Workforce Management

Managing Employee Experience in a Pandemic

Focusing on employee experience is key to a quick recovery post-COVID-19.

By Dr. Anna Tavis

What a difference a week can make in the midst of a pandemic. In a matter of days, companies went from response planning to shutting down facilities and sending employees to work from home. Targeting to “lower the curve” of the highly contagious disease, companies, cities, states, and even nations went into near complete shutdown. By some estimates, the overall loss of productivity in the U.S. in just the first month of the pandemic amounted to about 64 percent. It is becoming increasingly clear that the overall personal and economic toll of the pandemic on the working people around the world will be unprecedented and will by far exceed the financial crisis of 2008.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been invoked amply since the epidemic has begun to spread. For many companies, ensuring the safety of their employees came first, followed by making technology tools available. Technology turned out to be the easier part. In the next step, managers’ attention needs to be directed to a different set of moments that matter: employee experience (EX) at the time of a pandemic.

For many, the required change of behavior to “social distancing” became a euphemism for “physical and social isolation,” representing the true psychological stress test to the collaborative cultures companies worked so hard to build. The compounded threat of the contagious disease, the impact on employees’ families, job security, and the disruption to the invisible social fabric of life in general may leave lasting scars and impede eventual recovery after the crisis.

The focus on EX requires paying attention to all levels of employee needs up and down the Maslow hierarchy. It requires addressing the basic needs for safety and retaining jobs as much as encouraging professional growth through the time of the crisis, whether working from home or in the office.

Empathy, transparency and trust rise up on the priority list for every manager. With most teams and organizations working remotely, here are a few proven principles for successfully managing people through the crises:

  • Empathy comes first. Make time to listen. Know employees’ concerns and leave time for an informal connection.
  • Be transparent on performance goals and outcomes. Set up time for check ins. Provide feedback.
  • Trust that projects would be done. Gauge when to step in and help and when to get out of the way.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Set up a schedule of communication with your team that is consistent, regular, and inclusive.

It is easy to dismiss the importance of focusing on EX in a time of national crisis. But hard lessons learned from the earlier natural disasters and recessions of national magnitude show that investment in employees provides the highest returns when recovery is around the corner. It is the loyalty, commitment, and dedication of the employees that will bring your businesses back and ensure ongoing success. Chart your recovery strategy now, invest in EX.

Dr. Anna Tavis is academic director of the human capital management program and a clinical associate professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies Division of Programs in Business.


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