A guide on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) cycle businesses will go through to develop a new way of working and tips on supporting employees who are living with critical illness or caring for a dependent.

How we work has changed — quickly and intensely

The past year has seen a seismic change in how organisations, employees and our nation operate, as we collectively tackle the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Businesses are under increasing strain to keep afloat and employees are concerned about their future. People faced with critical illness have additional anxieties and questions that need to be addressed. Leaders must put measures in place to protect employee wellbeing and promote positive health initiatives to ensure ongoing business success.
The situation is constantly evolving and there is no rule book to pick up and flick through. But what we can agree on is that organisations will need to offer more help and workplace support for their vulnerable employees as well as giving their people the opportunity to adapt to new ways of working.
Your vulnerable teammates may currently be living with a critical illness or have the additional responsibility of caring for someone. Add work, childcare, homeschooling and personal health into the mix and your people will face a range of emotions, challenges and worries.
We can get through this together by ensuring that everyone is looking out for each other in their organisation.
We’ve outlined a few points below to help you prepare for the stages of change that you may find your organisation operating in and minimise the impact on your people.

The business cycle of Coronavirus (COVID 19)

Stage 1: adjusting

Since the first lockdown was announced in March last year, the government has urged all employees who can work remotely to do so. Most organisations have adjusted to this new climate. Many businesses will already have a remote working policy ready to go while others will be working in an entirely new way for the first time. This means they will need time to acclimatise and settle.
The initial phase will largely consist of practical issues. Can everyone access their documents, network drives, emails? Is their connectivity ok? Which communication channels should they use? Once these hiccups have been sorted, employees will start to settle into their new environment.
To make this transition as seamless as possible, employees and management need to be on the same journey and make a collective effort to stay in touch, adapt to new processes and most importantly, feel comfortable raising issues they come across.
Vulnerable employees need to remain at the forefront of your thinking here. Those undergoing medical treatment may need to be on even tighter lockdown than you and other members of your team. They will need to be extra vigilant and steer clear of people outside of their own home. They may be unable to do their own shopping or even go outside to exercise because the risk of serious health issues if they contract the virus is too great. Such rapid change isn’t always easy to cope with and additional emotional support and practical advice may be needed to help employees deal with overwhelming feelings of being out of control.

Stage 2: normalising

During this time businesses will be finding ways to overcome challenges and continuing to nurture their workforce. We foresee this normalisation stage continuing for 4 to 8 weeks.

Your choice or continuation of communications will lay a solid foundation for the upcoming weeks. Pop a regular purely social team catch up in the diary, maybe even daily. Try video calls so you can be in a virtual room together. Making a conscious effort to maintain the chats amongst teams will help decrease feelings of isolation, provide a platform to raise concerns and allow you to keep note of how people are feeling.

For your employees who are going through the strain of treatment or caring for a vulnerable dependant, try to maintain regular contact through 1-2-1s. Ask them how they’re coping. Is there anything you or the rest of the team can do to help ease things? How about having a chat on WhatsApp or sending a text? Or a virtual cup of coffee? It may sound a little awkward but it’s about protecting time for them to discuss any concerns or worries they have about work or their personal life and finding ways to replace informal catch ups that our physical working environment enabled.

Be cautious that you don’t fall into the trap where these new ways become familiar and stagnant as soon as the novelty of a 30 second commute wears off. Ensure contact and support remains consistent during isolation and beyond. Your good intentions need to continue.

Be mindful that an employee may be using their time allowance outside to deliver shopping or medical supplies to another vulnerable person. They may be away from their laptop slightly longer over lunch because they’re checking in or collecting a shopping list. Ensure your employees feel comfortable and assured that you understand that they are coping with more than simply adjusting to WFH.

Most of all, be sensitive and calm – everyone’s emotions are running higher than normal but you can help reduce this by being understanding and accommodating of your peoples’ adapted working schedules.

Stage 3: sustaining

When you feel that you have successfully tackled the stages listed above, look to the future and focus on employee wellbeing, team morale and performance management.

What metrics will you monitor and measure? Which behaviour cues can offer an insight into employee wellbeing? Is someone taking an unusual number of sickness days? Are they still chatty on calls? Communication will continue to be key throughout these stages and into the coming months, especially for keeping morale high. Long-term isolation will have significant implications for wellbeing, especially so for your vulnerable staff.

Ensure your teams continue to feel valued and are kept up to date with the company’s direction and the progress of other teams. COVID news stories will continue to cause anxiety about reduced hours and job losses. Your employees may be wondering if they will have enough work in the coming months.

Transparency is key to keeping staff engaged and motivated. Maintain performance measures, development plans and socialising to allow a positive, discussion-rich culture to thrive. When someone has done a terrific job, don’t forget to let them know or praise them on your next team call. Small acts of encouragement and positivity will give team morale a huge boost.

For those with an illness, be mindful that their treatment may be halted or changed due to the demands currently being placed on our healthcare system. This could be causing immense emotional and physical difficulties. Last-minute medical appointments or medicine collections may be required while the pandemic continues to disrupt our lives. Support their need to take time away if they’re feeling below par or if they need longer to incorporate their treatment plan into their new work routine.

Hospital appointments may be changed to telephone discussions so ensure your employees know that they can fit these around their work schedule. If you need to include them in a meeting, check their work calendar to ensure they haven’t blocked time out for private appointments. Don’t increase their stress levels by asking for an explanation of why they can’t make a particular time.

Remember to review your (by this stage) established approach to employee management and support. Does it still work for your team? Do you need to dial down the number of check-ins? Are people still coping? Do you need to make any changes or adapt what you’re doing? Keeping atop of performance and employee wellbeing will enable you to assess whether the support your team is getting is still relevant.

Your organisation is a community

Everyone needs to work together to get through the coming weeks and months. Being honest and open will help you to maintain employee wellbeing and to thrive as a business. The future might be uncertain, but open communication, transparent policies and looking after the wellbeing of teammates will prove hugely beneficial for your organisation, both now and into the future.

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