Amid the current global health crisis, much of the shipping and maritime industry’s workforce is now having to work from home either on a full time or rotational basis. That has presented many challenges where we have, until now, been reticent to embrace this working style and employers and employees are having to rapidly adapt.
Not only have employees been thrust into a completely new way of working, the adjustment comes at a time when we are all having to deal with stress and uncertainty in ways that are unprecedented for most of us.
Supporting employees wellbeing needs to be a focal point of this new era. Predictions are for a huge upswing in mental health issues arising from these challenging times so the more we can do now, the better placed we will be and the more inclusive, empathetic and supportive our working environments will become.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have spoken to a number of CEOs and HR Directors regarding measures they have in place or are looking to implement and have combined these with some best practice measures we can all incorporate.
With careful planning, considered communication, defined accountability and measured reporting, the following suggestions are not complicated to implement but to be effective need to be done thoroughly. Not only are they suitable for existing home based workers but they can also be incorporated into onboarding new employees as a number of shipping entities are still continuing with hiring new staff members and bringing them on remotely.
Ensure your workers have all necessary equipment to work from home and that they understand all the tools / resources available for them to do their work and to participate in any online meetings / social and wellbeing activities. Keep in mind that employees may not be technologically minded so ensure information is clearly presented and sufficiently detailed.
Offer support in obtaining any equipment employees need – don’t assume they have it all or can leave the home to access it. It may be as simple as arranging for a stationery delivery but may also require more practical support such as desks / office chairs to avoid any potential physical detriment to health.
Working environment and working hours
Communicate the importance for employees to look after their mental and physical health and support this by providing clear guidance on the hours they are expected to work and best practice around creating a division between work and home life. This could cover simple measures such as having a separate space for work (if possible), structuring the day, the importance of routine, taking regular breaks, turning off phones / email notifications at the end of the working day (again, if possible within their job remit).
It is worth noting that a study by the CIPD found that 32% of employees felt working remotely meant they could not switch off in their personal time, with 18% saying the constant connection to the office was akin to being under surveillance so being clear about expectations is critical. Most organisations understand the need for flexibility and that the message is about getting the job done rather than being seen to be at your desk for a minimum number of hours a day.
With schools closed and large numbers of employees having their children at home, the remote working we are dealing with now is far from any ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ expectations, we have to take personal circumstances into account.
This is essential, particularly in the current environment of anxiety and stress. Not knowing is proven to be worse for employees than having the power of knowledge and insight so regular communication and updates regarding business planning and high level objectives are critical. In the current health crisis, advice regarding COVID-19, identifying the symptoms, how to stay safe and any in-country advice / measures should also be incorporated.
This should be driven from the top down and where emergency measures are in place, give employees a clear guideline regarding any review dates and dates for when the next corporate message will be communicated.
The CEO of a major shipping services company last week held a video call with all 3,000 of his employees to communicate the key immediate objectives of the company and provide reassurance and support – I have no doubt it was a technological feat but it is doable and of paramount importance in engaging with our employees, particularly during these unprecedented and unpredictable times.
Encourage team interaction on a social level. One company has adopted Lunch Online where for one hour a day, their employees can join a video call if they choose to, in order to see their fellow employees and have what is essentially a water-cooler chat. Another organisation is bringing geographically diverse teams together by having a global virtual social video call on Fridays encompassing breakfast in one region, lunch in another and end of the week beers in the other.
Most people are inherently social and this interaction helps diminish the stress of weeks of potentially working from home in part or complete isolation. It may be awkward for some to start with but people have rapidly adjusted. There is a wealth of technology available to support this including MS Teams, Skype, BlueJeans, Zoom and WebEx.
Other organisations are using their intranet more and have WhatsApp groups established purely to support team interaction and wellbeing by posting jokes, photos, information and sharing stories about what people are experiencing.
