While you were away: Managing employees amidst COVID-19 turbulence

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By Michelle van Schouwen

COVID-19. It has impacted revenues, cash flow, customer base, daily business interactions and – as if that were not enough – has presented new employee challenges for virtually every small business owner.

You may have some or all employees working from home. Or staff may have been furloughed, and may return to work a few at a time for safety reasons or as your needs increase. You may have to run several shifts, or you may strive to accommodate employees’ new child care concerns. Your employees may be stressed, depressed or anxious. They may be concerned about their job security.

Welcome to the wonderful world of being the boss in the COVID era. Be prepared for changing workplace interactions plus new power structures, efficiency issues, and even, in some cases, altered work product. Experts have assembled considerations and strategies to help assure that your employees continue to be assets rather than liabilities. Here are some key points, with links to additional resources.

-Make clear your expectations for employees who are working from home for the first time. Establish policies and provide online training for all employees, so everyone understands what you require.

-Provide regular, scheduled opportunities for team engagement, potentially including a daily stand-up meeting, which could be virtual.

-Now more than ever, assure that you have the right people in the right seats. You’re expecting a high level of personal responsibility from everyone, and some middling performers may not be up to the challenge.

-Employ multiple technologies to interact with remote staff. Use video conferencing for “face-to-face” supervision and key discussions. Employ email or messaging for quick back-and-forth communication, so that not every interaction is lengthy.

-Be aware that many employees have been thrown into new schedules, work-from-home or other changes, for which they may not have been personally ready or inclined. Help them work around scheduling and other “bugs” to facilitate success.

-You may need to provide a new laptop, new software or other tools to make employees’ remote work feasible. For on-site employees, you may need to provide masks, hand sanitizer and other health aids.

-Remember, too, employees may be lonely or unhappy during this pandemic, which may affect their work performance. You may need, in some cases, to guide employees toward virtual or in-person counseling opportunities. Consider presenting such information to the whole team so that no one is singled out.

-Provide forums for remote or physically distanced social interaction and team bonding as well. A Zoom lunch, a hike or an outdoor picnic may be in order at some point. (But first check with employees on their preferences regarding such events!)

-Expect increased employee conflicts and competition. When opportunities are scarce, some employees may try to shove one another aside. Less aggressive employees may be drawn into conflicts created to curry favor for the instigator. Try to rationally alleviate no-win situations, so that employees can feel more secure and be more productive. Some tips here.

-Be aware that you may suffer unwanted attrition. If your best employees do not feel their jobs are secure, they may seek out other opportunities. Create a plan to retain your key staffers, by offering them viable growth options, attractive work schedules and – if you can – longer-term security.

Employers are living with a lot of uncertainty. Employees are doing the same. Only by working closely together, communicating well, and forging new ways to get work done can we create a route to a solid small business future.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5analytics.org. For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her new work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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