The COVID pandemic has left no one unscathed. We've all suffered from the ever-changing restrictions, changes at work, changes at home, emotional and psychological stress, and much more. It has undeniably impacted us all. However, we're only just starting to understand how uneven the toll of COVID-19 has been.
While the data is woefully incomplete, after over two years, we're starting to see that BIPOC communities, people with disabilities, children, women, and frontline workers have been the most vulnerable and the hardest hit. Why? For a myriad of reasons, but mainly because they're the ones occupying low and mid-level jobs with less discretionary income, they're typically working at the frontline, and they are often the primary caregivers in their families.
Here are a few statistics to show the scale of the pandemic's impact:
After a long list like that, it's hard not to get a sense of the scale and knock-on impact of COVID on our lives, our companies, and our coworkers. Thanks to the pandemic, colleagues and friends have been laid off, left their jobs, switched jobs, and suffered significant mental and health problems. However, as the risks of COVID decrease and employers call for a 'return to the office,' it's a difficult adjustment for many employees.
Many employees have built new working hours, moved homes, or found solace in staying safe while working from their own homes. However, the prospect of wasting time and money with a daily commute, inter-office politics, prejudices, being exposed to potentially sick coworkers, and inefficient work schedules just isn't appealing for some employees.
As employers, we need to take steps to help manage our diverse workforce and help everyone transition back to a day-to-day working life that suits them. If we don't, we risk losing them to competitors or jobs that provide more flexibility and benefits.
How you can support your teams and colleagues through the challenges of this unusual and unprecedented time.
1. Keep offering flexible or hybrid work options, but don’t force them when possible.
Perhaps one of the most significant changes from the pandemic was the introduction of remote work and flexible work schedules. It gave us the ability to work different hours, avoid long commute times, and have more control over our schedules. Some people loved it, others hated it, but many still prefer having the option to work at least some of the time remotely. As a result, many job seekers actively look for remote work options and schedule flexibility. If you're struggling to attract talent, flexible work may be an enticing benefit.
Hybrid working arrangements have also shown to be positive for an organization's diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) strategy. For example, many minority workers have shown a preference for working remotely because of its flexibility, avoiding long commute times from more 'affordable' areas, and racial prejudices they're often subjected to in the office. In addition, by working at least part of the time remotely, they can control their schedule and focus on their work. The keyword here is "offer," with research showing that a lack of control is one of the leading causes of burnout. It's a good idea to ease back into office life.
2. Offer mental health assistance and resources.
Much has been said about the short-term mental health impact of COVID, with almost half of employees saying they've been mentally affected by COVID. However, it's also very likely the long-term effects will be even more far-reaching, especially amongst women, minorities, parents, and front-line workers. In addition, companies are likely to see employees continue to struggle with depression, burnout, and anxiety as they try to find their feet in the post-pandemic world.
To help, SHRM and the Harvard Business Review advocate for being there for your employees, having regular check-ins, offering flexibility (see above!), and improving your transparency and communication. Also, consider training leaders to model healthy work habits like taking vacations and avoiding email after core work hours to let employees know that it's ok to have a life outside of work.
For a greater positive impact, you could also consider setting up a mental health employee resource group to help build a community for a shared connection and peer support or establishing mental health awareness training so everyone can better support their colleagues in need.
3. Find opportunities to bring remote and in-person teams together.
Whether you have teams working in-person, virtually, or some of both, it's important to create moments where everyone can get together to build on and improve company culture.
Maybe it's having everyone in the office at least once a month for a working session, having a quarterly team building offsite, organizing weekly cross-functional brown bag sessions (in-person and/or virtual), or hosting a fun turn-key team building event. These sessions will allow employees to socialize, bond, and build a more effective company culture regardless of working in the office or at home.
4. Look at your policies around flexible work.
If you've been offering remote work over the past two years but haven't updated your policies, now is the time to do it. Take a closer look at your policies and practices around flexible hours, transportation benefits, paid time off, communications, and unpaid leave. Maybe it's also time to consider investing in the necessary hardware and software for employees to work more efficiently from home and even reimbursing them for their internet or phone.
5. Offer accommodations.
As employees start to move back to the office, employers may see an increase in the requests for accommodations. An accommodation means preventing and removing barriers that impede employees with disabilities from equally and fully participating in work life. In many cases, it is a modification or adjustment to a job that allows the employee to participate and benefit on equal terms.
Accommodation requests may increase this year due to long COVID cases and older or immuno-compromised workers feeling unsafe coming back to the office. There are a lot of legal steps to offering and agreeing to an official accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act; however, an excellent place to start is understanding more about the disability and what the company could offer to ensure they can still complete their tasks or job. For example, it could be allowing an employee to work 100% remotely, giving them a vaccine exemption, modifying their official work schedule, or offering them a short-term medical leave of absence until they feel fully recovered. In some cases, accommodation can extend to caring for a seriously ill or disabled family member; however, the laws can differ from state to state.