Where line managers may be responsible for large teams across multiple locations, responsibility for implementing these video socials can be delegated to a team member and it doesn’t need to be the most senior one, ask the best person for the job. Whoever is responsible needs to receive clear communication regarding the parameters in terms of the frequency and duration of the socials, when and how to remind colleagues about them and the technology to be used and how to access/use it.
The vice president of another industry giant is connecting regularly with her globally based team; becoming more mindful and aware of the personal challenges that the teams are experiencing, whilst ensuring she actively listens to the messages she is receiving. She explained to me that a key part of her focus is understanding the challenges people are facing, one example being an employee who felt reluctant to share that they were structuring their day by starting with a yoga session at 8.00 am. This person needed the reassurance that this was in fact not only acceptable to the company but a great way to safeguard their physical and mental wellbeing and to be encouraged. The key being the active listening to identify any areas of potential concern or worry for employees and to be able to address them at an early stage to ease the anxiety burden.
First class communication and listening skills are essential for supporting home workers. Best practice indicates that regular (daily or weekly) 1-1s by video conference promote a more effective working environment and employees feel more included, this in turn resulting in a greater level of trust being developed.
In addition to discussing any work-related matters, the vice president referred to above is also encouraging her team to be open about how they feel and to be comfortable in discussing this. It has taken a few attempts for some employees to grow more at ease but they are doing so and this open approach means any potential issues can be addressed and supported early on. By management being more open and essentially ‘human’ in how they communicate, a two-way dialogue becomes more productive and meaningful.
Within day to day requests and management, managers and team leaders should pay attention to the language they use and set clear expectations regarding areas such as response times and in terms of communicating accountability.
It is also especially important for managers to be aware of the need to provide positive feedback and ensure that good work is being recognised – do not lose sight of the changes employees are having to adapt to, showing gratitude for their commitment and effort means a lot whether as a team or as individuals.
Areas such as childcare are particularly important to discuss with employees at the moment to ensure they are not feeling over burdened. The global HR director of a prominent tanker owner shared with me that they are proactively discussing this with their teams and doing all they can to support their staff by being as adaptable and flexible as possible. This being another example of a more open communication style being utilised to ensure the well being of all employees whilst maintaining overall productivity and service delivery.
Consider setting up ‘buddy’ groups where colleagues check in with each other daily and make this mandatory. Social interaction as described previously can be opt-in but having in place a mechanism to ensure all employees are in contact for well-being support is highly recommended.
It is also important that leaders themselves look after their mental wellbeing, particularly as they may well be supporting a stressed workforce or have financial pressures that they didn’t have before. If possible, establish a peer support network for leaders to be able to speak to others on a similar level and support each other.
Managing collaborative projects
If working on collaborative projects, project tracking technology is a fantastic way to ensure effective project management with clear visibility for all. There are a multitude available including the likes of Trello, ProofHub, ClickUp and Asana.
Clear processes, task management and progress reporting also go a long way to minimise workplace stress and ensure informed management without employees feeling micro- managed whilst being able to clearly understand objectives and milestones.
Ask your employees for ideas and input – whether on improving any work from home processes or to help connect and support each other during these highly challenging times. This encourages the sharing of initiatives and ideas which is of course the foundation of an inclusive working environment.
Whether it’s sharing photos from your home ‘office’ window or of pets or, or, as one company has done, providing small garden grow boxes for employees to show their weekly progress with, anything can make a difference.
Proactively promote health and wellbeing
Remind employees of any support you as an employer provide – this may be private healthcare (often including access to mental health support), gyms (many of which are now providing online classes and exercise routines) and any other health and wellness resources you have.
Consider launching a company wide activity challenge to keep employees engaged and moving while they’re working from home.
With any of the foregoing, clear communication is critical and ensuring that there is a defined way to feedback to line managers and, ultimately, to senior management is essential. Making sure that every person within a team is taken into consideration is vital. At the moment, none of know when or exactly how we will come out of this crisis so as much as we are supporting our personal families at the moment, our work families need us too, and we need them.