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COVID-19 Insights Research: What Employees Need From Leaders Now

This is your first pandemic, huh? You’re not alone; the world hasn’t faced a health crisis of this magnitude since 1918. This is a first for nearly everyone alive today; as such, it poses an unprecedented challenge for businesses and business leaders.

In addition to managing the financial challenges, supply chain interruptions, and other disruptions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders also have the responsibility to lead their people through this crisis, keeping them engaged and productive at a time when external distractions and concerns are high. In this defining moment of uncertainty, employees need a voice; they need leaders to listen and act decisively, with courage and empathy.

What We’ve Learned From Listening To Employees

Based on pulse survey data gathered during the first few weeks of the pandemic, we have collected several insights relevant to leaders seeking to help guide their organizations through the pandemic.

Manager Support Influences Employee Perceptions About Effectiveness Of Leadership

We know that leaders create psychological safety for their employees by enabling managers to support their people, and this turbulent period is no exception. It is true whether workers have anxiety about job security, managing remote work with children at home, or managing their own health and safety while working “on the front lines,” in daily contact with customers and/or other employees.

From our data, we found:

  • Feeling supported by managers in making decisions about health and well-being” is a top differentiator for employees. Those who feel supported by their managers also feel that leadership is effectively leading their organization through the pandemic.
  • The difference is dramatic: In our data, 42% of employees strongly agree that leadership is effectively leading their organization through the crisis. But among employees who feel supported by their manager in making decisions about health and well-being, almost twice as many—71%—believe that senior leadership is effectively leading.

Managers should have open discussions with employees regarding their concerns and anxieties, and express support for employees’ choices. During this time, it’s likely that some older employees or those with underlying health conditions are hesitant to work in roles that will bring them into contact with large numbers of people. An honest conversation will allow the manager and employee to examine options such as moving the employee temporarily into a different role with lower risk, or to a slower shift with less traffic. This type of discussion communicates that the manager—and the organization—are concerned about protecting the employee’s health.

Communication Shapes Employee Perceptions About The Priority The Organization Places On Their Safety

Senior leaders typically spend time crafting a flawless message to the masses, but everyone’s first pandemic is not the time for the perfect message—it’s the time for multiple authentic messages. To have a positive impact on the employee experience through crisis, leaders must be “designated hitters” who act urgently and consistently to assuage and normalize employee anxieties about health and security.

This is Job Number One, regardless of how the business generates revenue and where employees are located in the world. It is not enough to communicate according to a contrived schedule or convenience. Leaders must communicate—listen, act, listen again, and act again—at a pace that matches the pace of change in the external news cycle.

Perceptyx has found that the largest differences in employees’ perceptions about how they are being supported in this crisis are seen between hourly and salaried employees:

  • Only 62% of hourly employees agree that their health and safety are a top priority for the organization, versus 80% of salaried employees.
  • When hourly employees are extremely satisfied with communications about the company’s response to coronavirus, favorability on this measure increases more than 30 points to 96%, compared to 98% favorability for salaried employees.

The secret to closing this critical gap is communication—both talking and listening to employees. This is the new great equalizer.

A New Crop Of Heroes

In many businesses, leaders have traditionally looked to their salaried employees as the primary drivers of market differentiation. But in this disrupted work environment, frontline workers are emerging as critical market influencers. They are the heroes whose daily individual efforts are now the primary generators of revenue keeping many essential businesses afloat.

These heroes are providing extraordinary and selfless service in retail stores, hospitals, logistics, manufacturing, utilities, and other essential areas. Their work is now as critical as traditional first responders’ roles. Leaders must ensure that their communication and support actions are aligned with these frontline employees’ actual needs.

Drivers of engagement are being redefined by the pandemic. While feeling valued is still what matters most overall, for frontline employees, the definition of “feeling valued” is being refocused on fundamental human needs: feeling safe and cared for.

Leaders must directly address employee fear, anxiety, and uncertainty on a daily basis. And these communications must be specific, proactive, and consistently delivered with care and concern. This does not mean that salaried employees are any less important—or any less in need of care and concern—than frontline employees. It does mean, however, that leaders must enhance their communications with frontline employees to match the scale of these workers’ sacrifices, contributions, and needs.

This may be a challenge for some organizations, since frontline workers are often hourly, part-time, or seasonal employees who as a general rule feel less connected to the organization and its leadership than full-time salaried employees. Enhancing this sense of connection between leadership and the front lines may seem daunting in a crisis, but it is one of the most important things leaders can do right now. According to our data:

  • Workers who must be physically present at their workplace understandably have the most concerns about their organization’s commitment to their health and safety: Only 44% of on-site workers strongly agree that it is a top priority compared with 60% of those who work exclusively from home.
  • Listening is now more important than ever, especially for senior leaders: The number of on-site workers who agree that their company is committed to their health and safety doubles to 87% among employees who believe senior leaders listen to and care about their concerns, nearly equal to the 89% of employees working remotely who agree.

Looking forward, in the “new normal” that follows this initial phase of the crisis, these new lines of communication and connection infrastructure will continue to yield strong value in employee pride and productivity—crucial to helping organizations emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient.

What Leaders Can Do Now

Our data shows that leaders can have the most impact during this crisis by taking the following specific actions on these top five differentiators:

  1. I feel supported by my manager in making decisions about my health and well-being.
    • Encourage ongoing communication between managers and employees.
    • Equip managers with the information and resources needed to have discussions with employees.
    • Ensure that managers are practicing empathy and demonstrating care and concern for employees.
  2. I believe that my health and well-being is a top priority for our organization.
    • Ensure that policies, precautions, and other measures are adopted throughout the organization.
    • Reinforce a priority on health and well-being by communicating to employees the reasons for policies, precautions, and other measures.
    • Provide employees with information about health and wellness programs or benefits that are available to them.
  3. I am satisfied with the communication I am getting from the organization about its response to COVID-19.
    • Communicate clearly and regularly to the organization.
    • Ensure that the methods and forums for communication remain effective for employees in a new or adjusted work environment.
    • Engage a team to develop relevant information that employees can access online.
  4. I feel comfortable expressing my concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak.
    • Encourage employees to openly and honestly express their concerns by maintaining an open-door policy.
    • Listen, ask clarifying questions, and address concerns as appropriate.
    • Demonstrate empathy in regard to concerns.
  5. The senior leaders in my organization listen to me and care about my concerns.
    • Encourage employees to openly and honestly share ideas, thoughts, and concerns.
    • Follow up on employees’ ideas, thoughts, and concerns, even if direct action cannot be taken.
    • Help employees understand the connection between their ideas, thoughts, and concerns and the actions taken.

Above all, practicing open communication builds employee trust, which is more important than ever when workers feel anxiety about their personal safety and job security. While the COVID-19 pandemic is uncharted territory for all of us—leaders and employees alike—organizations that are proactive in listening and responding to employee concerns will weather the crisis more successfully than those that are not. Taking the actions outlined above will help give employees the confidence they need to remain productive during this unsettling time—and help your organization emerge stronger on the other side.

Seeing The Way Forward

The Perceptyx platform gives you the flexibility to adapt your listening strategy to rapidly changing real time events. Combined with support from our analytics experts, our platform can help you keep your finger on the pulse of your people’s needs, so you can provide the support they need during these uncertain times. Get in touch to see how we can help your organization navigate successfully through the COVID-19 pandemic.

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