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How to boost employee experience during crisis

Culture, work style and technology all play a role.
By: | June 17, 2020 • 6 min read

Over the last few years, tight talent pools had us confronting the realities of our overall employee experience—from onboarding to last day. With flexibility and remote working steadily bubbling to the top of employee expectations in workplace trends studies, many of us in HR leadership were working on multi-phased plans to address these new demands—before COVID-19 and work-from-home directives. Now in the midst of the crisis, does employee experience still matter? And, if so, how should our thinking evolve?

Susan Insley is vice president of human resources at VMware.

Because employee experience—a combination of culture, work style and technology—is linked to competitive position, company growth, and employee sentiment, it’s still vital for us to pay close attention. We need employees to know, regardless of where they work, that they are still our most valued company asset. Below are best practices for how organizations can manage employee experience during this time of crisis.

Workplace Culture

First and foremost, we all need to recognize employees are navigating two very important, yet different, issues simultaneously: unusual, even frightening, circumstances; and a remote operating environment.

See also: COVID-19 puts spotlight on wellbeing efforts

In these times, company values can serve as a grounding rod—comforting consistency for what the organization believes and stands for even as the world around an employee changes. At VMware, trust and empowerment are central to how we operate. Leadership trusts employees to do their best work, and in turn, employees are empowered to succeed. With this key value in mind, we also promote effective work strategies such as setting clear expectations, creating clarity around goals, monitoring progress and providing feedback, all of which reduce unwanted surprises.

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Right now, however, health is more important than accomplishment, which is why HR should ask managers to provide the flexibility and support their employees need to navigate their personal lives under the circumstances. Each employee experience is unique, with many caring for small children, potentially managing hospitalizations or living alone.

To create an exceptional employee experience, HR leaders must provide managers with the right questions to ask their employees:

  • How are you doing?
  • Do you have what you need, or would personal leave help you to get better situated?
  • What support and flexibility do you need to better accomplish the work in front of you?
  • Are the work goals clear for the week, month, quarter?
  • How can I, as a manager, best support you?
  • Is there something I can do differently to support you?

Only after we’ve met employees’ needs can we expect them to be effective in a remote work environment. And, in turn, this helps employees develop their own operating rhythm—which includes various cadences of feedback and check-ins, documentation of goals or milestones, and more.

Related: 3 months in, how are employers faring?

During a crisis, it’s important that you and your company’s business leaders send a strong, visible message that shows we’re all in this together. Your employees are looking to you to feel supported to do their best work, while also protecting their health and safety.

Work-Style Adaptability

Predictability, planning and consistency are all well-documented stress relievers. During this unprecedented time, we’ve tried to successfully deliver an exceptional employee experience by continuing to stay focused on deliverables because, in contrast to the pandemic, these are within an employee’s control. We have been encouraging managers and employees to work toward the milestones and delivery dates they have always used to achieve for their customers, partners and stakeholders.

However, sometimes individuals tend to micro-manage when work is being done out of their sight, so it’s important to make sure managers consciously avoid habits that demonstrate distrust, such as taking virtual meeting attendance or requiring all staff to meet multiple times a day. Encourage your leaders to instead focus on work progress—on whether employees are meeting functional area goals that contribute to critical priorities for the business.

The “how” is what is significantly different about achieving objectives now that everyone is remote. For an optimal employee experience, encourage managers to:

  • Be more flexible in scheduling meetings and managing remote collaboration
  • Take additional initiative for check-ins
  • Host virtual coffee chats
  • Have open lines at the end of the day
  • Conduct daily stand-ups, if teams are working in an agile way

Each of these habits, in turn, represents an opportunity to create a routine that soon develops into a new operating model for that manager’s particular group.

Technology Empowerment

Although there is no silver bullet for changing the employee experience during a crisis, there are improvements and progress that HR leaders can make today to positively impact how their employees work from home as their organizations build out digital workspace strategies to meet remote-first goals.

The key to success here is an effective HR- and IT-leader partnership with a mutual goal of driving employee experience improvement a little more each day. This means ensuring every employee has the tools and applications not only available, but easily accessible, from any location, across whatever devices employees are now using for work.

Top considerations for ongoing HR and IT collaboration include:

  • What are the applications employees will need in the short-, medium- and long-term?
  • How are applications and data going to be made accessible from new locations and as positions change?
  • How will teams be expected to communicate and collaborate?
  • What help will employees have available if and when issues arise?
  • How are onboarding and retirement processes changing?

As part of the process, HR leaders can boost employee experience by providing tips, guidance, training and communication for how individuals can navigate new processes and unfamiliar tools, such as web conferencing and advanced collaboration technologies. We can never assume everyone is equally proficient in what they have and need. From there, it’s adding operating rhythm frequency for even greater success.

The Next Phase

There is no going back to the way things were. How we as HR and corporate leaders react during this time will define our employer reputations for years. When we hear the stories that define our business going forward, we absolutely want them to match our culture. What an organization does well now will be the stories employees tell. Talent will leave companies that aren’t focused on their employees, and those workers will explain why they chose to leave.

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Over the next weeks and months, three areas impacting employee experience will be top of mind for organizations, and as HR leaders, we have an opportunity to offer our expertise:

  1. Workforce engagement: How teams work best from remote locations, performance management of more distributed teams, recruiting and branding, learning and development, career mobility, inclusion, community and more.
  2. Workplace utilization: Changes to office designs, the need for greater collaborative work and distributed team interaction, including systems and tools, as well as remote work guidelines that also involve health and safety.
  3. Work productivity: Ways to think about innovation and meeting needs, standards, operating models and more to ensure teams have what they need to be their most creative and transformative.

None of this is easy, but as HR leaders sharing best practices, we can collectively help all of our organizations rise to the changes happening now and be better prepared for those to come.

Susan Insley is vice president of human resources at VMware.

Susan Insley is vice president of human resources at VMware.

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