Seeds of doubt begin to germinate in times of isolation. When employees are disconnected from the wider world, particularly their workplaces, panic can suffocate reason. Executives must establish new lines of trust and communication with remote workers during the coronavirus crisis to ward off the all-consuming effects of loneliness.
Like many Australians these days, I am now working from home. As a result, my television is getting a far greater workout than it normally does during the week. Each day, I wake up, prepare myself a nutritious breakfast that (I hope) will power me through the day, and switch on the news to get the latest coronavirus updates. I believe we all have a civic duty to keep on top of the latest information to ensure we’re contributing as best we can towards flattening the curve.
On a good day, the coronavirus news is depressing. But what I saw last week made me want to switch off the TV and pretend everything had gone back to normal.
I was met with the sight of crowds of people flooding Centrelink’s offices, desperate for financial reprieve. Tens of thousands of good people out of work. From Qantas to RM Williams, employees everywhere are being stood down.
When I see footage like this, I feel horrible. I know how proud each and every one of these employees is and how much it would hurt to ask for assistance.
But imagine what it is like for an employee watching this footage. We are in immensely uncertain times – times that Western countries have not seen since the Global Financial Crisis. Not only are jobs up in the air, many employees have parents at risk of illness, friends and children overseas and, if they’re working from home, limited social connections to help put their minds at ease.
We’re all suffering. But our employees are at huge risk of descending into mental turmoil. They are alone, scared and less in the loop than executives are. Knowledge provides control and control mitigates stress; employees have limited control which can result in their stress running wild.
Building Lines of Communication and Trust
Research conducted by Forrester (PandemicEX) suggests “workers are beginning to translate concern about Coronavirus into concern about work.” Roughly half of surveyed employees are concerned about the personal impacts of the virus. This is no longer a mere threat to public health; it is a threat to the economy and our livelihoods. Employees know this and are beginning to struggle with its implications.
As the economy begins to stutter more and more, as is expected to be the case as further restrictions come into play, this employee anxiety will rise. We all know why this stress is concerning – it is conducive to burnout, mental illness and breakdown.
Accordingly, executives must become the bulwark against anxiety. They are the conduit between the upper echelons of their organization and their employees. As such, they have the capacity to reduce anxiety by being open, honest and trustworthy. If executives can provide employees with the certainty they need to keep their anxiety at bay, we can all get through this chaos.
According to Michele Williams from Cornell University, one important way of building genuine trust is through interpersonal emotion. This finding isn’t surprising. Think about the stereotype of doctors being emotionless robots; the reason they have that reputation is because they are emotionally distant when delivering life or death information. People feel settled and comfortable when the person delivering the bad news is connecting with them at an emotional level.
The Australian Institute of Company Directors states that one way of building this trust is by recognizing your own feelings in your conversations with employees. Don’t pretend to be Superman when delivering news to your remote workers. Stoicism can be affirming but the way to build trust is through empathy. Let them know that their feelings are valid by demonstrating your own uncertainty. Shared insecurity builds commitment and unity.
When it comes to the specifics of these emotional communications themselves, the AICD recommends that they be as specific to individuals as possible. If you broadcast general messages of support to your employees, you will struggle to develop trust; they will feel as if you aren’t addressing their individual concerns. If you find the time to speak to each and every one of your employees, you can address their personal insecurities in a way that eases their anxiety.
Let’s be honest. None of us know what the right call is at this moment. We’re doing our best, but we are making decisions on the run.
Despite all this chaos, one thing should be obvious to executives: Employees are scared. And, as always, fear is our greatest enemy.
Our first port of call is to settle our teams. That means communicating in a way that builds trust and eases anxiety.
We might be working apart but never before has unity been so important.