through emails and phone calls alone as the nuances of tone and body language become lost or misunderstood through the airwaves. Take advantage of the abundance of amazing technologies at our fingertips, such as video calling, group chats and instant messaging. Humans are complex and respond uniquely to different types of communication. Learn what works best for your employees, someone may simply need face-to-face interaction to build trust and understanding, whereas someone else may feel more comfortable opening up via whatsapp message.
Prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, company sick policies were generally clear cut and simple to follow, having been tried and tested with various scenarios. However, with the swift pace of developments, managers and employees alike are navigating territory that hasn’t been previously explored.
When handling sensitive health issues, patience and kindness are key to ensuring employees don’t feel uncomfortable reporting issues and accessing the support available. HR teams can help to provide a toolkit for people managers to proactively identify, support and positively impact your employees lives, helping them return to work in good health, mentally and physically.
Tips for handling physical health issues empathetically:
Clear Information: While your employees are so much more than simply their health issue, it’s extremely important to understand the situation as a whole, so that as a manager, you can adapt accordingly, and remove any unnecessary stress. Ensure that contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date and that all employees are aware of the government advice and what you as a manager are able to do to support the employee.
Solution-Orientated: Whether the employees health issue is short or long-term, it’s important to look for solutions, such as alternative arrangements, changes in workload etc, to ensure that the employee continues to feel like a valued member of the team.
The needs of employees are rapidly evolving day-by-day and the sense of belonging and community is at risk of deteriorating with remote working. With this in mind, it has never been more important to be empathetic to employees' unique needs.
While working remotely, staying connected and in tune with employees' working situations is crucial, so managers can anticipate and proactively offer alternative arrangements or simply recognise and accept changes in output or productivity during testing times. It’s inevitable that during times of disruption and change, many people will experience physical or mental health challenges.
Above all else, managers should ensure that effective two-way communication is in action so that employees feel empowered to utilise the support and expertise available to them.
At HappyMaven, we believe that good business and successful teamwork starts with wellbeing. We are here to support HR teams and managers with sustaining a positive and nurturing work environment, whether working together or remotely.