Social Distancing: How it is impacting your organization and 3 approaches to tackle it

Social Distancing Covid 19

It’s a serious time for the world. Nation after nation is taking strict measures to enforce social isolation for their people in an attempt to contain the COVID-19 spread.

At this point, the message is crystal clear: this virus is not to be taken lightly. COVID-19 alone has crippled many organizations of revenue and business development, from stock market crashes to more than 90% cancellation in flights for airlines.

There’s no doubt about it – social distancing is necessary to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus. But, at what cost?

From an employer’s perspective, it is important to recognize the reality of the situation, and not downplay the effects that social distancing brings to your organization’s productivity.

For the reality is, your people are at their most vulnerable now. Why is that so?


Tipping the work-life balance scale

With any global pandemic, the emotional strain of managing one’s personal life tends to take center stage, where employees might experience increased personal responsibilities such as taking care of their families, practicing social distancing to protect their loved ones, and recalibrating household and health habits.

With that end of the balancing scale tilted, employees still have to juggle and find a balance with work. Not just work, but changes in the way of working and fears of work instability during a time like this.


Any organizational initiative is a work disruptor

On top of the emotional load and changes in responsibilities as we cope with social distancing, changes implemented by organizations have introduced new styles of working, reconfiguring how employees work.

Organizations have been quick to introduce and implement policies and business continuity plans (BCPs) to ensure that businesses can function with minimal disruption.

However, while initiatives like working-from-home (WFH), virtual team meetings, and leveraging digital tools to track and manage work are supposedly effective on paper, implementing and routinizing these initiatives can be challenging at first.

Any new change is a disruptor to work, no matter how good the initiative is, and your employees will need to get used to this new normal as soon as possible.

What should organizations or leaders then do to ensure a smooth transition of these organizational initiatives from ideation to an immediate reality?


#1 Keep initiatives relevant

With an influx of digital tools and recommended ways of working available out there in the market, which are the ones that are the most relevant for your organization? For instance, with more than a dozen video conferencing tools out there, which should you as a leader choose? Do we not face a situation of the tyranny of choice here?

To effect a smoother change, organizations can consider working with what employees are already familiar with and improve on that, so that there is no need for an introduction of a brand new initiative. This might encourage greater buy-in and commitment, resulting in lesser resistance.

If employees are familiar with an existing phone conferencing tool, there is no need to introduce yet a new video communication tool for the sake of it. In addition, depending on the team preferences, having facetime with video conferencing might sound good on paper, but it might not serve the purpose if it is something the team is not comfortable with.

In addition, while an organization can introduce a host of new initiatives, it is really up to the individual team leaders and department heads to take charge of these initiatives and weave them into their team routine and culture. As a leader, curating a few initiatives that work well for the team will not only make it easier to follow through, but also create lesser confusion within your team.

For instance, due to team culture and work requirements, a roving sales team head might want to consider having more virtual face time as well as emphasis on social distancing and better etiquette and hygiene habits.


#2 Communicate, communicate, and communicate!

To reduce uncertainty when a new change or initiative is introduced, it is imperative these are well communicated to employees in a clear and decisive manner. As this change will be a disruptor to work, mishandling the time and method of communication can lead to confusion and discussion within employees.

Recommended Steps When Initiating Change:

1. Communicate to employees before implementation. Do this as early as possible so that employees can prepare themselves. This should be followed with a note with more details and steps.

2. Clear follow-up communication. Follow up communication should explain the rationale of the initiative, the impact, expectations, clear guidelines, and FAQs so employees can be fully onboarded as an active user of this new initiative. This should be reinforced by multiple follow up communication to ensure the stickiness of the initiative.

3. Creation of a feedback channel. As active users, employees should be able to give feedback and clarify queries relating to this situation in a safe environment. A feedback channel or committee, or even their managers should act as change champions to provide support and clarification to employees.


#3 Complement “hard” initiatives with “soft” touches

When implementing a new initiative or revised way of working, resistance should be expected. This can stem from employees finding it cumbersome, or it could simply stem from confusion.

Imagine an employee who is used to working in an office, with a routinized schedule, and using familiar tools to complete work efficiently. Now, that same employee has to cope with working from home, on a different work schedule and lesser access to facilities, using a set of new digital tools for communication and work.

While that can be an exaggeration, the reality is that employees have to go through some change as a consequence of the virus. Therefore, leaders and managers should try to empathize with employee’s emotions during this period of time.

There will be an increased need for clarification, mutual understanding, and sensitivity, especially during the initial phase. Initiatives should come hand-in-hand with soft human touches to effect.


Conclusion: Every employee is part of the organization

Each employee counts, regardless of a C-suite leader or an entry-level employee. Cascading of emotions about the pandemic and what organizations are proactively doing to ensure the business continuity and employee wellbeing should be clearly communicated to each level of employees.

It should start with communication between manager and direct reports should be genuine, transparent, and proactive, with multiple channels of communication for clarifications and concerns.

Only then, can the culture of unity be forged during a trying time like this, rather than encouraging a culture of blame.

As people managers, this is the time to put practice to reality during this pandemic, for the present and for the future.

Eddie Chua
Eddie Chua
Eddie Chua is an Organizational Psychologist who helps organizations achieve their true talent strategy and potential, the Pulsifi way.

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