Before the coronavirus sent shockwaves of change around the globe, company leaders promoted team building and strong work culture by organizing happy hours, community service outings and team-building trips to local escape rooms.
But when COVID-19 forced companies to send their employees home, the ability to promote employees’ mental health and job satisfaction became much more complicated and cumbersome.
Before the pandemic, 34-year-old Chicago-based brokerage ITG Transportation kept only half of its employee base in the office at a time, minimizing overhead. In an interview with FreightWaves, ITG’s leadership team offered insights on their transition to an entirely remote workforce.
While ITG has weathered its own tragedies this year, some COVID-19-related, CEO Dan Kopp said, “I don’t want to say that ITG has skipped rosily through the pandemic, but it’s important to create the infrastructure to make sure your people are OK when times are tough.”
Here are some best practices ITG has gleaned from its own experience.
1. Keep traditions even as you pivot.
Employee retention is an issue in the logistics industry, but this is an area where ITG thrives. Last year, ITG planned a company luncheon where employees were recognized with a milestone gift for their years of service in five-year increments. When COVID-19 became a reality, Kopp worried the event would go by the wayside.
“Fortunately everyone lives relatively close, so I did socially distanced, in-person visits to folks’ houses over a one- or a two-day stretch to deliver the gifts, check in and say thank you in person for the work that they’re doing,” said Kopp. “It may have been the best two days of the year.”
Photographs from Kopp’s visits to the employees were compiled in a slideshow for the entire company so everybody else within the organization could celebrate their recognition as well.
Another tradition — Hot Dog Day — once required outdoor tents, potluck sides and an ice cream truck. 2020’s Hot Dog Day pivoted cleverly to $25 GrubHub gift cards and sharing hot dog selfies with colleagues.
“The pictures were great to see what people were doing, how they celebrated, how families got involved,” said Kopp. “I think it was just about as great of remote comradery as you can come up with, because it was everyone doing the same thing that we’d always done and that the original concept wasn’t lost.”
2. Prioritize mental health.
Without being able to check in on employees at the office and develop the necessary trust and rapport, supervisors have a duty to create virtual points of contact with their employees.
“As this pandemic and the remote workplace continued, what became more of a focus was everyone’s mental health and stress levels in terms of what they’re managing on their plates in between family, children, jobs, and family health,” said Ashley Kroeger, director of human resources. “We wanted to make sure everybody had all the tools they could to remain mentally well.”
Departments have either weekly or biweekly Zoom calls, which are opportunities to chat casually about topics other than work, whether that includes personal issues or the latest Netflix binge.
At the executive level, Dan Kopp schedules a few one-on-ones each week with staff across the company, just to check in. But these meetings come with a massive disclaimer for employees not to worry — that Dan just wants to talk.
ITG has hosted two motivational webinars this year — one focused on positive mindset and another on gratitude and generosity. “The feedback has been amazing. A number of people have chimed in saying, ‘Right place, right time.’ You have a lot of folks who go into something like that with suspicion. But a number of people said it was exactly what they needed and time well spent.”
3. Request honest feedback from employees.
Everyone has been in a company-wide Zoom meeting where not a soul has a question to ask at the end.
“One of the biggest realizations is how much I have to dig for feedback on almost anything,” said Kopp. “It’s very easy to find yourself in an echo chamber when you’re only having online meetings. It’s honestly almost like the junior high health class where nobody wants to raise their hand on that question. I joke around and say, ‘So clearly everything I just said was a hundred percent agreeable to everybody?’”
ITG has found anonymous surveys to be the best guarantee for honest feedback, which is imperative for leaders if they want to ensure they’re on the same page as their employees.
4. Model vulnerability from the top down.
Some leaders might worry their credibility is threatened if they let their guard down in front of their employees, but Kopp pushes for the opposite.
“It’s very easy to say, ‘I’m running an organization, so it always has to look like everything’s perfect on my end’ or else people lose confidence. But in meetings, I have no problem going in saying, ‘Guys, it’s a disaster at my house today. My kids are loud. Don’t mind what’s happening in the background in our house, because I have the life that you guys have, too: internet issues, a screaming kid, the doorbell rings every 10 minutes with an Amazon delivery.”
As a leader, feigning perfection could harm a culture of integrity and authenticity, especially during the trauma of a pandemic. Don’t be afraid to be a human in this process, Kopp said.
5. Encourage firm boundaries between work and home.
In remote work, leaving work at the end of the day no longer requires you to exit a physical address and begin the decompression process on the commute home or to the gym.
“I think staff can get into that tunnel of keeping their computer on all day and not having that boundary of home time versus work time,” Kroeger said. “So try to help your staff change those boundaries, because again, that will help their mental health as well.”
Whether that means taking meaningful breaks to cook, walk, call a friend or catch a virtual exercise class, supervisors should encourage their staff to create defined boundaries between their work and home lives.