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Coronavirus: 10 workplace impacts you might not have considered

A version of this story was first published by HRM Online. Read the original.

No doubt you’ve read articles on the impacts COVID-19 is having on our workplaces. But here are a few most people might not be thinking about.

Australian buses and trains are starting to feel like ghost ships, there are more people wearing masks in public than during the bushfire crisis and global internet usage has skyrocketed as many workplaces close down and staff work from home.

At this point you might find it hard to find a single Australian who isn’t at least a little concerned about COVID-19. While many organisations are across the most immediate impacts – remote working, rigorous changes to hygiene guidelines, cancelling events, etc. – the nature of a crisis like this is that it narrows our focus. Who can see the forest when they’re running through the trees?

HRM spoke to Aaron McEwan, vice president, research and advisory at Gartner about what lies outside that tunnel vision. Here are ten impacts COVID-19 is having on work you might not have considered.

1. Staff have an ecological hangover

In the most recently tracked quarter, employee confidence in the job market decreased by 4.4%, according to Gartner’s latest Global Talent Monitor.

“This is the sentiment employees had before the world went to hell in a handbasket,” says McEwan.

He means the results are based on data collected pre-Coronavirus, pre-floods and pre-bushfires. As you can imagine, those crises combined will have an impact on employee confidence.

“We’re collecting this quarter’s data as we speak. I think we’ll find even steeper declines in business confidence, and intents to stay with an employer and discretionary efforts will also be significantly impacted.”

McEwan said when speaking to HR heads earlier in the year, the overwhelming sentiment was that staff had returned to work from the Christmas break less refreshed than when they left.

“They were describing it as zombies walking in the door. Staff hadn’t rested, probably because of the bushfire crisis. People weren’t in a good state of mind and they were feeling quite negative and pessimistic about the future.”

Coronavirus could be worse than salt in the wound. Staff already have a general sense of existential anxiety around climate change, says McEwan.

Essentially, we’re piling immediate anxiety about this global pandemic atop of existing dread about the state of the world – it’s not a good combination.

“A lot of companies will have business continuity plans or natural disaster plans, but those have been built for one-off events, like a terrorist attack or a cybersecurity breach. Nobody has really built anything for something that could last for months and has increasingly unpredictable consequences.”

2. Managers don’t know how to manage remotely

While research from Indeed shows that up to 68% of Australian employers offer some form of remote work, most organisations don’t teach their leaders how to manage staff virtually, says McEwan. A lot of the current training for managers is focused on face-to-face meetings.

McEwan has been in contact with a lot of organisations in recent weeks. He says that, putting aside immediate disaster response requirements, this lack of virtual management expertise is a primary concern for many.

HRM has written before about how remote workers can feel neglected. Part of management training is about considering ‘virtual body language’ (using emojis, mirroring how the employee communicates) and the best ways to give employees negative feedback. The temptation for the latter is to keep it all virtual, since that’s how most regular communication happens. But it can backfire.

As we wrote at the time: “It’s often easy to misconstrue something as negative without tone or verbal clarity. For instance, ‘nice job’ can seem biting and sarcastic even when it’s meant genuinely. The lack of tone can mean people obsess over punctuation. ‘Did they mean to not capitalise? Are they angry? Where are the emojis?’ For that reason, it can be better to communicate either via video conference or on the phone.”

McEwan suggests something similar. “The advice we give to HR here is that we can expect employees will continue to have to work remotely for some time. So, HR should be looking at how they can support their managers to manage remotely effectively. [Managers] need to communicate more and in different ways, such as holding regular virtual meetings. There’s skill in doing that effectively.”

Organisations should be looking for resources and experts who can help their managers excel in this time of social distancing.

3. We should change our benchmarks

McEwan suggests business leaders revisit what’s possible from their employees during these trying times. Ask yourself, are current performance goals still appropriate? Sales professionals, for example, who rely heavily on face-to-face meetings, are going to struggle to meet their monthly targets.

“They won’t necessarily get their bonuses. So we really have to re-think what performance looks like during a crisis. We need to redirect peoples’ efforts to high value activities.”

Essentially, his advice is to make sure you’re using a lens that values quality over quantity.

4. We should also change our engagement strategies

“Organisations should expect employees’ ability to remain focused at this point to be really stretched. They’re worrying about themselves, their families, their children and their communities – in addition to their colleagues,” says McEwan.

“I’m not sure employees will have a lot of capacity for discretionary effort. The immediate response from employers should be how to help their employees maintain focus, engagement and productivity.”

It’s also important for managers to help their staff to feel connected to the purpose of their work. This is always important, but even more so during tough times.

“Be clear on the priorities because everyone is distracted and distressed. So managers can help by making sure the work that’s getting done is the high value stuff. It’s a real opportunity for managers to step in and constantly remind their people of the value and purpose of the work they’re doing. Then make sure they’re recognising the efforts of their staff.

“Doing that without the advantage of face-to-face time is going to be challenging. So they’re going to need some training on how to do that well. They’ll need access to HR when they have challenges they might not have experienced before.”

