April 16, 2020 (QUORA) —
There are a couple things everyone could do to set themselves up for success in working from home.
First, if you can, create a space that is used only – or primarily – for work. We’ve seen several walk-in-closets and pantries turned into home offices. If you just don’t have the space for a dedicated office area, see if you can find a spot in your home that is relatively ergonomic (not your bed) and that makes it easy to focus. Once you find the spot, own it. Decorate it with things that energize and center you, whether it be pictures of family, plants or a way to play music.
Second tip: try to keep to a schedule, but not necessarily your “normal” schedule. Working from home makes the boundaries between “business” and “personal” even more fluid than they have already become. It’s easy to get out of balance when work and the rest of your life are taking place in the same space without the geographic and psychological separation of a commute.
Put in place some boundaries around when you will and won’t be working. And if you have the flexibility to do so, don’t simply mirror your in-office schedule. Working from home is a different experience. People generally spend a lot more time sitting stationary and staring at a screen when they are working from home than when they are working in the office. So it requires a different cadence. Build in breaks. Stay hydrated. Do stretches. Also, non-exempt, or hourly employees, are still entitled to breaks and rest periods – at least under most state laws – so getting up and walking away from the computer should actually be required.
A final tip for now is to reach out to your coworkers for the kind of socialization you would have gotten in the office. Especially in our current situation, isolation is a threat to morale and mental health. Take a moment at the start or end of a call to ask others how they are doing, share pictures of your pet co-workers, or discuss your coping techniques. Even if those interactions don’t seem important for you – particularly if you’re in a house full of people – they could mean a lot to a co-worker who lives alone.
For employers and employees alike, the past few weeks have been frightening, challenging, and uncertain, forcing families and businesses to make difficult decisions in response. For the latter, it has ranged from reducing hours of operation to layoffs and furloughs to closing doors entirely.
Whether it be uniting and galvanizing a team in new, virtual ways, or simply keeping employees safe, there are a number of ways business leaders can continue to support their teams, foster trust and collaboration, and remain in compliance during these challenging times.
First, communicate honestly and openly with employees. It can be tempting to shelter employees from fears and risk, especially since high stress has been shown to erode trust and inhibit empathy. But it’s likely your employees are already thinking about the issues keeping you up at night. The foundation for an engaged, empathetic, and emotionally supported workforce is trust, in both leadership and one another. Invest the time in keeping employees informed and connected.
Second, invite employees into the challenge. Surviving during a crisis requires creative and innovative thinking, as well as a willingness on the part of everyone to rise to the occasion. Focus your team on the purpose of your company’s work and the challenges ahead, and invite employees to seek new ways to contribute to the mission of the company, deliver its values, and achieve its strategic objectives. If your employees are invested in your culture, company, and mission, they will respond.
Third, manage your employees holistically. Employees working from home may have additional distractions or disruptions they’re not used to managing during the workday. It’s also possible that employees or their family members are experiencing distressing financial or health-related circumstances. Prioritize the health of not only your employees, but also their support network. If an employee is sick, give them time to get well, even if they are working from home. Employers shouldn’t lower their standards for employee performance — that can also have a negative impact. But a little flexibility can have a big impact on employee wellbeing, commitment, and contribution.
Finally, if employees are being asked to sacrifice – whether that’s working more or taking a pay cut – leaders who are interested in building loyalty should make the same sacrifices. Not only do leaders who take pay cuts make national news at times, but they earn the respect and admiration of their employees in a way that is impossible to replicate with empathy alone
As this crisis unfolds, it’s more important than ever that employers and employees support each other and work together to keep themselves and their communities healthy. The COVID-19 situation is unique for nearly everyone, and just because you haven’t led through circumstances like these before doesn’t mean you’re ill-equipped to lead through them now. Focus on authenticity, transparency, empathy, and purpose, and you and your team will find your way through together.
One of the most important things you can do is lead with compassion. Yes, it’s important to get through the pragmatic details, like the differences between layoffs and furloughs, unemployment benefits, COBRA, etc. But just as is important is the overall message you’re communicating to employees. That means acknowledging how difficult this must be for them. It means showing gratitude for the work they’ve provided. It means giving them space to express any emotions they may be feeling.
