Is your workplace changing due to COVID-19? Whether your company includes essential businesses that are open to the public, or you are reopening offices to allow on-site work to resume for the first time, chances are you’ve had to make big changes to the way your employees interact with one another.

Managing employees in a time of social distancing means more than stickers on the floor, extra bottles of hand sanitizer, and fewer chairs in the breakroom. Uncertain employees may be fearful, resistant to change, and unhappy with the reduced socialization or perks at the office. As Human Resources professionals dedicated to helping your teams weather change, you can assist your teams in adapting to workplace changes so that everyone can move forward safely and happily.

Lead with optimism

Perhaps the most important character trait of any leader right now, optimism is the unsung hero of tough times. And while it can sometimes be misunderstood as placing one’s head in the sand and ignoring hard facts, optimism is simply the belief that this world is the best possible world, and feeling hopeful about successful outcomes. Optimistic leaders combat bad feelings and negative energy, replacing fear with ever-improving attitudes which lead to better morale, less conflict, and increased innovation.

You can lead your employees in an optimistic way by looking for “partial solutions,” according to Alan Loy McGinnis in The Power of Optimism. When problems arise, whether from social distancing guidelines or because of heightened tensions in the workplace, solve for a yes without worrying about perfect results. We are all just doing the best we can. A key aspect of optimistic leadership is to find the positive in every struggle: remind employees their best work is good enough, be generous with praise, share hopes for successful outcomes, and celebrate strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses.

Adjust expectations

New procedures, distracting changes, feelings of disorientation in previously familiar settings: there are numerous factors at play in the newly socially-distant workplace which will manifest as decreased productivity. Are your leadership teams prepared to reset their expectations?

Start the conversation amongst your company’s leadership: what challenges will physical and social distancing add to your employee’s day? These challenges could be process-related (for example, if two employees who once worked side-by-side are now separated) or it could be psychological (the lack of socialization at lunch, or the new quiet of an office with staggered start times). If your company culture is results-oriented, start the clock when employees return, measuring the work they’re able to produce and showcasing gains week over week to find wins, rather than fixating on ramping up to pre-pandemic numbers.

Check in with employees regularly

Someone might be taking your employees’ temperatures at the door—it might even be you, or your leadership team. Take their mental temperature, too, with regular check-ins. Managers should learn to ask a few thoughtful questions every week, perhaps even every day, to make sure everyone is managing with the stress and social changes of the new workplace.

Ask employees about their stress levels—they can rate it on a scale if they’re not comfortable talking about their feelings. Ask them if they feel engaged with their work—again, a scale of one to ten works. And check in with the ways you can help out: with EAP, with on-the-job training, with educational opportunities, or with health and wellness perks the company may offer.

Keep virtual culture going strong

In this post we shared some tips for keeping your company culture intact during remote work. You can use these tips in your open workplace as well. In socially-distant workplaces, many of the same issues raised by work-from-home policies will still exist. Fewer people in the workplace, guidelines preventing in-person meetings or social breaks, and a waning sense of belonging can all affect your employees’ buy-in to their jobs. Virtual company culture is just as important to the open workplace as the remote one in the era of social distancing.

Managing employees and teams during this vast shift in social interaction is going to be a challenge. As Human Resources professionals, you often find yourselves responsible for the well-being of people far beyond your immediate team. It may help you to put together a regular communication to check in with your management teams, sharing tools for listening to employees, leading with optimism, looking for warning signs of burnout or disengagement, and reminding them of important benefits like EAP.

Before you get started, do a health check of your benefits and communications. Knowing all of the perks you can offer your employees to help them deal with change, as well as how you can effectively communicate with your teams, will help you create an effective strategy.

Are your benefits platforms and communications in need of an overhaul? Talk to WBD about solutions which can support you and your teams throughout this challenging time period, and beyond.

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