Strengthening the employee experience in challenging times

employee experience

Effective communication during challenging periods requires a high degree of empathy and a more personalised approach. It’s more than sharing what we’re doing, but also what we’re thinking and feeling. It’s essential to give people time to process information and work through their feelings at their own pace. We can’t rush them through it. The best we can do is understand where they’re at mentally and emotionally at a given point in time, and respond accordingly, writes Jen Jackson

As People and Culture professionals face unprecedented challenges, one skill will help them ensure their people and organisations thrive.

If the first half of the new decade has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t predict the future. While many were prepared for disruption brought about by new technology, few could have foreseen nationwide bushfires and global pandemics.

We live and work in challenging times. Almost overnight, established brands and entire industries are looking down the barrel. There have been significant layoffs. There’s increasing talk of a global recession. There have been massive changes to the way we live, work and interact. People are understandably scared.

The primary cause of this fear is uncertainty.

No-one has answers. Who will be affected and how long will it last? Governments and experts have been vague and varied in timeframes and forecasts. In many cases, there just isn’t enough information to give definitive conclusions.

Humans aren’t well-equipped mentally to deal with these conditions. Situations outside our control tend to trigger negative emotions, like fear, anger and despair. We imagine the worst-case scenarios and outcomes.

The World Health Organisation identifies social isolation and loneliness as one of the key threats to people’s mental health over the coming decades. Making remote work effective will require leaders to mitigate isolation through effective communication.

In response, we resort to seemingly irrational behaviours, like panic buying or hoarding. We invent compelling, yet illogical narratives and arguments to reassure ourselves everything is fine. We use denial. These are all coping methods to regain a sense of control.

In these situations people look to leaders for guidance, and one skill matters above all others:

Communication.

It might sound obvious, yet it’s astounding how something as natural — and crucial — as communication is often done poorly in many organisations, even during relatively stable periods. Now, more than ever, though, good communication is absolutely essential.

Always human
Everyone responds to change and uncertainty differently. Some people work through it quickly, others more slowly. Some respond primarily with anger, others with denial. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution that will work for everyone at the same point in time.

Effective communication during challenging periods requires a high degree of empathy and a more personalised approach. It’s more than sharing what we’re doing, but also what we’re thinking and feeling.

It’s essential to give people time to process information and work through their feelings at their own pace. We can’t rush them through it. The best we can do is understand where they’re at mentally and emotionally at a given point in time, and respond accordingly.

This requires leaders to open the lines of communication, encouraging people to have real conversations. It’s ok not to have all the answers; it’s ok to not be perfect. What matters is being there for our people and teams in their time of need.

Consistent trumps comprehensive
It’s normal to feel like we need all the information before communicating with our teams, but waiting to have all our ducks in a row is the worst thing we can do when uncertainty is high.

People don’t need all the answers at once — they need regular updates. It’s about sharing what we know right now. This can be as simple as daily check-ins to share progress on evolving circumstances or crucial metrics. It means addressing people’s most pressing concerns as soon as possible, questions like: what does this mean for your job right now?

The best thing we can do to alleviate uncertainty is regular, open and transparent communication around important issues.

Balancing negative with positive
Large-scale crises gain plenty of media coverage, most of which tends to focus on the negative impact. This barrage of bad news takes a heavy mental toll.

It’s not about burying our heads or being unrealistic. But there’s a responsibility to balance the bad with the good, especially if we want to break the cycle of negative emotions and put people in the best mental state to cope with the situation.

Perpetuating only the negative aspects increases the likelihood of stress, anxiety and overwhelm. None of these emotions are productive. Survival mode shifts brain activity to the amygdala and shuts down the prefrontal cortex. This drastically reduces creativity, critical thinking and decision-making — ironically, the exact cognitive processes that help us most in difficult circumstances.

Instead, we need to search for and share moments of levity, joy and hilarity.

Humour is an incredible coping mechanism, physiologically reducing stress. Laughter releases a cocktail of chemicals in the brain, including endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Done judiciously, giving people an opportunity to laugh isn’t making light of a serious situation, it’s crucial for their mental wellbeing. It’s why we see such a proliferation of memes during difficult times. If we didn’t laugh, we’d probably cry.

Similarly, the best way to break the cycle of fear is to provide hope. What are the possibilities; what is within our control? Keeping people focused on these aspects serves everyone better than spiralling into despair.

Better together
Fear can cause people to resort to individual behaviours, looking after themselves and close family first, at the expense of everybody else.

Obviously, this is not ideal.

At work, we have an opportunity to break the individualistic mindset and unite people in a common cause. We can share goals that are within our control, to provide a positive focus and a sense of progress.

It’s natural to adopt reactive measures and communications in times of crisis. However, maintaining a degree of stability and normality by continuing to share purpose is important for people’s mindset, reinforcing culture and ensuring we emerge from the challenge stronger.

Making remote work – work 
Despite advances in technology and a growing number of businesses incorporating remote work, recent events have highlighted the fact many organisations still aren’t prepared for large-scale changes in the way their teams operate.

Working from home or offsite comes with an entirely new set of challenges — communication foremost.

It isn’t just a matter of switching all face-to-face meetings to teleconferencing, it means rethinking all the usual touchpoints and cultural rituals to redesign people’s experience of work in a new environment. It’s about creating connection through new channels.

The World Health Organisation identifies social isolation and loneliness as one of the key threats to people’s mental health over the coming decades. Making remote work effective will require leaders to mitigate isolation through effective communication.

As brutally challenging as this period is proving, it may well serve as a zeitgeist for a new way of working — dramatically changing the employee experience in the future.

Image source: Depositphotos