Second, practice what you plan to say. Take notes of the key points ahead of time, then practice delivering them. When someone acts emotionally in front of you, it’s easy to lose track of what you have to say. It doesn’t mean you can’t express empathy, but you don’t want to lose sight of your main message. If you’re doing any of this remotely, by necessity, you can even have a script handy.
Third, anticipate potential questions before they arise. When people lose their jobs, they have all kinds of questions from how do I apply for unemployment to what happens to my health insurance? It’s best to spend time in advance preparing for how to answer these types of questions. And if you can’t directly answer them, be prepared to send the employee to the websites and resources where they can learn more. For example, the state unemployment insurance department or state health insurance marketplace.
Fourth, if you need to lay off a team member who is working from home, it’s important to keep in mind you may not be having a private conversation. When delivering the news, there may be a spouse, child, or roommate in the room with them, which can make it challenging for your employee to process what’s happening emotionally. Be sure to give them space and time to absorb the information and offer a follow-up call if it seems appropriate.
Fifth, give people an opportunity to say goodbye. In today’s remote world, it’s important to create the same opportunities for goodbyes virtually that would otherwise happen in person. Closure is not just important for the people leaving but also for the employees who are staying. Employees watch closely how other employees are treated on their way out of a company, and creating the platform to express gratitude and say something personal is what will be remembered by all for months and years after this time.
Sixth, be open and transparent. In a time of significant uncertainty, resist the temptation to make promises or guarantees. Instead, communicate what you do know today — for example, your values and principles — and acknowledge what you don’t know today — for example, how severe or protracted any economic impact might be. Trust is paramount in a crisis and communicating clearly and frequently goes a long way towards instilling it.
While the current environment is challenging, there are better times ahead. As a country and community, we’ll get through this crisis. And the more we work together to do so, the faster we’ll get there.
From a management standpoint, three key ingredients to shifting to working from home are clarity, alignment and trust.
As to clarity, employees work at their best when their employers communicate clear guideposts and ground rules for working remotely. Although some employers will be comfortable sending everyone home with their laptop and saying, go forth and be productive, we recommend employers be more specific. That’s why employers should consider implementing a written “work from home” policy. A good policy will generally communicate expectations around hours of work, reachability, how and when employees should be in contact with their manager or subordinates, and reimbursement of office expenses.
For instance, a policy might require that employees are available by phone and messaging app during their regular in-office hours and respond to messages within a certain time frame. It may also require that employees check in with their managers at the close of each workday to share results from the day.
It’s also important for work from home policies to specify how expenses related to working from home will be dealt with. Employers should consider whether employees will incur reasonable and necessary expenses while working from home and what the reimbursement process should be, if any. Some states mandate reimbursement for these kinds of expenses, but it’s a good practice to cover such costs even if it’s not required by law. Without guidance, some employees may overspend on setting up their home office, only to find out that those expenses won’t be covered. It’s best to get ahead of those issues by setting expectations and either limiting set-up expenses to a certain dollar amount or requiring pre-approval for any purchases that exceed a certain threshold.
The second ingredient is alignment. It’s important for managers to align with their employees on what success looks like, how it will be measured, and the values employees are expected to uphold. Alignment on these three dimensions is always important, but particularly so in a remote working environment, when a manager has less visibility into their employees’ work. In a remote context, managers often need to shift from evaluating and coaching their employees’ work based on activities to doing so based on outcomes. This is a healthy and empowering transition — it makes managing much easier and enables employees to exercise their own judgment on how to best use their time and tools to achieve the agreed-upon outcomes. But it depends on strong alignment between the manager and employees on what those outcomes are and how they will be measured.
As to trust, working remotely often requires a leap of faith on all sides. As I mentioned above, managers do not have a direct line of sight into their employees’ activities, and therefore need to communicate a sense of trust and responsibility to their employees. This is especially true during the initial transition period. Working from home requires some adjustment, and particularly in the middle of this crisis, a lot of people find themselves at home with kids, spouses, partners and roommates — and no home office. In addition, many of our normal processes, comfort zones or outlets for stress have been changed or closed off entirely. A manager needs to maintain high expectations for their employees, both for their employees’ development and their organization’s, but they also need to recalibrate the scale and extend compassion to those who may be struggling with the transition.
