The Endemic Coronavirus Workplace

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An American Printer Commentary 
By Andy & Julie Plata 

Anybody in this era who tells you they know the future is lying. Even so, more and more health experts think that COVID-19 is here to stay. Some scientists predict that we will be dealing with the novel coronavirus for decades.

Just when we got used to the word “pandemic,” the Washington Post predicts that soon we’ll be using a new word. That term is “endemic.” It’s how doctors describe a disease that’s always going around like measles, HIV or chickenpox.

Shrewd business owners across the country are taking a proactive approach to the gradual reopening that’s now underway.  They know from experience that trying times often give us the chance to make improvements we’ve kept on hold in the past.

Many of the Challenges Will Be on the People Side

Many of the major challenges will be on the people side of businesses. Companies’ cultures and human resource practices will need to adapt.

For many organizations, that’s a good thing. The weeks ahead may offer you the chance to look at your relationship with your workforce. You can probably find ways to make it even better than it was before the outbreak.

We’ve all seen that the two main things that employees are dealing with under the quarantine are fear and uncertainty. Getting back to work is helping. Still, empathy is going to become a much bigger priority in every manager’s skill set.

An article from the World Economic Forum explains that empathy means shifting away from the old school “direction and control” mentality. Instead, leaders will have to rely on trust.

The phrase “social distancing” is everywhere these days, but “physical distancing” is a better term. After all, many co-workers feel closer socially than ever before. Just routinely seeing the interiors of each other’s homes adds a personal touch to conversations.

That added warmth leads to a heightened concern for one another’s welfare. We see that as companies reconsider ways to enhance their employees’ personal well-being.

That means that managers who’ve been patting sick employees on the back for soldiering into work need to rethink their “work ethic.” That’s an important part of our shift from control to trust.

Actively Encourage Sick Employees to Stay Home

An OSHA guidance document calls for employers to “actively encourage sick employees to stay home.” Although the curve has flattened for a while, infection rates in many areas are still rising, and we need to contain the spread.

Unfortunately, every manager has had to deal with staff who abuse sick time. Even so, creating a work environment where genuinely ill employees feel a duty to drag themselves into the workplace isn’t the answer to those problems.

OSHA has more guidance. They call on companies to stop demanding doctor’s notes for sick days, at least for workers with respiratory symptoms.

Instead, we need to focus on the individual with compassionate counselling and get to the heart of their issues. Sometimes companies set up blanket attendance rules to avoid these “courageous conversations.” That won’t work in this new era of trust.

The other major development in employee relations is working from home. Most companies have a core of employees who’ve gone the extra mile during the pandemic.

They’ve managed to log in from home and get critical work done. Those activities were workarounds. Companies fell back on them to cope with restrictions that kept staff out of the office.

The concept of working from home has been around since the 80s. Still, many businesses have found that it isn’t feasible for sound business reasons.

In other cases, this lack of acceptance is another form of the control mindset. Embracing a remote relationship with your information workers requires a new attitude.

Many business leaders have taken that leap. The New York Times quotes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as saying, “It’s clear that Covid has changed a lot about our lives, and that certainly includes the way that most of us work. Coming out of this period, I expect that remote work is going to be a growing trend as well.”

Facebook now plans to allow its employees to work remotely even after the quarantine restrictions end. Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, has made the same decision.

Silicon Valley companies have traditionally encouraged employees to spend long hours collaborating on their secluded campuses. They’ve provided everything from meals to haircuts to dry cleaning free on campus.

They fund these things to keep all their employees together in one place. This is a profound culture shift for them.

However, not all big tech companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Google is allowing its employees to work from home for the rest of 2020, but it hasn’t said anything about making a permanent change.

Lobbying to Make Working from Home the Norm

Some of your employees have now had the experience of working remotely, and they’re hearing about other companies doing it in the news. Those who have enjoyed the experience will be lobbying you to make it the norm. In many cases, they’ll have a point.

The Harvard Business Review provides a well thought out summary of what a working from home business culture entails.

The most common drawbacks are:

  • Isolation
  • Lack of Supervision
  • Lack of Information Access
  • Distractions

You can mitigate these drawbacks by planning in advance. Start off by scheduling regular check-ins. Many supervisors of remote workers have a brief, daily one-on-one call with each employee. Others prefer a group check-in because their employees work closely together.

Companies also need to leverage the advantages of the wide range of available communication tools. Don’t just rely on the phone or email. Video conferencing can have far more impact. Most of the current generation of online collaboration tools are affordable and easy to set up.

Collaboration tools work best when staff know when and how to use each of them. Provide guidelines and do some coaching. What kind of meeting works best for audio and video conferences? When is chat more efficient? When will we document our meetings and conversations? When and how should they be recorded and archived.

To relieve the sense of isolation and maintain a sense of belonging, consciously plan for video conference time that’s just for fun. There can be an icebreaking game to begin group check-ins.

Plan for Videoconferencing Time That’s Just for Fun

You can deliver a birthday present to an employee and have staff sign in to sing them Happy Birthday. Another popular gesture is to deliver a pizza to each employee’s home. Then you can have everyone sign on for a virtual pizza party. You should discourage shop talk during these social occasions.

Finally, the Harvard Business Review article talks about offering emotional support. That recommendation brings us full circle. We started out by talking about empathy. We’ll all have to be willing to give and receive a lot of that when overcoming the adversity that still lies ahead.

Like your company, our OutputLinks Group team is learning more about this new normal every day. In future articles, we will be sharing what we have learned through our own experiences and from readers, like you, sharing their experiences with us. We hope this forum can help you find your way in the uncharted territory that lies ahead for all of us. Communication is key.

Empowering the print message for the digital age, 
Andy & Julie Plata 
Co-CEOs, American Printer, and the OutputLinks Communications Group




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