For nearly two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it increasingly difficult for people to do their jobs. In addition to regular work duties, people have had to worry about their health and that of their loved ones. They have faced increased uncertainty about the future and have had to learn new ways of working.
Considering this additional pressure, it is not surprising that employees have reported feeling less happy at work since the start of the pandemic.
The pandemic has also damaged employees’ commitments to their organizations. With companies increasingly adopting remote work models, employees have fewer and fewer reasons to feel attached to their workplaces, as the usual human interactions have been replaced by video calls.
In the face of all this change, employers have been asking: what can organizations do to reduce these negative effects of the pandemic on their employees?
Organizational support can reduce the pandemic’s damage
It is precisely this question that I set out to investigate in a study of nearly 300 people working full-time. The results determined that the extent to which the pandemic affected employees depended heavily on how their employers responded to the crisis.
In particular, our study suggests that organizations can lessen the negative effects of the pandemic by implementing support measures. If workplaces offer these types of support, they can make their employees feel more committed, leading to a greater sense of employee well-being.
Organizational support is so important because employees are in “repeated exchange” relationships with their workplaces. Employees provide their time and effort to their workplaces, and in return they have certain expectations, like salaries and job security, from their organizations.
The pandemic represents a moment of truth for workers — they are using it to determine whether or not they can depend on their organizations to help out in critical situations. When organizations do rise up to the challenge, employees recognize that their employers are capable of fulfilling their duties towards them, and are much more likely to remain committed to their organizations.
Organizational support not (only) about money
Organizations can support their employees during the COVID-19 pandemic in several ways. At the most basic level, there are measures to help reduce some of the difficulties associated with doing the required work. For instance, providing the right communication equipment, help with setting up home working facilities and increasing scheduling flexibility are all ways to help people work effectively, despite the new challenges.
In addition, organizations can show employees that they care by acknowledging the extra effort needed to work during the pandemic. Working during the pandemic is a juggling act; business leaders need to realize this and show their appreciation for employees that are balancing multiple work and private responsibilities (such as caring for children during school closures).
Another way organizations can help is through clear and open communication about the future. With many businesses facing lower sales and profitability due to the pandemic, being transparent about how the organization will be impacted can help reduce the uncertainty employees have about their future.
Support can also come from direct supervisors. Even though our study found that many organizations were not able to arrange comprehensive support measures for their employees, direct supervisors can still help by making themselves available to employees for support.
The opportunity to talk to their supervisors can also help employees understand their new roles and expectations in the workplace. Another recent study argued that, because COVID-19 disrupted the normal way of working, employees need help making sense of the new situation and employers are in a unique role to ensure supervisors can perform this important support role.
One-size-fits-all approach not the solution
Another key finding of our study is that people respond to organizational support differently, depending on their personality. For instance, people with high self-esteem may benefit less from some support measures because they may consider them less helpful.
For maximum success, organizations should design customizable support measures. Instead of a one-size-fits-all solution, organizations should let employees choose from a range of support options. Since employees have different personalities and personal circumstances, the ability to choose is vital.
Employees with young children may benefit from the ability to work later in the day or on weekends to accommodate sudden needs for home-schooling. Meanwhile, those who live alone may not see this as an equally helpful option.
The principle of customization, or opting-in, can also be applied to support from the direct supervisor. For example, instead of scheduling additional meetings for everyone to attend, more intentional and targeted forms of communication could be used instead.
If employers want to mitigate some of the negative impacts of the pandemic on their employees, they will need to deliberately design support mechanisms to help their employees cope with the increased demands of working during the pandemic. Organizational support designed on principles of customization can help increase employee commitment and their job-related well-being at large.