Corona - the managers’ guide helping staff survive working at home

A lot of people right now are trying to figure out how to work and take care of their kids at the same time. But how is your boss handling the situation?

By Eva Bøgelund

It should come as little surprise that the question Djøf’s counsellors are being asked most these days is what members should do if they’ve been asked to work full-time at home, but can’t because their kids are there too.

“Our answer: talk to your boss about it. Find out what is expected if you,” says Mette Knudsen, the head of Djøf Rådgivning.

Bosses, she says, can help out by discussing the situation with their employees before their employees come to them with a problem.

“The most important thing right now is for employees not to feel guilty or uncertain about what’s appropriate. That’s bad for workplace relations.”

Tina Buch Olsson, a distance-management specialist for Dansk Erhverv, a business lobby, agrees that managers need to reach out.

“Parents are being asked to use a lot of time to help their children with schoolwork, but their employers, whether they are in the private or the public sector, also need them to spend their time at home working for them as well,” Olsson said in a recent interview with Djøf Bladet. “Things like dialogue, compassion and being clear about expectations are more important than ever right now.”

Relaxed parents, relaxed kids

Manuela Munkholm, the head of human resources for law firm DLA PIPER Denmark and a divorced mother of four, recommends that employers accept from the outset that having to work and care for children at the same time is a more than a handful.

“We need to let our employees know that we understand that there isn’t enough of them to go around,” she says.

One of the ways DLA Piper Denmark shows it’s aware of the situation is by having its managing partner send messages about children and work, and by sharing funny social-media posts about how they are dealing with the situation.

“That helps put people at ease,”Munkholm says. “We communicate something that everyone is having trouble with at the moment.”

The rub is that the firm’s clients still need the same services as they did before corona came along. Her advice echoes Olsson’s: bosses should take a case-by-case approach. Each family’s situation is different, so they need to talk to employees about how best they can get their work done, and tell them what they should prioritise.

“Employees can also get in touch with HR and talk to them about how to come up with a solution that will allow them to work with kids at home,” she says. “We believe that relaxed parents give relaxed kids, and that it’s the responsibility of HR and of management to get our employees to relax.”

You can read more of Munkholm’s advice at the end of this article, but the most important thing to remember, she says, is that there are no cookie-cutter solutions.

“We, as managers, need to listen and do what we can for each individual employee. But we also know that, no matter what we do to help, it’s still going to chafe.”

An ounce of mindfulness

Bringing work into the home like this, admits Ditte Kruse Dankert, a department head with the Immigration Service, has thrown the goal of “work-life balance” out of whack.

“Our employers are all adapting to the situation in their own way. Individual managers need to be in contact with each employee to get a sense of the degree of flexibility they need,” she says.

Her own message to her staff has been that everyone – bosses as well as the organisation as a whole – needs to be mindful of other people’s situations.

From the start, the Immigration Service took a flexible line. People can work at the time that suits them best, be that in the evenings, at the weekends or here and there during the course of the day as the situation permits.

“It seems as if people are pretty much putting in close to the hours they normally would, they’re just doing it at different times than they normally would,” Danker says. “I’m pleasantly surprised that we haven’t seen productivity decline.”

Balancing act

So far, the situation at the environment and food ministry’s office of water and marine environment is good, according to Katrine Nissen a department head, even if, as she says, “people’s different needs are slowing things down somewhat.”

And while having people work from home is clearly less effective than when they are all in the same place, everyone in her office is doing their best to make sure that things don’t grind to a halt.

“We recognise that teaching kids at home and working at home is a balancing act for our employees, so we’re allowing our staff to work at other times if it’s not worth it for them to work during regular hours, or to take time off, if they can.”

Same challenges, new situation

Some 2,200 people employed by the nation’s courts are working at home right now. The Court Administration helps its managers out by regularly sending them good, often detailed, advice about distance management.

Much of what gets put out sounds familiar: discuss expectations, make sure employees don’t feel guilty about how much work they are getting done. But, according to development director Merethe Eckhardt, the administration is aware that HR issues that existed before people were sent home are still out there.

