5 ways to lose your best employees during lockdown

While you could be forgiven for not having employee engagement at the top of your to-do list right now, the enforced lockdown caused by coronavirus is giving employers an unexpected opportunity to show their employees, especially those who are parents, that they are valued, respected and trusted – some of the key things that employees look for in an employer.

And with the Investors in People Job Exodus survey showing that more than half of UK workers were considering a move to a new employer in 2020 (up 8% on 2019), how you treat your employees now is likely to show a direct correlation to those voting with their feet once this pandemic is over and the job market opens back up.

At a time when your employees’ mental health and resilience is going to be tested, anything you can do to support them is going to be essential. This could be trusting them to achieve what needs to be delivered, reminding them of all the ways you can help them – whether that’s flexible hours, access to support services you offer such as EAPs or Parent Cloud – or just simply an email to let them know that you trust them and giving them permission to work as they need to work in this uncertain period.  Line manages are also going to play a vital part in ensuring the health, wellbeing and productivity of your staff.

So, here are 5 pitfalls to avoid if you want to retain your best employees:

  1. Expecting employees to work their usual core hours, but from home

With many employees now having to in effect home-school their children, expecting them to doggedly stick to their contractual and core hours of work is simply not realistic. Even the context of those who are regular homeworkers has changed.

An up-front conversation with your employees about their set-up, how they want to work and the hours they think they can work (especially parents with young children) could be beneficial. Could you proactively suggest flexible hours or allow staff or teams to work in ‘shifts’ so they can better juggle their day? For parents especially, perhaps completing some of their hours at the weekend might work, as their partner could takeover childcare. This may help alleviate any potential burnout or mental health issues. Make sure you also share how you’ll be working and let them know that you’ll do your best to manage the team’s tasks accordingly.

If you use Lync or similar technologies, letting staff know that you don’t expect them to be constantly ‘available’ will help alleviate the pressure of not having the little green dot constantly on. Similarly, if senior staff are sending emails late into the evening, suggest they caveat this with making it known that these are their working hours and that they don’t expect an immediate answer.

Try to ensure any video or audio calls are scheduled well in advance to give parents the best possible chance of being able to attend without interruptions.

Consider looking at employees’ output and how well they are covering their normal work duties, rather than focusing on hours worked. If you’re worried that some employees may use this as an opportunity to ease off a bit, speak to line managers. Chances are they will already have a good idea of any employees who may need additional support and guidance over the coming weeks.

  1. Setting unrealistic deadlines

While deadlines aren’t going to go away, any leeway you can give your employees at this time is going to be massively appreciated.

A lot of employees may not be used to working from home and may not choose that for themselves. Everyone, including your customers, is having to adjust to new ways of working, technology issues, children at home, elder care and the worry of keeping a household harmonious and loved ones safe. Few employees – especially those with children – will

be capable of working at 100% in the initial few days and weeks at least, so the less unnecessary pressure you can put them under, the better.

Have a sensible conversation about any deadlines that were set ahead of lockdown to ensure your employees are still able to achieve them. And if the deadline’s an arbitrary one, now’s definitely not the time to enforce it.

  1. Micromanaging your team

While communication is going to be key throughout this enforced home-working period, getting the right balance is going to be critical. Too much interaction and your employees are going to feel as though they’re being checked-up on, while too little may make them feel even more isolated and disengaged as a result. If you’re not sure you’re getting the balance right, ask them, they will appreciate you asking for their input.

Keeping meetings to a minimum is going to be useful for most employees, so consider splitting them into two types:

  • business critical involving only those who need to be directly involved in the decisions. You could always add those who need to be informed as ‘optional’, so you give them the choice of attending.
  • informal ‘chats’ where the team can (virtually) get together on a regular basis to keep in touch and socialise. You can use these as an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate successes, wish team members happy birthday or just swap news. Meeting online to have a virtual coffee or a team drink on a Friday seems to be popular options.

Use all check-ins as an opportunity to listen not just to how things are going with their work and at home set-up, but also watch for the more subtle cues that employees may not be coping as well, such as an employee who seems quieter than normal, or who isn’t regularly joining in with the chats. Ask employees how they are feeling. Just posing that simple question gives them an opening to talk about any issues or struggles.

Equally, line managers will need to be sensitive to individual requests. Not everyone is going to feel comfortable with video calls where team members can potentially see their home. It’s up to line managers to be aware of and try to accommodate preferences, where possible.

  1. Fuelling the stigma around children crying or dogs barking during conference calls

With family members likely to be clambering for the best (quietest!) spot in the house from which to work, you can help take the pressure off employees by being up-front about dogs, cats or children interrupting video or audio calls. While it’s not something your employees will want to happen, it’s bound to at some point, so don’t make them feel uncomfortable about it if it does.

Likewise, with broadband likely to be feeling the strain of multiple users, let employees know it’s fine to turn off video if they’re having internet problems, and try to be patient if that still doesn’t work – consider re-scheduling the call if that works for others. In some cases, it might be more effective to use the old-fashioned telephone.

  1. Focusing purely on your business and not on your employees’ wellbeing

While it’s useful and comforting for employees to continue hearing about how the company is doing against your purpose and mission, and how their work feeds into that, the balance of communications about the business should be tempered with news about employee successes and future development, so things like recognition, thanks and promoting opportunities for training. You might like to take the opportunity to:

  • ask for suggestions about improving employees’ specific area of the business – it’s potentially a great time to get some ideas from the front-line
  • remind them about access to any support tools they may have access to through you, e.g. EAPs or Parent Cloud and encourage them to make use of them
  • send links to useful articles about wellbeing, such as a link to the article, ‘A parent’s guide to keeping your children mentally healthy and sociable during lockdown’ and include a list of the ways in which you’ve been taking care of yourself and your family this week and asking your employees how non-work activities have helped them
  • ask employees if they’re been helping in their local communities and spreading these stories to boost morale and give people hope
  • encourage employees to give shout-outs to their colleagues who’ve gone the extra mile or stepped in to help when needed.

Communicating in an open and honest way has always made sense, but that is true more than ever now. If you’re one of the companies taking advantage of the suspended gender pay gap reporting this year, explain to your employees why you’re doing this. Acknowledge that you’re aware that coronavirus is likely to disproportionately affect women in the workplace, as they are more likely to have caring responsibilities to cope with during this difficult time. Let them know about the steps you’re taking to try to ensure that for your company at least, this doesn’t mean a massive step backwards. Reassure them that diversity and inclusion is being kept firmly on the company agenda if that’s the case.

Now may also be a good time to remind employees of parents’ and carers’ right to emergency time off for dependants and assure them that they cannot be dismissed or treated unfavourably as a result.

How employers act now will have long-term effects and be remembered by employees. Once this crisis is over and the economy begins to return to normal, the companies that will recover best will be those that looked after their staff with empathy, respect and understanding.