Employees have always experienced stress; because they're human. Currently, they have excess and heavy layers of stress added to their lives. Employers can take specific actions to help relieve stress. Spoiler alert, adding passive benefits won't do the trick. In many workplaces, snacks, exercise equipment, or squishy furnishings aren’t possible unless your company does home delivery. While nice, these kinds of benefits didn't have a large impact on employee satisfaction or engagement before the pandemic and will very likely be ineffective during.
Actions employers can take are simplistic and difficult. Specifically, during a time of unease, unrest, and unpredictability, we humans need connection. We need connection to each other. This can be accomplished in many ways; here are three.
Take the idea of "managing by walking around" online. There should be check-ins with everyone regardless of their physical location. These can be scheduled or impromptu but must be meaningful. These connections are not just project updates, but engaging questions. "I want to know how you are doing, and "fine" is not an acceptable answer." Get into the conversation to demonstrate your care and concerns AND be reflective on what is being shared with you. Quick pop-ins without intentionality is akin to zipping around the open-concept office high-fiving everyone and calling it employee engagement.
Utilize your HR department, in-house coach, or outside coach to help people share their honest dispositions. This wouldn’t happen with you, dear reader, but have you ever heard of a story where conversation stops or changes topic abruptly when the boss walks in the room? It’s not a myth. If the culture does not value honest feedback and engagement, employees might have struggles or challenges that they are not sharing for fear of being labeled or even scrutinized at work. An interested and uninvolved party can be a significant resource for employees at every level. Not having the third party to help employee needs and concerns is like having one thermostat for the 10-story office building; one set of data affects the entire operation.
Take any micromanaging tendency whether intentional or not, and examine it. Really understand why that practice is in place, particularly if it adds stress to employees' lives. If there is no good business-related reason for the behavior, fold it neatly, thank it for its service, place it in the trash, and never bring it out again. If there is a need for detailed oversight, think creatively about how oversight can be accomplished without making employees feel like a toddler being taught to tie their shoes.
Human stress is reduced through human connection. Tangible rewards or incentives have a very limited shelf-life. Experiential rewards can help if it's done with connection in mind rather than convenience. For example, offering (for example) dog play dates that only benefits the 3 people who are regularly going to the office and have dogs. Any action should be closely reviewed to see if it is likely to lead to stronger employee connection and engagement or if it is meant to placate folks who are having super stress.
If you are a leader who does not currently have the skills to effectively connect with your direct reports, ask your boss right now for professional development funds for training. Empathy and emotional intelligence can be learned. If meaningful human interaction is not currently in your skill set, it certainly can be; don’t sell yourself short. Even your earnest effort will help engage your reports. You don’t have to be perfect; you have to be present and engaged.