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Employers can support employees even if they are working remotely. — Getty Images/fizkes

Looking for new and unique ways to keep your team focused and engaged with their work? We're here to help.

Rise & Shine is a month-long series comprised of short, hyper-focused daily tips on how to keep your team motivated, engaged and inspired during these unprecedented and challenging times. Each day, CO— by U.S. Chamber partners with MetLife to provide you with daily advice on how to manage and lead your team.

Today's Tip:

Make time on your calendar for one-on-one meetings: Leaders should never be too busy to check in with their team members. Whether it's once a week or once a month, schedule time for one-on-one meetings with all of your direct reports on a regular basis. Use this time to build rapport, understand your employee's strengths and struggles, and address any challenges they may be facing in their day-to-day work. Most importantly, encourage them to embrace their own skill sets and interests wherever possible. This will not only increase retention, but also make your workers feel more appreciated and remain loyal to the company.

More Tips:

Always have a backup plan: As a leader, you're faced with daily decisions that may require you to think on your feet and react in real time. Stress and emotions can easily kick in and cause you to make choices that aren't necessarily the best ones. That's why it's important to plan for multiple scenarios and give yourself a blueprint to work from if you're faced with a tough choice.

Scenario-based business planning becomes especially important when you have to make decisions that will impact a large portion of your workforce. As the pandemic continues, you'll need to account for external factors that could influence your business, such as vaccine availability, another wave of lockdowns and continued economic challenges. Having a rough idea of what to do can help you swiftly and confidently make the right choices for your overall business and the employees who depend on you.

Watch your ethics: At a time when society is quick to call out big businesses for ethically questionable decisions, small businesses have an opportunity to rise up and take a stand for ethical business practices. Ethics matter when you're leading a business, and your employees will look to you to do the right thing and set a positive example.

Think carefully about your company's ethical values and how they're reflected in both your internal and public-facing decisions, especially when it comes to protecting your workforce during the pandemic. Companies' decisions about the health and safety of their workers versus profits and executive salaries can make or break their reputation.

Show that you care: The holiday season is the ideal time to acknowledge each other's personal struggles and show genuine care for one another, human being to human being. If you're already demonstrating care and concern for your team members as whole people, you're in good company: 70% of small business employers believe they have a responsibility for their employees' overall well-being, according to MetLife's 18th annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study.

Even if your team is taking time off for the holidays, send them a handwritten or emailed note today to let them know you're thinking of them and that you're here for them if they need a little extra support during these difficult times.

Seek to be a great mentor to your team: Not every mentor has to hold a leadership position, but every leader has the potential to be a great mentor to someone on their team. Whether it's a direct report, a lower-level colleague or a peer on your management team, you have an opportunity to impart your wisdom and shape another person's career for the better.

To be a good mentor, it's important to set specific goals and expectations with your mentee, listen carefully to their questions and concerns, and encourage them to make their own decisions when it comes to their professional development.

Be intentional about inclusivity: Diversity and inclusion in the workplace have rightfully received a tremendous amount of attention in 2020. If your business has talked about being more inclusive but hasn't put any formal programs or initiatives into action, there's no better time to rethink your approach for the new year.

Remember, having a diverse workforce is not the same thing as proactively being inclusive. Inclusion involves intentionally creating a sense of belonging for every employee, regardless of background or job level. Be purposeful about how you create an inclusive business and know that it's OK to start small. You don't need to change your culture overnight; just choose a few key actions you can take and commit to them for the long term.

Revisit your mission and vision statements to reflect a 'higher purpose': Employees want to know that they're working for a company with a "higher purpose" — one that strives to make a larger impact on their community and the world at large. According to Deloitte research, more than 70% of millennials expect their employers to focus on societal or mission-driven problems. Studies have also shown that having a higher purpose that informs all decision-making can help a business inspire and motivate all employees, increase retention and improve profits.

Consider whether your current mission and vision statements clearly communicate your company's purpose to employees. If they don't, you may wish to revisit those statements and think about how you can better articulate that purpose in a way that engages and inspires your workforce.

