9 Critical Steps to Retain and Manage Talent During COVID-19

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Managing and retaining talent has always been a tricky business, but the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes substantially.

Almost overnight, employees at many companies started working from home, some were laid off or furloughed and people started worrying more about their futures. Businesses needed to develop and enforce virus-fighting protocols, roll out new technologies and establish new ways of doing business.

Now, those who are managing people or bringing in new employees find themselves in a much more complicated role. And, as Kerry Stover, COO of technology consultancy Pariveda Solutions, said during the most recent Oracle NetSuite Open for Business event, everyone may have to get used to the changes they’re experiencing.

“Many of our employees kind of hit a wall in the last month or so that there isn’t going to be this serendipitous omen and things will suddenly be okay,” Stover said. “There is no new normal coming in the near future. Uncertainty is going to reign.”

With that reality in mind, Stover and the co-panelists at the event, all of whom either consult about talent or provide talent-related software, had some suggestions for how to keep workers engaged, motivated and connected to their jobs, while also respecting the huge changes they’re being forced to accept.


Create a safe working environment

Overnight, safety became the top workplace priority for every industry. And while employees working from home will manage their workplace safety on their own, most companies do still have some employees coming to work, and many others are struggling with how to do so safely.

Quantum Workplace, a provider of cloud-based employee success software, is accommodating a small in-office staff, but it’s put a number of measures in place, including a requirement that employees wear masks when not at their own desks, one way markings to prevent people from walking into each other and reduced maximum capacities on elevators.

Equally important to establishing such protocols is enforcing them, and Jeff Hicks, director of finance, said Quantum’s executive team isn’t tolerating any deviations.

“You can go into the office if you’re willing to follow all the rules,” said Hicks. “If you’re not willing to follow the rules, then you should continue working from home.”


Emphasize clear communication and transparency

In a time filled with deep uncertainty, transparency with employees is more important than ever, according to the panelists.

For Hicks, that’s meant admitting to employees when company leadership doesn’t have answers.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re not giving any indication of certainty.”

One thing Quantum is certain of: Employees at every level want information they can use, so the company has developed a COVID-19 resource page on its internal site with employee engagement tips, survey templates, stress reduction methods and other useful tidbits.

Pariveda has turned to regular town hall meetings with staff to encourage connections and dispense information. For example, the company saw its business shrink by 7% when three clients in the travel and hospitality industry cancelled their projects as the pandemic took hold, and Stover and his fellow executives explained to employees how they envisioned navigating through chaotic uncertainty.

Employees appreciated the honesty, even if it didn’t answer all of their questions.

“We had no way to see whether the downturn would get worse or what was going to happen,” said Stover. “All we could do was be transparent.”


Be flexible wherever possible

Flexibility has become a more valuable component of doing business than ever. That can mean anything from establishing flexible hours to simply allowing that employees have to manage their work-life balance much differently.

For instance, Matthew Reilly, division director of Robert Half Management Resources, said management needs to understand that there will be times that employees who have children may have to leave work early to head home and handle teaching duties, or take care of any of a litany of other new responsibilities that life in a pandemic has brought.

“This really comes down to expectations, communications and resources,” Reilly said. “If we’re all on the same page, that helps with employee concerns.”

And there’s an important lesson embedded in this about how work has changed.

“We’re learning now that work doesn’t have to be done by 5 p.m.,” Reilly said.


Plan fun activities as a staff

One of the hallmarks of the workplace has historically been the social interaction that occurs. People meet their future spouses, make lifelong friends and bond in numerous ways throughout the typical workday, whether it’s over lunch, at the water cooler or while visiting each other’s desks.

“When you move to a home environment, you lose all of that unplanned interaction,” said Hicks. “You have to do things with more intention.”

Quantum has tackled this by hosting things like talent shows and happy hour gatherings over Zoom, both of which have proven popular with employees.

“Events like that where you can create memories are going to be very helpful” in keeping morale up, Hicks said.

Reilly agreed that home-based employees miss those interactions and that it’s important to try to re-introduce them virtually. He said some of his employees who are parents meet up on Zoom with their kids to share afternoon snacks and catch up.

“You have to be creative and come up with things that make work fun,” he said.


Invest in manager-employee relationships

The pandemic has introduced huge challenges into the relationships between managers and workers. In organizations where employees are largely working from home, many of the ways managers connected with and grew to know and understand their staffs are no longer available.

“It’s one thing if you’re in an office and you have to get a read on how people are feeling in my organization,” said Hicks. “As soon as you go to work from home, you lose a lot of those senses.”

Companies can benefit from looking for ways to replace those lost interactions. Hicks said Quantum is attempting to do so by focusing on empowering managers to be people managers more, “not just project and task managers.”


Make an extra effort to integrate and introduce employees

Whether an organization is hiring people or it has teams that have been cut off from each other, it’s always a good idea to encourage teamwork and trust, but COVID-19 has made this an especially difficult task.

Hicks pointed out that new hires don’t get the chance to meet people across the company, run into them in the hallway or ride the elevators with them. He said it’s especially important to proactively make introductions and establishing connections because it’s easier to maintain that kind of culture than to rebuild it down the line.

Reilly, meanwhile, recommends integrating established teams that may already have had a tough time relating even without COVID-19. In a pandemic, it’s easy for teams to stay to themselves. For instance, Reilly said finance staff by nature tend to be introverted, and in a pandemic they can become even more so.

In that way, they may be reluctant to reach out to other teams. That’s why he suggests having cross-department meetings and talking about what’s going on with each team and throughout the workplace.


Ensure employees have what they need

Putting the right tools in workers’ hands can go a long way toward boosting job satisfaction, and those tools can be anything from a cutting-edge smart phone to a box of paper clips.

Reilly said Robert Half’s executives know that if they want to get the most out of a remote workforce, they need to ensure employees have comfortable chairs, strong Wi-Fi, top-of-the-line computers and monitors and anything else within reason that will help them do their jobs.

Stover took it one step further, suggesting that sometimes what employees need is assistance with work-life balance issues.

“How do we help someone navigate through a situation in their home life?” he asked.


Conduct surveys

Right when the pandemic hit, Hicks sent out surveys to gauge employees’ preparedness to work at home, seeking information about practical things like desks, office equipment, home life situations and anticipated productivity. Doing so helped him align their needs with what he could realistically deliver.

“It was a question of how much support we could give them to cope with these new challenges,” Hicks said.

As the pandemic continued, he kept surveying people to find out how they were doing, and to get a better idea of where to focus his efforts in order to help them succeed.


Monitor employee mental health and use of time off

While it hasn’t usually made the typical list of business priorities, the mental health of employees has been a top concern of employers for months. It’s hard not to worry about the mental health of workers who’ve had the way they work turned upside down, watched family members and co-workers lose their jobs, and fretted about the world their kids will grow up in.

But Stover spotted a fascinating trend that shouldn’t be taken nightly: Namely, that his employees haven’t been using any of their paid-time off. When he realized this, he became concerned that employees weren’t making their own need to recharge enough of a priority.

As a result, he’s asked the company’s executive team to make a point of using their PTO so that the managers who report to them will do so, and, in turn, hopefully the employees will follow suit. Stover’s concerns hint at one of the most insidious threats companies face from COVID-19: stress overtaking their employees.

“The stress is hidden but the impact is evident over time,” he said.

Learn about NetSuite’s SuitePeople software for managing employees.