To start with, it is important for leaders to ask team members how they are doing, to open the door to the conversation about emotional challenges and struggles, and to ensure that employees know their leaders care and are thinking about them on a personal level. Employees will default to not wanting to “bother” their leaders with their personal struggles. So creating the space for people to share what’s going on personally or emotionally is critical. This is especially true for Asian-American and African-American employees, as COVID-19 is affecting these communities particularly hard, though in different ways. It’s important to make sure these employees feel seen and that managers are proactively checking-in, asking specific questions, such as how and when they need to work and what they need from their company leadership.
It is also important to continue to offer support and resources that would be provided under “normal circumstances,” such as bereavement leave. Given the unique protocols associated with COVID-19, requesting or granting bereavement leave may feel awkward, because many of the ceremonies and traditions surrounding death, such as funerals and memorial services, are not occurring. But employers still need to offer time for grieving and processing death. Another resource that can be critical and very useful right now is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). There are many resources within most EAP offerings, including self-development courses, tele-counseling sessions, and networks/support groups of people with similar challenges.
This is a difficult situation for employers and their employees, and unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to how to deal with a significant business slowdown. I can speak to the basic options, though, like reducing hours, reducing wages, furloughs, and layoffs.
We’ve done a lot of polling in the webinars we’ve been giving on HR best practices during COVID-19, and most employers are trying to reduce hours, and then pay, before eliminating their jobs, either temporarily or permanently. Reducing hours is straightforward for non-exempt or hourly employees. And if the hours are reduced materially, employees can probably apply for partial unemployment insurance to help cover the difference.
If cutting hours isn’t enough, or isn’t feasible, an employer can also reduce an employee’s rate of pay. Just make sure you’re giving notice ahead of time and that it isn’t retroactive if you’re in the middle of a pay period. For instance, if you give employees notice that their pay will change on the 20th, and your payroll period runs from the15th through the 30th, make sure their next check reflects the original rate of pay for the first five days of the payroll period. Their new rate of pay still has to be above the applicable minimum wage, of course. Employees can’t waive the right to a minimum wage or their right to overtime.
You can also reduce pay for exempt employees (your salaried, manager-type employees), but their new salary must still be at or above the federal or state minimum. The federal minimum salary is $684 per week. Several states have weekly minimums that are higher than that (California and New York, for instance, are in the $1,000 per week range). This minimum cannot be prorated based on hours worked. For example, if you have a manager working 40 hours per week for $1,000 per week, and you want to reduce their hours in half, you can’t also reduce their salary to $500 because that’s below the federal minimum of $684.
That said, if an exempt employee has so little work to do that it doesn’t make sense to pay them the federal or state minimum (or you simply can’t afford to), they can be reclassified as nonexempt and be paid by the hour instead. This should not be done on a short-term basis. Although there aren’t any hard and fast rules about how short of a period you can reclassify someone for, we wouldn’t recommend doing it for less than a month. Changing them back and forth frequently could cause you to lose their exemption retroactively, and you’d potentially owe years of overtime. Remember that once they are reclassified they’ll need to track their time and will be entitled to overtime, as well as breaks and rest periods if required by state law.
If employees have employment contracts or are subject to collective-bargaining agreements (CBAs), you should consult with an attorney before making any changes to pay.
Beyond a reduction in pay and hours, employers may decide they need to either furlough or lay off employees. A furlough generally means you’ve sent people home for an entire week or more, but they are still on payroll and you plan to have them back as soon as there is work available. Most employers are going this route first, hoping that they can get back on their feet perhaps some time in May. Furloughed employees can get unemployment insurance, but will likely lose health coverage if you have a group health plan. In that case, you’ll want to make sure you communicate any changes to their benefits. Be sure to talk to your insurance broker about the fine print in your plan and any options that may be available.
The final option is a layoff. This means going through the full termination process. If you don’t think you’ll be able to hire the employee back, this frees them up to start thinking about their next opportunity. If you conduct a layoff and expect to rehire them, you’ll have to go through the usual onboarding processes. We wouldn’t recommend a layoff unless it is a permanent change.
COVID-19 has been a tragic and traumatic experience for many, but I hope it will also be an experience we can learn and grow from, even as we grieve.
