4 HR and Workforce Leadership Strategies for COVID-19

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Mar 18, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Editor’s Note: We are bringing back a feature to TLNT. From the Energy Files by Dr. Theresa Welbourne covers the millions of data points on employee energy at work and open-ended comment data on what is making energy increase and decrease. The raw data, the research studies, and case studies make up the Energy Files.

Employers find themselves in a situation similar to where they were on September 11, 2001. The terrorist attack on our country resulted in high levels of fear among citizens. Fear also increases during natural disasters such as fires, earthquakes, or flooding. These events shake the calm that is part of everyday life, and they do so for large groups of people.

We can learn what employees need and how to help them from past success in managing disasters and, to some extent, from other high-change events. Underlying all of these jarring times, one theoretical perspective can help leaders as they think about their roles in helping employees and retaining some sense of business as usual.

Protection motivation theory suggests that leaders must manage two forces: fear and coping. Fear today is coming from the external environment, and there is not much one leader or manager can do to reduce fear. Telling employees things are going to be just fine is seen as insincere as they watch and read the news. Thus, we can try to package information in ways that reduce fear, but the highest impact comes from managing the second part of the equation, and that is coping.

Balancing fear and coping leads to more effective outcomes. Thus, as fear goes up, much more attention needs to be given to increasing employee coping skills. Below are four proven strategies:

1. Record and reflect

Working from home, responding to canceled meetings, building relationships remotely, working with children whose schools have been closed – these are all events that create stress for individuals. However, they also are opportunities to learn and improve one’s skill set. Help employees by practicing reflective learning. Ask them to keep a diary or institute some other type of program for recording activities and reactions. I use an online tool for energy pulsing, and with this, employees track their personal energy at work, log what is positively and negatively affecting their energy and then learn to reflect on their learning to optimize the positive and minimize the negative.

2. Share reflective learning and actions

When employees are focused on reflection and learning, they are in a position to articulate to others what works and what does not work. During some of your check-ins with employees, ask employees to share ways they are coping with specific challenges. It may be ways to make better use of sub-optimal technology, managing their school-age children who are home, or solving work problems differently.

3. Routinize randomization

The business ‘go-to’ solution is often to set up regular meetings, and this will be important for tactical business issues, particularly for employees working at home. However, business meetings often do not help with personal coping. You need something a bit different to engage employees in different conversations and to show you care about their challenges. Emotional connection improves coping. We have found in our research work that randomizing your communications can help. By disrupting routines, employees get a quick zap of energy. If your employees are working remotely, set up quick non-scheduled check-in. Leaders and managers can schedule random energizing moments, but it is important to make them random (from the perspective of the employee). Think about how rewards are distributed. What’s more energizing – the annual percentage increase (that someone is forced to do via policy) or an unexpected gift card or award? Random and short check-ins energize employees, and energizing employees improves the ability to cope with fear-inducing situations.

4. Create grassroots’ connect and learn’ teams

I do a lot of work with employee resource groups (ERGS), also called affinity groups, business resources groups, business networks, and more. These volunteer organizations in many companies are set up to support like-minded people, either who share a demographic identity (e.g., gender, ethnicity), a cause (e.g., environmental awareness, cancer survivor) or other characteristics that bond (e.g., LGBTQ, neurodiversity, veterans, palliative care). The skills that ERG leaders have learned are very relevant when dealing with crisis situations. Their ability to motivate volunteers to innovate, reach out to others and implement changes can come in handy when the workforce is challenged and potentially working remotely. If your organization has ERGs, call on them to help. They can develop and deliver learning programs as well as share news to employees. ERGs also can create interest groups for parts of the employee population. Even if your organization does not have ERGs, you can create teams based on similar interest areas; this could be important if employees are working at home or self-quarantined. Consider activity-based groups such as morning coffee drinkers, exercising at home, or people seeking games for elementary school children groups. They can also be business-focused; create a group to help employees use technology to more effectively work remotely. These groups don’t have to last forever; it can be a 4-week stretch for 15 minutes, three times a week.

The goal of any leader is to balance fear and coping. It will be incredibly hard to manage fear, as the news of the day creates fear and stress for workers. However, leaders can positively affect employee coping skills. We all can walk away from this current challenge and learn; that way, whether we are back to business as usual or facing a new crisis, we will have new skills for our own personal coping and for teaching others.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.