Employee Engagement During COVID-19: Using Culture to Manage Stress, Maintain Productivity

employee engagementAs states and communities balance reopening with social distancing and other COVID-19 safety protocols, uncertainty around the workplace persists. For some healthcare organizations, reopening means transitioning specific roles from the remote-first setting back to the office setting, full or part time, or maintaining remote-first practices. Regardless of each state’s policies and organizational and team member choice, uncertainty, stress, and fear are likely.

Healthcare team members who may have transitioned to the remote setting during the pandemic include case managers, clinicians offering telehealth services, as well as administrative, financial, and IT teams, and others contributing away from the frontlines of care. As health system leaders and managers consider when, if, and how these individuals might return to the office setting, positive work culture can be a consistent and unifying factor, giving organizations a constant source of guidance and community in an unpredictable landscape.

A Positive Work Culture Maintains Employee Engagement amid Uncertainty

Workforces and leaders returning to an office setting in the wake of COVID-19 are confronting significant concerns, such as the following:

  • What will social distancing look like in the office setting? Will safe practices allow for effective in-person communication?
  • How suddenly will my employer make the shift back to the office? Can I balance working from home with work on site?
  • Are accommodations in place outside of the company to allow for effective and safe childcare and elder care? Will my employer be flexible if those systems are not yet fully functioning?
  • As an organization, how will we respond to societal and cultural changes in the wake of the pandemic? (e.g., Am I expected to shake a client’s hand, and can I wear a mask during meetings?)
  • What accommodations will organizations make for high-risk team members or those with high-risk family members?

Such wariness and fear can threaten team member job satisfaction, productivity, and wellness—in the workplace and beyond. Organizations can address these concerns with positive work culture and defined values, creating a consistently supportive environment despite societal shifts. By supporting team members through short-term hardship, leadership engenders long-term loyalty and commitment among its workforce and retains high-performing team members.

As a lynchpin in a positive culture, values that are consistent and aligned with an organization’s mission provide a foundation for shared decision making, helping all members understand how and why leaders make decisions. Positive culture also helps employers retain high-performing team members, as mission and environment tend to become increasingly crucial to team members throughout their careers. For example, in a 2019 survey across four countries, job and recruiting website Glassdoor found that for over half of the 5,000 respondents, company culture was more important than salary when it comes to job satisfaction.

A Three-Part Approach to Maintaining a Positive Work Culture

A three-part approach to human resource (HR)-led best practices for maintaining a positive work culture can help build morale and engagement, support team-member wellness, and ensure productivity:

  • Remote access to healthcare.
  • Care for mental health.
  • Transparency.

Remote Access to Healthcare

Caring for team member health should be a priority for leadership in any environment, but COVID-19 has pushed safe, accessible workforce healthcare even more to the forefront. To perform well, employees need to know they can get quality care when they and their family members need it. During the pandemic, this means accessing care while maintaining social distancing.

By offering telehealth benefits, organizations help team members get primary and non-emergency care via phone or video call, thereby staying out of high-risk medical clinics, offices, and emergency departments. Though telehealth has been available in different formats since the mid-20th century, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and limited access to in-person care have forced consumers to adopt virtual care. Moving forward, companies will determine whether they want to commit to and promote telehealth by highly subsidizing virtual visits. Such a move may be a significant factor in maintaining a culture in which team members feel supported and safe.

In addition to telehealth, organizations can also support remote access to health and wellness with programs such as mail-order prescription services and remote access to fitness and wellness programs. For example, some companies are streaming exercise and yoga classes from their gym or reimbursing memberships to other online programs.

Care for Mental Health

In light of the pandemic, society is more aware than ever of the impact of mental health on happiness, quality of life, and productivity. Positive work culture will continue to embrace mental healthcare, particularly as stress and uncertainty rise in response to COVID-19.

In addition to an Employee Assistance Program (a voluntary program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services for personal and work-related problems), organizations increasingly subsidize remote access to mental health through platforms such as Headspace or Talkspace.

To maintain openness around mental health post pandemic, companies will need to establish top-down support. Practices include training managers on how to respond to mental health needs, encouraging team members to take personal time off when they need an emotional break (even and especially during social distancing), and hosting interactive listening sessions to discuss challenges safely. A positive culture will recognize the impact of family and household mental health on employee wellness and will extend resources to dependents and partners. 

Transparency

Transparency about organizational success and challenges engenders trust and builds community by making team members feel connected to their companies on a deeper level than a paycheck and tasks completed. But the right level of transparency is unique to each organization. While some leaders find that full transparency serves their communities best, others have their HR departments absorb the brunt of challenges, and some balance the two approaches. The right approach to transparency matches the organization’s culture and communications (e.g., open versus selective sharing, etc.)

Despite a company’s communication style, social distancing may have interrupted familiar structures and habits. For example, managers can’t share news with their teams by stopping by their desks, and team members can’t have impromptu breakroom exchanges. To maintain transparency, leaders must consider how to keep all lines of communication open—from more formal all-team meetings to casual conversation and, importantly, channels for team members to voice concerns and gratitude to leadership as it navigates the pandemic.

Communication solutions may involve group chat and instant messaging platforms (e.g., Slack or Microsoft Teams) for casual exchanges and remote all-team meetings with an anonymous question function for team members to engage openly. Surveys can also provide an excellent channel for team members to share insights confidentially and leaders to listen and learn about employee concerns, challenges, and gratitude.

In this Together: The Power of a Positive Culture

As organizations confront pandemic-driven practices and environments, a positive is culture is one aspect of a post-COVID-19 world that leaders and team members can control. Safe, reliable access to health and wellness, remote mental health resources, and consistent communications will keep organizations united in both their support of work communities and their business goals. Good cultures will be the products of decisive, people-focused leadership that carefully weighs its options and chooses the policies that align with its values and goals. Best practices will also include sharing and learning across organizations as society moves forward safely, positively, and productively.

Additional Reading

Would you like to learn more about this topic? Here are some articles we suggest:

  1. Remote Healthcare Work: Best Practices amid COVID-19
  2. COVID-19 Healthcare Cybersecurity: Best Practices for a Remote Workforce
  3. Restarting Ambulatory Care and Elective Procedures: Analytics Guide Safe, Pragmatic Decisions
  4. How Data Transforms the Hospital Command Center to Pandemic Proportions
  5. Build a Mission-Driven Culture in Healthcare
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