“In reality, people’s conflicts become even more apparent when they are only interacting on-line and can’t use body language,” she says. “It’s important for us to talk to people if we see signs there might be a problem somewhere.”

She also understands that it is a lot to ask people to mix work with their private lives.

“Managers need to make sure people know what they expect; we don’t want people to come back to work completely burnt out,” Eckhardt says.

These are uncertain times, but she suggests that one thing managers can do to help things out is to talk with their employees about something other than work.

“Doing that has the additional benefit of giving managers a sense of whether an employee needs more support than normal. We all react in our own ways to not just corona but also to being told to work at home.”

Some people, she notes, are totally alone, while others are cramped together with their family.

“That’s why it’s important for us to address people’s individual situations,” Eckhardt says. “If we don’t try to understand their situation, we can’t give them what they need to do their work and to make sure they don’t feel like they have been left to fend for themselves.”

Keeping things in perspective

How do to things look from the top? Mette Agergaard knows. The director of the Tax Authority, she has 4,000 people under her that she communicates with once a day in a mass e-mail.

“It’s times like this, when people’s workdays are totally unrecognisable, that we need managers to show they can be empathetic,” she says.

One of the purposes of her daily e-mail is to tell employees what she and the other directors are doing, but she also uses it as way to put the situation in perspective, to remind the organisation of the importance of the Tax Authority at a time when people are losing their jobs, companies are collapsing and people are afraid they may wind up in the hospital.

A reminder of how things look from the outside world, she believes, is important when most people’s lives don’t extend much further than their front door.

“Things are running almost as they normally do. I’m really proud of that,” she says. “Everyone has shown an immense amount of willingness to make this work.”

What’s even more remarkable is that this is the busiest time of year for the authority; it’s tax season.

All of the managers we spoke with were aware that there’s more to working at home than work. That’s why DLA Piper has its social-media posts. The Tax Authority does something similar by posting employees’ pictures from their home offices on its intranet. Last week, one of its deputy directors called in 150 of his staff members to a mass on-line meeting.

Nissen, from the environment and food ministry, says that for as long as co-workers can’t come together physically, managers need to do what they can to bring them together virtually. Last week, for example, they got together on Zoom to wish one of the people in the office a happy birthday.

Eckhardt, from the judicial authority, says being apart, in a way, is bringing staff closer together.

“We’re seeing what their homes look like. While we’re holding on-line meetings for work, we’re also seeing what their kids, their spouses and their kitchens look like. We need to be aware of people’s limits though. Not everyone wants let their co-workers into their private lives.”

How do you manage people who aren’t there? – Advice for managers

  • Show that you understand that it takes time and effort to come up with a new work routine and to balance working and helping children with schoolwork – while not leaving your clients in the lurch.
  • Talk to your employees. Find out what their situation is and help them come up with a way to set up their day in a way that works best for them and their assignments.
  • Make sure employees feel they can speak openly about what’s not working for them. If your staff can discuss problems with each other, they will also be able to find solutions together.

Mixing kids and work

  • Try to make a weekly schedule for your family. Schedule lunch. Reserve time away from work to help your kids with homework. If you think your children into the solution they will be more interested in helping to make it work.
  • Update your Outlook calendar. You’ll relax more if you know your co-workers know you will be unavailable for the next hour.
  • If your spouse is also going to be working at home it’s a good idea that the two of you agree when you each need to work and when you can look after the kids.
  • Even if you and your employees do that, it’s good to keep in mind that, even though the parents are working – or in a Skype meeting – the children might not realise (or respect) that you are.
  • Go outside with your kids. You need to go out and play just as much as they do.
  • Arrange with another parent to switch off taking care of your children. Another idea is to ask a teenager who’s home from school to babysit a few hours each day. Just remember to follow all health guidelines.
  • Your employer will probably allow you take time off as you need it if you can’t work because you need to spend time with your children or just need an afternoon off.

Source: Manuela Munkholm. Human Resources Manager, DLA PIPER Denmark

This article is published by Djøfbladet. It originally appeared in Danish on-line at djoefbladet.dk