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Three Ways Managers Can Support Their Employees During COVID-19

WSB's Jirs Meuris, professor of management and human resources, shares insights for employers during times of crisis

By Wisconsin School of Business

March 18, 2020

A man writing while sitting at a desk

Headshot of Jirs Meuris
WSB’s Jirs Meuris

Even in the best of times, being a manager is a frontline job. Not only are you handling your own job responsibilities, but you’re expected to be constantly available to your team as well—predicting the unpredictable, sharing direction and feedback, and guiding in the midst of uncertainty, all while keeping an eye on the financial bottom line.

But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, managers are in uncharted territory. We asked Jirs Meuris, an assistant professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, if there are specific actions managers can take to support their employees during this time of uncertainty.

Here are three things managers can implement now and continue in the days ahead:

1. Promote flexibility: One of the most important things that employers can do is to promote flexibility for their employees as much as possible. With schools closing and the elderly being discouraged from leaving their homes, many working adults are caring for their children and/or parents. Also, current projections for the virus are that at least one out of three employees will get sick from the virus, and thus, a large proportion of an organization’s workforce may be concurrently sick and unable to work. For employers, this requires loosening their grip on employees’ time use.

Develop a list of reasonable deliverables or goals that each worker should achieve within a time frame, but be flexible in the times that employees are best positioned to work on these tasks. Also, have a contingency plan for people to help each other with these deliverables so that colleagues are able to support those who a) have the most pressing personal responsibilities or b) fall ill themselves. The goal for employers is to minimize work anxiety to prevent it from piling onto existing anxieties, given that stress can exacerbate medical conditions.

2. Support employees: Even before the pandemic, there have been concerns over the absence of paid sick leave in the United States. As an employer, it is in your best interest to ensure that employees do not come to work when they are ill. If people are not getting paid or need to use their scarce personal days, they will come to work regardless of their well-being, which will spread their illness to others in the workplace, and ultimately, come at the great expense of employers. This is an issue where employers and employees’ interests are squarely aligned. In this time, as an employer, err on the side of supporting your employees by reducing the costs your employees face for taking a temporary step away from work.

3. Foster normalcy: As people move toward virtual work, it is important to find routines that they can hold onto. First, work is a key component of many people’s identity, but virtual work may lead them to feel disconnected from it. By establishing routines, such as a regular employee hangout, employers can ensure that people remain connected to their workplace and colleagues. Second, as people move online, they may lack the usual structure that comes with being physically present in a workplace. By developing new routines, employees can give people an anchor on which they can structure their day. These routines should not come at the cost of flexibility, but instead provide employees with a sense of normalcy in these uncertain times.

Being a good leader in turbulent times isn’t about being a perfect leader; mistakes will be made. Instead, managers should aim for consistency in supporting employees, balancing individual flexibility while providing organizational structure, and keeping colleagues healthy, safe, and connected.