Soon we will be dusting off our shoes and replacing the ugg boots with ‘socially acceptable’ footwear as we slowly emerge from lock-down and start to plan for how our post-COVID19 workplace will look.

No doubt it will feel peculiar at first, to be surrounded by reminders that this pandemic is not over and we still have COVID-19 in our midst. Whilst once upon a time workers donning masks may have got a second glance, soon it may be those who are unprotected who may be considered the outsider.  It may initially feel like a sci-fi  series on Netflix, as we look around at the signage exclaiming the rules in big bold statements,  gloves at the ready, sanitiser pumps at each door and polite, awkward, no-touch introductions replacing the age old shake of hands.

Businesses can’t avoid these changes to how we live and work, however acknowledging that things will be different and using this as an opportunity to make  workplaces even better is an exciting prospect. Some of the things that we recommend companies do to help overcome the inevitable challenges that will arise include:

  • Planning for the unplannable – I think if this situation has taught us anything it’s that we don’t know what the future will hold – for the economy, the job market, industries or individuals. Whilst it is important not to be overly pessimistic, having a realistic view of the future and planning for worst case scenarios is simply smart business management. Of course you hope to be one of the lucky ones that can arise from the COVID rubble relatively unscathed. But many won’t. Planning for all scenarios and outcomes will ensure that you have done what you can to prevent any negative consequences and if the worst does eventuate, you know you did all you could to save the ship.   This means considering potential cost management strategies such as role reductions or stand downs, freezing salaries, restructuring, thinking about new product or service offerings or sub-leasing your office space. Many businesses are not just being strategic but also creative in their business planning during this time which is creating new opportunities that may have otherwise lay dormant.
  • Employee engagement – stress and anxiety about the COVID-19 landscape, perpetuated by all the negative media saturating us, is likely to result in teams being less engaged with work than usual. The ongoing concern about their health and job security will inevitably be diluting employees’ engagement levels to the lowest in a long time. Engagement can be even more challenging when your workers are not physically in front of you all day. More than any other time, businesses need to have employee engagement as a top priority. Employees need a manager who cares about what is going on with them, who checks in with them regularly and who keeps them focused on their goals and objectives. Don’t think that 1:1s or performance reviews are not important anymore – in a COVID-19 landscape they are even more important than ever. Organisations that focus on the mental and emotional health of their employees at this time will be much better armoured than those that don’t.
  • Productivity  – it is difficult to predict how employees will react to the changes in the way we live and how we work, not to mention the broader threat of the virus.  Resilience and adaptability are important traits and people’s ability to harness these when needed varies greatly and directly impacts their output levels. Those who are looking after themselves both physically and psychologically will be much better placed to be productive. Ensure you have robust policies and initiatives in place around wellbeing and support employees from an emotional and psychological perspective so that they feel better equipped to cope and therefore more able to contribute at their usual level.
  • Flexible workforces – a great positive out of this situation is the fact that more businesses are realising their ability to operate with remote and flexible arrangements. Whilst not ideal to be forced into these work practices without sufficient time to prepare, it has made companies realise that teams can thrive, no matter where their workforce is located or how the employees are managing their individual schedules. In saying this, flexible workforces need to be carefully set up and monitored with clear policies, regular communication and reliable tools and technology in order to be successful.  Get it right and you will reap the rewards, but if you don’t invest in having the optimal structures, it could cost you greatly in lost time and productivity.  
  • Communication – there has been no time where proactive, frequent communication has been more important.  Just as our Premier and PM regularly update us with the lay of the land in terms of the number of virus cases and the progress of restrictions, so should you with your employees with critical business information. Do this en-masse and individually and never under-estimate the team’s desire for thorough and regular communication.
  • Robust HR policies – If you don’t have easily accessible, robust HR policies and processes, this is the time to get them organised.  Many organisations will be facing difficult situations including stand-downs and redundancies, pay adjustments, role changes and employee mental health issues. Having clear and concise policies ensures employees know exactly what they need to do in specific situations as well as protecting the business from any ambiguity or non-compliance, lessening their exposure to penalties or employee claims.
  • Employee mental health – mental health of employees will be a precarious issue for the foreseeable future as we all come through the isolation fog. There is much that organisations can do to reduce the impact of this on productivity and engagement levels. Education and training on maintaining positive mental health, providing access for employees to counselling services and having clear policies and procedures to ensure that issues can be dealt with promptly, sensitively and appropriately will be essential.  As well as this, showing genuine care and compassion for your people is invaluable. People want to feel heard, understood and supported as they navigate their return to normality. Check in frequently and ensure your leaders are trained in how to meaningfully connect with their employees to ensure they get the best out of them.

The most important part of your role as leader of the team right now is bringing the team together regularly to ensure they all still FEEL like they’re part of something and not just wallowing away by themselves at home.   Start everyday with a virtual get-together at a selected time like 9.15am.   Find out how everyone’s doing, what’s on their To Do List, do they need help?  How are they coping?  What have they been watching?  Have they been cooking anything amazing?  Have they been doing ‘Zoomies’ with friends?  Share relevant information about your business and the industry you’re in, let them know you’re proud of their efforts and for fronting up each day, even though they might’ve preferred to stay on the couch.   It’s vital that we feel connected right now and as we navigate forward, however that’s going to look.

As a business owner or manager, you’ll know better than most how much there is to think about right now.  When stress levels are raised, it’s even harder to take a step back and gain the ‘helicopter’ view of your business, to rationally see what’s needed.

The first point to take away from this is you’re the leader of the team.   That doesn’t mean you need to do all of this yourself.  You’ve got a team to help!   Ask your team what’s worked and what’s been challenging about working from home.  They may have loved getting a couple of hours back in their day from lack of commute.  Consider whether this is something you can put in place permanently – a combination of remote and office based work? Some of your team may have realsied that they are in fact more productive and happier working this way. Imagine what the cost benefit impact could be on reducing office rent, increasing productivity and optimising employee engagement!

There are a number of silver linings appearing in this new normal.  There is just a bit of work to do to truly harness them. But if you start early and attack it in achievable bite-sized pieces, before you know it you will begin to transform the way you do things – and it might just be better than ever!