5. Fear rules, but vision should trump everything

You’ve only got to look at the populations’ panic buying tendencies to see just how powerful fear can be. When scared, we can act out of character.

In our article on helping employees and colleagues who are anxious because of COVID-19HRM spoke to psychologists about how to help someone who is having a panic attack. They stressed that when you are scared your mind gets “hijacked by your amygdala”.

A similar mindset can overtake an organisation. Worse still, fear in the present can lead to despondency in the future, says McEwan.

“When people are concerned about the economy, they often go back to more radical survival needs. So development [opportunities] might not be high. Another way of interpreting that is that employees might have given up. We’ve had flat wage growth for around five years now. So a lot of people probably aren’t expecting bonuses or promotions. Our data points to a deflated workforce that may have given up a little bit. Which is sad.”

The way to get someone out of a panic attack is to engage the parts of the brain that aren’t just about fight or flight. Returning to the previous point about engagement, in times of stress it’s important to articulate the grander vision.

Get people thinking about the good your organisation does and how their work contributes. And don’t neglect that they still want to develop in their career. Consider what training can be provided remotely and let people know what opportunities are available or on the horizon.

6. Impacts on women are greater

You might not consider coronavirus to be a gender issue, but it absolutely is. Women account for the majority of the casual workforce. Casual and contract workers are likely to feel the pinch the most due to a lack of job security and benefits.

McEwan says women will also be disproportionately impacted by the changes wrought by COVID-19, because, historically, they take on the caring roles in society. As HRM discussed recently, working mothers will make less money than working fathers. So if a family has to decide who will stay home to look after elderly relatives or children, it makes sense to pick the person who earns less – often the woman.

“At the tail end of international women’s week, I wouldn’t want to be the company that deals with bad press related to that.”

7. Thinking cost first can damage your employment brand

Staying on that point: the decisions employers make now could have detrimental effects in the future, says McEwan.

“The big ethical question here is: ‘If we don’t have to legally pay people if they’re not at work, should we?' The Prime Minister said we should think carefully about this for the good of the country. But ... under the Fair Work Act you might not be obligated to pay somebody above and beyond their leave entitlements.

“Employees with casual workers or contractors might not be under any obligation to pay workers who aren’t at work.”

There will be plenty of people who are forced to utilise their annual leave to care for relatives or home school children, at a time where they’d much prefer to hold onto those entitlements.

“Heads of HR will need to step in and be the ethical voice. Otherwise, these things could have an impact on your employment brand and corporate reputation,” says McEwan.

“We’re operating in an age of radical transparency. So how businesses act and the decisions they make during these times will have enormous potential consequences.”

8. We aren’t prepared for the scale of mental health issues

Psychological distress will be a prominent emotion in workplaces across the world, and it’s not something most managers know how to address.

“There won’t just be general disruptions to the way people work, there’s market volatility, and perhaps an imminent recession. So all employees will experience levels of psychological distress in ways managers and leaders haven’t seen before. Panic buying is an obvious manifestation of that.

“People will be asking questions like, ‘Is my job safe?’ and ‘What if I’m quarantined or my child’s school closes down?’ For casual employees, they could be asking things like, ‘Will I get paid at all?’

McEwan says the scary thing here is that “around 80%” of the mental health issues in employees are either “directly related to work or a combination of work and personal issues”.

He cites research from CIPD which suggests that 43% of employees did not feel comfortable disclosing their stress or poor mental health to their managers.

Statistics like this are really quite scary. HRM has written a case study about a company with managers who didn’t feel comfortable talking about mental health issues at work and didn’t understand the signs and symptoms they should be looking for. By moving beyond simple measures, it was able to change their mental health framework. That’s the kind of big picture thinking companies should be using during these troubling times.

9. Know who your key players are

This is a simple point, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Staff that you don’t tend to think of as critical can become so in a time of crisis. For example, a lot of organisations are relying on low level admin staff for critical communication functions right now. McEwan says another example is IT.

“Because so many people are working remotely, it’s IT staff that have become absolutely critical to business continuity. They have to manage the technology infrastructure to keep this whole thing going. So that’s a section of the workforce that’s going to be highly stressed.”

It might be worth developing a separated, targeted communication and support framework for your key players in a crisis.

10. There are silver linings

The cliche that there is opportunity in a crisis is worth remembering. Not because we should be looking to profit when things are in disarray, but because when things are bad you should remember that you can still be a force for good.

McEwan, who has been talking to HRM about flexible work for years (see this article from April 2017), says this crisis might be a watershed moment for something he wishes more organisations would embrace.

“We’re right in the middle of the largest ‘work from home experiment’ ever conducted. And I think we’ll come out at the end saying, ‘Our employees really stepped up. They were productive and motivated. And businesses didn’t collapse because people weren’t physically in the office.’

“Hopefully this experiment removes any of the last vestiges of cynicism from managers and leaders. That could be one positive outcome to come from this.”