6 ways businesses can best navigate coronavirus workforce disruptions

Apr 07, 2020

Around Canada and the rest of the world, employers and their workforces have been forced to deal with the many disruptions wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Some businesses have had to lay off employees, and others have pivoted their teams to working entirely remotely at a time when broad swaths of the public are spending time isolated at home in an effort to curb the spread of the disease.

While these workforce disruptions can be challenging, there are also ways that middle market businesses can adapt and develop best practices for navigating these uncertain times. Here’s a guide for business leaders:

Understand how to support employees in this new work environment

The shift to working from home is new and turbulent for many workers. Executives are developing new policies around the virtualization of employees, says  Jennifer Busse, the people and organization lead on RSM US’ management consulting team. One business she knows of recently mandated all one-on-one check-ins to take place on a video call, to ensure people stay on task.

But such new policies are not just about productivity, Busse says. Some businesses are encouraging employees to come as they are to video conference calls, whether that means wearing workout clothes, not bothering with makeup or doing whatever else they need to do to make themselves comfortable. In this new environment, she says, some employees are speaking up who typically tend to remain quiet, perhaps because they aren’t sitting in a room with executives who might intimidate them.

“My advice to executives is, let the creativity flow,” Busse says, “and let people show up how they work best. … Be you, and let’s get some work done.”

Fostering engagement through time management

Business leaders and employees all need to be very intentional with their time as uncertainty from the pandemic continues to pervade daily life, Busse says. Setting clear expectations, agendas and timelines for accomplishments has even led some businesses to see an uptick in productivity, she says. Part of the reason for that may be that virtual calls can “cut out the fluff” that comes with in-person meetings.

Time management goes hand-in-hand with employee engagement. Companies might consider sending out a daily wellness tip to employees, encouraging them to do things like get outside for breaks. Daily video meetings are another way to build engagement by pulling groups together to talk about projects, Busse says. Leaders should also look to leverage the different perspectives across teams.

“Your baby boomers are going to think of stuff differently than millennials and Generation Zers,” she says. “How do you engage your employees to help your company thrive and stay active?”

View competitors in a new light

Middle market businesses need to focus on finding short-term revenue wins wherever they can to make it through this crisis, Busse says. But the pandemic also requires a perspective shift.

“We think so much about competitors as bad,” she says. “We need to flip and think about our competition as good.” Such a change might seem counterintuitive at a time when everyone is bracing for a recession, but businesses may be able to band together to support their overall industries, she says. 

"If I’m in manufacturing, who do I know in this competitive landscape who I can set up a call with?” she says. “Don’t think of your competitors as a competitor right now to win the war on business—think of it as how do we win the war on knowledge so all of us can stay in business?”

Don’t be too reactionary

Cutting costs is foremost for many business leaders right now. But be careful about making snap decisions when it comes to workforce needs, Busse urges.

“You cannot just be so reactionary, and you cannot be reactionary on emotions,” she says. “You need to lead from calm, being sincere. … You have got to deal in facts.” As much as the immediate future is concerned, businesses still need to think about the impact their decisions will have in the long run, she says. 

That’s as true for decisions about company headcounts as it is for any other part of the business. Leaders should get creative in thinking about what might be possible by implementing work-from-home measures and other virtual tools.

“Think about that wish list of projects you’ve always wanted to do. Give those [lists] to those employees who want to contribute in a different way,” she says. “It’s really about being thoughtful and impactful with your business and working on things that might help you out in the future.”

Use flexibility to your advantage

People’s lives have been turned upside down by this pandemic, and people who have children at home have even more challenges to deal with right now. Businesses should communicate with employees about ways they might want to adapt their schedules to benefit both themselves and their companies. For some, that might mean leveraging vacation or paid leave time for employees who want to look after family members, or determining whether any employees are interested in changing their roles.

"Not everybody emotionally can handle all of this—juggling work, children, pets, daily house chores,” Busse says. “Some people might want to go part-time; some people might want to do tasks at night. You want to pivot, and be very flexible.”

Keep up with changing legislation

C-suite executives need to collaborate with the heads of their human resources and legal teams to prepare to handle federal changes around paid leave related to the coronavirus. “You don’t want to interpret this on your own,” Busse says.

"We want to make sure we understand the rules, to communicate to employees and put this into action,” she says. “Our people are scared. This is all fast moving. My advice to companies is: read, digest, stay alert and make sure you can articulate simply.”

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