One of the key lessons we’ve seen in many different arenas is that we are better together. Whether it be within an organization, a city, an industry, or across the country, we’ve seen the importance of working together and supporting each other. COVID-19 has called on all of us to be part of the solution, and it’s been inspiring to watch the creativity and sense of community that people have brought to the challenge.
A second takeaway is that we are finding new ways of working together. Imagine someone had come to your organization a month ago and said: “It’s time to take a step back and rethink the way we do things. The way we collaborate. The way we communicate. The way we structure our days and our meetings. So for the next 90 days, we are sending you all home. After 90 days, we’ll come back and talk about what we’ve learned and how we move forward together.”
It would have seemed like a shocking experiment, but it’s where many teams and individuals find themselves right now. In the shadow of tragedy, teams across the country are being more intentional and innovative in the way they function and work together. The result is a surge of new processes, systems, methods, and relationships. When COVID-19 subsides and organizations return to the office, it will be interesting to see how these organizations weave their new approaches into their prior workspaces to work better together for the long-term.
A related trend we are seeing is that people and organizations are adopting technology at an increasing rate. Often referred to as “digital transformation,” people are quickly learning to better and more fully use technology that’s existed for many years, as well as developing new technology or new ways to use existing technology. This acceleration is certainly present in the workplace but extends to families, teachers, neighbors, and consumers.
Finally, this experience has made clear that we need to think about personal, organizational, and economic health as interconnected. Each of these areas of health has been tested in this crisis, and it’s become clear that they rise and fall together. Only by keeping our people safe and healthy can we ensure the health of our organizations and broader economy. Likewise, creating a healthy organization, where information is communicated clearly, people are trusted and supported, and collaboration transcends physical proximity, is essential to keeping our people and economy healthy.
The priorities that come to mind are: compassion, transparency, frequency, and recognition.
Working remotely is revealing the personal lives of our colleagues — whether it be the magnets on their fridge, their children’s faces and voices, or energetic pets. But we have to remember that behind those screens are people who are concerned for their basic needs: health, food, shelter, companionship. Inevitably most of us will know or be closely connected to a COVID-19 patient or victim. Now more than ever, when we think about communicating as a business, we need to balance our need to communicate critical things about the business with acknowledgement and support for the unspoken fear and grief that employees may be experiencing but not sharing. As a leader, you can express the compassionate side of the company by being vulnerable, acknowledging your own fears and challenges.
People crave clarity in this news-saturated and highly uncertain environment. It’s often tempting to communicate long-term goals and initiatives, but in this environment people are much more focused on the short-term. Being clear, open, and transparent about organizational performance and priorities for the next 30, 60, or 90 days will help everyone focus and feel a renewed and collective sense of purpose.
I would also consider the frequency of your corporate communications and make adjustments to ensure there are enough channels for more frequent updates and two-way communication. Whether it’s a more frequent all-company meeting, hosting executive office hours on Slack, or changing from a monthly email to a weekly email, your employees want and need to hear from those who are leading the organization.
Last but not least, your employees are doing amazing things under extraordinary circumstances. Recognize them. I’m not talking about the diving catch or the personal heroics. I’m talking about teamwork. Creativity. Resourcefulness. Recognize and reinforce the behaviors and values you believe are essential to helping the company, team, and individuals emerge stronger on the other side of this crisis.
It will depend on the circumstances of each organization. If you think your business will be permanently affected, then going ahead with layoffs may make sense. It will allow you to concentrate your resources on supporting the employees who remain, and enable employees who weren’t likely to be part of the team long-term to begin looking for a new job.
If you are unsure what the long-term impact will be to your organization, and you think your employees would prefer to stay employed rather than collect unemployment, then doing an across-the-board pay cut may be a workable choice. But there are a couple additional considerations. First, remember that unemployment payments have been increased during COVID-19. Second, employees who have their pay reduced but not their hours likely won’t qualify for unemployment insurance, so you may actually put them in a less advantageous position than if you furloughed, did a layoff or reduced hours.
You’ll also need to consider how close your employees are to minimum wage. Pay cuts work better in organizations where the average income is higher and employees are more likely (though not guaranteed) to be able to handle a reduction in pay for a period of time. If your employees are already earning close to minimum wage, chances are they can’t afford the financial hit of additional reductions. And, of course, you can’t pay less than the minimum wage or the minimum required salary for exempt employees.