Coping with COVID-19: How to manage remote employees

In order to keep Ottawa business leaders informed on best practices amid the unprecedented COVID-19 disruptions, OBJ publisher Michael Curran will be conducting a series of video panel discussions over the coming weeks with local business experts. Watch the series here.

In the latest video in the Coping with COVID-19 series, OBJ explores how to manage human resources during this global crisis.

The panel discussion includes three experienced human resource professionals, Heidi Hauver of Invest Ottawa, Neil Crawford of Stratford Managers and Kristi Clark of iHR Advisory Services. This is an edited version of the panel discussion. For the full discussion, please watch the related video.

OBJ: Heidi, let’s start with you. What should CEOs and business owners be thinking about when it comes to HR in a crisis?

HAUVER: I would encourage CEOs to lead by example and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. I think our teams are looking for leaders to demonstrate that we’re all being affected. Create a safe environment … I was with a client this morning and they asked: “How do I know if I’m trying to communicate too much?” I think you can ask your employees what they need from you. As a CEO, you need to be connecting with your team more regularly than you normally do. For example, you could start a “lunch with the CEO” session. Do a Google Hangout or Zoom call where a bunch of your employees have lunch with the CEO every day. The CEO needs to eat, right?

OBJ: Neil, your company dispenses a lot of HR advice. If you had a CEO on the phone today, what would you be talking about?

CRAWFORD: There's some really practical things that we really need to think about. For example, we have organizations that we're working with right now that don’t have any experience with employees working at home or remotely. They’ve had most people come into the office all day, every day. So this is an enormous change particularly for people managers because sometimes those organizations don't necessarily have the trust and the willingness to delegate authority and responsibility to employees or frontline managers. So I think about this: how can I change my behaviour if we've been an organization that typically has people come to work at 8 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m.? It's a very, very different mindset. Of course, the organizations that have been practising remote work for a long time, they are going to be way further ahead.

OBJ: Kristi, maybe you can tackle this. What kind of practical advice do you have around HR? 

CLARK: I very much agree with everything that Heidi and Neil just covered. The other thing I would say is this isn’t a 14-day solution. This isn’t something that’s only going to happen for two weeks, when we’re quarantined and then we’re all back to work. I’m hearing about projections of July or August. I certainly hope that’s not true. What will your organization look like? What will it look like for your employees? What’s the economic impact of all of this? I think that’s something we really need to look at.

OBJ: Well, that’s a good point on timing. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but there could be more bad news headed our way. So what are the HR ramifications of that?

HAUVER: I think there are a lot of unanswered questions for folks. I mean there certainly are a lot of people wondering about their job security right now. I primarily work with companies in the knowledge-based economy. Who would have thought even a couple of months ago that we would be talking about job security? We were just rolling out programs to help address the talent crunch in our city … So be honest about it. We don’t have all of the answers. Give as much information and be as transparent as possible. Recognize the future is unknown. Stay connected with your team and constantly be communicating with them.

OBJ: Neil, that’s a little bit of a natural segue to talk about the mental health of our teams. I liked Heidi's message. She used words like transparency, be human, be vulnerable.

CRAWFORD: I think that building relationships is a really critical thing right now … with your stakeholders, with employees, with union leaders, with managers, with your customers, too. When we talk about mental health, you know, we can't overemphasize the need to communicate. Here are some specific things that we can think about. Managers need to check in. Heidi was talking about using videos before. Videos are very important because you can see body language. Another idea might be a peer-based buddy system. Connect people in small groups and have them connect every single day. We can also remind employees about employee assistance programs that are already in place.

OBJ: Kristi, any last thoughts? What should we be adjusting in HR?

CLARK: You can look to change your written policies. We’re telling people to take a much broader lens, so it’s not COVID-19-specific. It’s more about public health preparedness. I don’t think this is the end of it. Unfortunately, I think we’re going to see situations like this arise again. It’s going to give people a much more fluid understanding of policies. There has to be maneuverability to accommodate these types of situations.

Tips on working remotely

Heidi Hauver: “My tip is video calls. They allow you to see each other. I was on a call yesterday and the folks were saying that just by seeing their smiling colleagues, it really helped brighten their spirits. So I encourage everybody to, while they may have messy hair, just get on that video call.”

Neil Crawford: “My tip today is to schedule your meetings on the quarter hour or the three-quarter hour. Meetings on the hour or the half-hour tend to run one into each other. People have back-to-back meetings this way. You need a chance for a break, grab a drink or walk around.”

Read Fellow.app Director Marketing Erin Blaskie's tips for productively working from home here.