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Managing Employee Relations Remotely: Tips for Navigating Issues During the COVID-19 Crisis

Despite remote work, COVID-19 will not bring employee relations issues to a halt. In fact, it’s actually creating new challenges employers must navigate.

Here are five tips to ensure safe, fair treatment of employees during the pandemic.

It might be easy to assume that, with most employees working from home, employee relations issues would come to a grinding halt. After all, with no physical interaction, it’s difficult to engage in harassment, discrimination or other undesirable, unauthorized and illegal behavior, right?

Unfortunately, just as our work has shifted online, there’s potential for these issues to shift in parallel. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, 39% of employees reported receiving aggressive digital messages from their colleagues. Of those who experienced employee issues at work, 46% didn’t report it because they didn’t trust it would be handled appropriately.

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Those statistics are alarming, especially considering that everyone is now working online—and doing so under extremely stressful and otherwise unprecedented conditions— so the numbers are likely much higher. And, we face new hurdle that were either non-issues or were easily managed back back in the office.

Perhaps now more than ever, it’s important for organizations to ensure safe, fair treatment of employees and to do everything they can to minimize employee issues. Here are some tips for managing employee relations our new remote world of work.

  • Reinforce policies: Crises like the pandemic can make people behave in ways you might never expect. The very nature of COVID-19’s origins create a risk for race-related discrimination, not to mention we’re essentially being asked to treat one another as though we’re all infected.

Now is a good time to remind employees that your culture is inclusive, there are policies in place to protect everyone from unfair treatment and that it simply won’t be tolerated. Make sure employees know how to report a discrimination incident and whom to contact if they do experience a confirmed positive or COVID-19 exposure.

  • Communicate changes effectively: With distancing, leave and compensation guidelines changing rapidly, your policies likely are, too. Keeping employees informed can be difficult under these circumstances—it’s hard to cut through the clutter of emails, news and other “noise” with important, official company communication and urgent policy changes. Consider leveraging purpose-built employee communications channels to ensure messages get through and that employees have a way to ask questions and get clarification if needed. This helps to isolate important communications onto a dedicated channel, to keep them from getting lost in the fray of an overwhelming email inbox, or specific questions accidentally getting forwarded or cc’d to the wrong individuals.
  • Explain documentation and tracking processes clearly: Ideally, you already have a dedicated technology platform for reporting, documenting and tracking ER issues. If not, now is an ideal time to implement one. With a dedicated tech platform, employees can report issues more efficiently and confidentially and have the confidence to know they’ll be dealt with expediently and fairly. For ER professionals, a platform can improve accuracy of documentation and tracking and provide transparency into the process for employees. You’ll want to make sure employees understand how these processes work, and that the same workflows—and consequences for confirmed violations—apply during remote work.
  • Manage performance appropriately: Not everyone who works well in an office environment is cut out for working from home. It takes discipline and dedication to stay on task when there’s no one proverbially looking over your shoulder, and there is the risk some may take advantage of the lack of supervision. At the same time, many employees are also pulling double duty as full-time caretakers and teachers to their children. Working arrangements are vastly outside the norm, and it’s tough to adjust. While you certainly want to make sure employees are remaining as productive as possible, now is not the time to layer on the performance pressure.Set reasonable expectations, encourage daily/weekly performance goals, establish daily check-ins between employees and their managers to make sure everyone’s staying on task and consider delaying formal reviews. Recognize that work schedules may need to be flexible and remember that everyone is under a tremendous amount of stress already. Adding to it with unrealistic work demands will only lower employee morale.
  • Provide resources to help employees cope: This is uncharted territory for many of us, and by and large, employees want to do the right thing, to contribute to business continuity and get back to normal as quickly as possible. Understand that employees are worried—about their jobs, their health, their family’s financial stability. Providing resources and training to help them navigate this new situation can be incredibly beneficial, and even help to stave off any potential ER issues. Offer a portal with tips and training for how to manage working from home, address technology-related issues and even a mechanism to reach out to employee relations or HR for help—whether it’s to report harassment, ask for leave to care for a sick loved one or to access mental health resources via telemedicine.

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During these uncertain times, we’re all looking for some sense of comfort and stability, and employers have a perfect opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to their employees’ well-being.

By providing resources and systems to ensure a safe, equitable and inclusive environment, even remotely, companies can build employee loyalty and satisfaction that will deliver a strong ROI when our economy comes back to life.