COVID-19: How to Create an Emotionally & Physically Safe Workplace During A Crisis

 COVID-19: How to Create an Emotionally & Physically Safe Workplace During A Crisis

Employee Engagement Employee Experience Psychological Safety

We all respond differently when a crisis hits. Some of us flip into "fix it" mode and become more transactional in encounters with employees. Some of us go quiet.

Our research, however, has shown that times of crisis can provide some of the most important opportunities to deepen trust and commitment with employees in ways that not only ensure greater well being for employees, but also position greater business success when the crisis is over.

In times of crisis, it’s essential to not lose sight of your human side or your company’s cultural values. Instead, channel them into positive strategies and actions that will protect your employees’ well-being and improve your workplace culture over the long term.

Looking at how some Great Place To Work-Certified™ companies have responded to the current health crisis, here are our top tips on how to approach the impacts of COVID-19:

Take the pressure off

A loss in productivity is not a worry reserved for managers - it makes employees feel uneasy, too.

It's a manager's job to normalize stress during uncertain times. Acknowledge that this is a troubling time and that you anticipate that business might slow and employees will be less productive.

Recognizing that your employees are human and that they will be more distracted right now, will create more psychological safety. 

Create a crisis fund

Coronavirus is placing new financial strains on many workers – whether from scaled back working hours or parents juggling childcare while working from home.

Yet, 40% of American households can't get $400 when faced with an emergency.

This startling statistic inspired leaders at Great Place To Work® to start our "CARE4U" fund. Great Place To Work employees have access to a monthly stipend to support them during emergencies and unexpected life events.

Workday is also finding ways to support their people financially. Employees received a cash bonus to offset the unforeseen financial burdens of the crisis. The company is also setting up a relief fund to help employees with “significant hardships.”

Practice active, frequent and honest communication 

Strong communication is critical during uncertain times.

Great communication involves both keeping employees informed about important issues and changes, while ensuring leaders and managers are accessible for questions and willing to give straight answers. 

Crises won't wait for your annual employee survey to roll around. Certified companies such as Workday send weekly pulse surveys to their employees to check on employees well-being. This keeps employees feeling cared for on a regular basis and managers on top of employee sentiment.

Transparency can be hard when the news is not positive. Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott, sent this honest video update to all employees. More information during times of change creates more confidence among employees and prevents misinformation from derailing morale or organizational initiatives. 

Share news with all employees using an honest manner, where both strengths and challenges can be discussed openly. Acknowledge the concern and uncertainty that people are likely experiencing. 

Help hourly workers

Many employees don’t have the luxury to work from home. It's impossible to practice social distancing if you're serving customers at a grocery store or patients in a hospital. 

Certified companies are thinking through work adjustments for their people across job roles. For example, some companies are pausing the use of refillable drink and food containers in their restaurants for the sake of keeping their employees healthy.

Some stores have shorted their operating hours so that their frontline workers can go home to rest. Others are continuing to pay their employees while businesses are closed.

Host meetings without an agenda

Create an optional virtual meeting for your employees – with no order of business but to share feelings or concerns.

This time can provide mental relief for your team - a space to connect about no-work related matters. You could even involve people from other teams, creating a stronger sense of solidarity. 

Carving out this time for your people sends the message that self-care is as important as work.

Ask about your people’s families

Our research shows when employees feel a sincere interest in them as a person, not just an employee, they feel a greater sense of psychological safety and have greater trust in their leader and the organization.

Many managers know that employees can’t feel psychologically safe with fear of being fired or laid off. But our research uncovered a less-studied source of fear. We call it “everyday fear.” It refers to employees feeling anxious about trying to reconcile work and personal obligations.

When leaders don’t treat employee well-being as a priority, their people experience subtle yet significant anxiety.

You can reduce everyday fear anxiety by asking employees about their home life. How are their loved ones? How are their pets? What new burdens are they dealing with right now?

Asking these questions sends a clear message to your employees that work-life trade-offs are neither expected nor encouraged.

Remind employees about resources available to them

In a crisis we can often forget about valuable resources already available to us, such as:

  • Access to counseling via an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • Financial wellness coaching
  • Mental health programs
  • Company discounts on essential items

Whatever you currently provide, sending regular reminders will reinforce your care for employees while reconnecting them with resources that can help.

Caring during a crisis

In moments like this, every interaction we have is telling a story about our leadership. As Brené Brown teaches us, being vulnerable is one of the most courageous things you can do.

Are you worried, too? Don't be afraid to share that with your team. Showing your human side will help instill trust in your employees and reassure their psychological safety.

For more on how to navigate in this time of crisis, see our other coronavirus resources such as COVID-19: 7 Ways to Lead in Uncertain Times.

Claire Hastwell