Employee Engagement

How HR Can Best Check in on Employees Coping Through Crisis

April 8, 2020
November 7, 2023
Andy Przystanski
Lattice Team

“How are you doing?” It’s a question we ask a lot these days, especially to family and friends. It’s also one you should consider asking your employees and coworkers. 

The last few weeks have challenged HR teams, managers, and employees in ways that transcend anything they’ve worked through before. People want to help, but knowing what to say (or ask) isn’t intuitive. Here are some great ways to track employee wellbeing during a crisis like COVID-19. 

Employee Surveys

HR teams are used to tracking sentiment through employee surveys. But measuring engagement isn’t the same as checking in during a crisis. Don’t fall back on standby survey questions to infer how your people are feeling about this specific moment in time.

“One thing I’ve learned is that there are often things people are feeling or thinking that they won’t share with you unless you ask them directly,” said Scott Honsberg, Head of People Ops and Culture at Mixtiles. In other words, craft your survey so that it’s obvious that you’re not just running a routine pulse survey. “Gear your questions to what you really want to know,” he said.

Lattice worked with experts to write survey questions that get to the heart of wellbeing, communication, manager support, commitment to the company, and other key themes. Using a five-point scale that ranges from strongly disagree to strongly agree, the survey asks employees to respond to statements like:

  • I am encouraged to take time for myself during the workday.
  • I feel supported to adjust my work schedule to accommodate my caregiving needs.
  • My manager has effectively responded to my needs in the current environment.
  • I am able to maintain meaningful connections with my work friends during this time. 
  • Senior leadership has shown genuine care and concern for employees during this time. 
  • I like the way my company is handling internal communications during this crisis.

Those are just some of the questions we’ve included in our crisis response survey template. Keep in mind that the way employees respond to these will evolve over time. Survey employees through the duration of the crisis. For long term events like the COVID-19 pandemic, consider running a monthly survey. 

Manager Conversations

Effective one-on-one meetings still matter, perhaps now more than ever. Lattice recently surveyed over 1,500 HR teams on how they were managing the current crisis. We found that 84% of organizations relied primarily on manager conversations to track how employees were coping.

“Have a conversation with employees individually. Ask them how they are, what they’re struggling with, and how you can best support them during this time,” said Stacey Engle, President of Fierce Conversations. Employees might have a hard time vocalizing those feelings, so give them time to reflect. That’s one reason why this part of the conversation should happen at the beginning of the one-on-one.

For those who weren’t sure what questions to ask, Honsberg had a few recommendations. The questions were open-ended and addressed remote work dynamics specifically. 

  • What do you like about working remotely?
  • What do you not like about working remotely?
  • Are there any technological frustrations that you’re having?
  • How would you rank company-wide communication at the moment?
  • Is there any department, project, or initiative that you’d like to be more connected to?

While the last question might seem out of place, Honsberg likes bringing it up now that the entire team is suddenly remote. “I ask this of our remote people in the context of them not being in the office on a regular basis. It could be that your new remote employees are feeling more disconnected from a certain project or group since moving to remote,” he said.

If direct reports are holding back the truth, it might be because they’re on the defensive. In these conversations, managers should clarify their motives: They’re not asking because of a perceived drop in productivity. To help ease the tension, managers can share how they’re personally adjusting. While it sounds counterintuitive, communicating vulnerability is a management strength, not weakness.

Finding Balance

While it’s important to catch up with direct reports during a crisis, experts warn that it’s possible to overdo it. No matter how well-intentioned, checking in too frequently might leave them feeling uneasy or micromanaged.

“One of the things that managers need to be aware of when employees are working remotely is how closely they are managing that team,” said Gary Stevens, founder of Hosting Canada. Newly remote employees, under pressure to appear as productive as ever, can interpret an uptick in managers’ emails or Slack messages as added pressure. That might partially explain why employees are working longer days and just as susceptible to burnout as they’ve ever been.

“Micromanagement can be counterproductive. Try to run your team as close to how you did before the pandemic and before your company went remote,” Stevens said. While leaders should check in on mental health more frequently than before, they might be better served using the usual channels — like one-on-ones and team meetings. Managers with suddenly lighter schedules shouldn’t be tempted to fill the void with check-in meetings.

“This doesn’t mean you just ignore your team completely, just give them their space and allow them to get into their work without breaking their concentration with meetings and checkups,” he said.

Working remotely under normal circumstances and working remotely due to COVID-19 are not the same. Managers and HR teams shouldn’t expect employees to put on blinders and go about business as usual. Your approach to surveys and one-on-ones should reflect that.

“Some people will try to be heroic and will never ask for help unless you specifically ask them how things are going, said Yaniv Masjedi, CMO at Nextiva. “Some of our team members are suddenly juggling schoolwork with children and caring for parents in addition to their job. This is as much about making sure they are okay personally as it is about productivity,” he said.

Priorities have changed. In times like these, it’s more important to ask employees how, not what, they’re doing.