Do you really know what your employees need right now?

Here are three fresh tips HR leaders can use to better recognize workers' needs and support them during COVID-19.
By: | August 13, 2020 • 5 min read
(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

When you first heard about the pandemic, you likely turned to the news and announcements from government officials.

Your team turned to you. No pressure, right?

That’s what happens when economic and corporate uncertainty arises: Everyone looks to the boss for direction. Unfortunately, this puts a huge onus on leaders like you to adjust to a game without clear rules. You are expected to know how to lead during a crisis because HR leaders set the tone for companies.

Related: HR’s leadership during turmoil

Author Krister Ungerböck

But formulating the right response and approach isn’t easy. Over the past few months, you’ve likely needed to communicate company decisions and provide extra support for employees struggling with coronavirus- and quarantine-related stress. Performing your job requires patience and tact, but it’s hard to know whether you’re really addressing what employees need when you’re flying by the seat of your pants.

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The good news is that there are strategies to help. Amidst COVID-19, many HR leaders have had to help team members adapt to upended routines while providing up-to-the-minute news flashes on everything from remote work policies to employee mental health resources. Balancing the company’s needs and employee satisfaction is tough but doable. Just take a deep breath and remember that this pandemic won’t last forever.

Leading During a Crisis

HR may be challenging right now. The business landscape changed without warning, pulling everyone away from the office and locking them in their homes. It’s tough to manage scattered teams, but you can’t approach these challenges with a negative outlook or outdated approach. After all, effective leaders set the tone for the entire organization.

I recently spoke with a software engineer so starved for connection and overwhelmed by “Zoom fatigue” that he bought a puppy. His desire for connection highlights how important the workplace can be to employees. Although remote work can sound appealing, forced quarantining has turned team life upside down.

So what can you do while leading during a crisis? First, believe in your employees and display confidence in your team. Next, show your appreciation and support and demonstrate that you understand what people are going through. Finally, make a point to uncover your employees’ true needs. Lots of people lack the language they need to communicate what they really need, so it’s up to HR leaders to break down walls and provide solutions.

Related: Josh Bersin column: Communication is crucial; Here’s how to handle it

Keep in mind that this may require you to separate needs from strategies. If a person, location, action, time, or object follows the words “I need,” you are looking at a strategy. For instance, “I need appreciation from my boss” represents a strategy. Remove the last three words, and you have a basic need. Once you uncover the root, you’re free to address it with any number of solutions.

But what about the team member who critiques you? Can you take a step back and ask yourself, “What need are they really expressing?” If you can separate yourself from the situation, you may realize that their words are not expressing how they feel about your actions. This is a critical tactic for leading through effective communication.

In theory, it sounds easy to discern what people are really saying, but it’s not. You have to train yourself to figure out what is really being said. That way, you can react appropriately and help your workers feel motivated, heard, and safe.

Identifying Employee Needs

The responsibility to recognize employee needs is largely on you right now. Use these three strategies to improve employees’ experiences remote working and make the transition back to the office smoother:

  1. Ask probing questions.

One technique to find out how a worker is feeling is to ask a question like: “On a scale of one to 10, how productive do you feel?” Queries like this open up difficult discussion topics in an unobtrusive way. If you asked, “Are you productive?” then an employee may go on the defensive and provide an untrue answer.

The slider scale is a good indicator of what employees really think. Assuming 10 is the best, a result of one to four provides you the opportunity to dig in a little more and offer solutions. By assessing employee needs and behavior this way, you can elicit information that otherwise might have been hard to get.

  1. Listen for language that indicates a need.

As you listen for employee needs, reflect on their word choices. If someone is talking about inclusion, consideration and cooperation, they may need connection. On the other hand, if someone is using words like “spontaneity,” “freedom” or “choice,” they may need more autonomy. This handy needs inventory can help you identify what employees might be asking for.

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Just keep in mind that similar terms can have vastly different meanings. For instance, in French, bon courage and bonne chance both translate as “good luck.” However, the former is luck you can control, and the latter is random luck. In the same sense, some words can indicate separate needs. The word “challenge” usually indicates a need for meaning, but if someone says, “I struggled with that particular challenge,” then they may need connection to help support them.

  1. Encourage others to become the people they want to be.

At the 30-mile mark during my first ultramarathon, I ran into a man who also was running one for the first time. He asked, “What would you have said if, two months ago, someone had told you that you would finish an ultramarathon today?” I replied, “I would have said that is the version of me that I’d be dying to meet.”

Ask employees, “Who is the version of you whom you are dying to meet?” Work with them to set potential timelines with accessible goals along the way. Let them know it is OK to admit that they are still working on themselves. Don’t forget to lead by example, because HR leaders set the tone for company cultures.

This is a critical juncture for you as an HR leader. By recognizing employee needs, you set a positive tone for your company moving forward that will outlast the pandemic.

Speaker and CEO Krister Ungerböck is the founder of the global Talk SHIFT movement.