Ask your employees for help building out your 2021 talent pipeline: As you evaluate your staffing needs for 2021, consider creating an employee referral program to help you source the best talent. Each of your employees likely knows someone who would be a great fit for an open role at your company. By incorporating a referral program into your overall recruiting strategy, you'll not only create an instant, extended talent network, but you'll give your staff an opportunity to build their own "dream team" of colleagues. An added bonus? Referred employees tend to be a better cultural fit and tend to stay in their job longer, so you'll reduce the likelihood of turnover among your new hires.

Understand your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats heading into 2021: Many business leaders have heard of and conducted a SWOT analysis — a strategic planning tool to assess the internal and external factors that may impact a company's overall success. SWOT, an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, can help you identify ways to stand out from your competitors and increase your market share.

If you've never performed a SWOT analysis (or you haven't revisited your analysis from years ago), now is a good time to carefully dissect each of these four areas, especially through the lens of the pandemic. Your internal strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats today are likely completely different than they were pre-COVID, so find some time before the end of the year to reflect on what you've learned and how you can apply them to your 2021 strategy.

Get your team involved in business decisions: Transparent, frequent communication has become more important than ever for COVID-era leaders, particularly those who are leading fully remote teams. You can take this one step further by allowing your employees to get involved in important company decisions that may impact them.

An easy way to give your team a voice is by sending out an anonymous employee survey to inform any new policies you may be formulating for 2021. When your employees feel like they've been given an opportunity to contribute to the conversation, they're more likely to buy into and support any company-wide changes.

Sharpen your emotional intelligence: As employees face the daily challenges of living, working and raising families all in the same space, emotional intelligence (EQ) has become an absolute necessity for today's leaders. Business leaders should proactively think through the struggles their employees may be dealing with and exercise empathy and flexibility, especially when it comes to employees' work schedules.

Leaders can also exercise EQ by being vulnerable and sharing their own struggles and journeys during the pandemic. In other words, be human and strive to make emotional connections with your team as you endure these challenges together.

Sharpen your emotional intelligence: As employees face the daily challenges of living, working and raising families all in the same space, emotional intelligence (EQ) has become an absolute necessity for today's leaders. Business leaders should proactively think through the struggles their employees may be dealing with and exercise empathy and flexibility, especially when it comes to employees' work schedules.

Leaders can also exercise EQ by being vulnerable and sharing their own struggles and journeys during the pandemic. In other words, be human and strive to make emotional connections with your team as you endure these challenges together.

Consider voluntary employee benefits to enhance your employee benefits program: Today's employees want to know that their employer is investing in their personal and professional development with a comprehensive, attractive benefits package. The problem is, expanding an employee benefits program can be cost-prohibitive for small employers on a budget.

One potential and practical solution is to add voluntary, employee-paid perks that can be covered through payroll deductions. Common voluntary benefits include insurance coverages such as life, disability, accident, legal services, pet, identity theft and other policies that support holistic well-being. Data from MetLife found that nearly half of small business employees are interested in a wider array of benefits, even if they are responsible for paying all or part of the costs, so adding these types of perks can be a simple and low-cost way to expand your total compensation package. Learn more about voluntary employee benefits at MetLife’s Small Business Solutions page.

Prioritize holistic employee well-being: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the holiday season and the new year ahead, your employees are likely feeling the impact in their work life and family life. According to MetLife's new small business report based on its 2020 U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study, two-thirds of employees reported feeling more stressed now than before the pandemic — and 76% of them believe their employers should take responsibility for their overall health and well-being.

As an employer, it's important to focus on your employees' holistic well-being across the four dimensions of health: physical, mental, social and financial. By prioritizing benefits and programs that improve holistic well-being, you may see overall increases in productivity, engagement and company loyalty.

Consider creating a boundaries agreement: To help manage remote employees who may be dealing with stress and potential burnout, consider creating a “boundaries agreement.” This can help clarify a team member’s availability, expected work hours and response times. For example, should there be a time in the evening when emails should not be replied to and instead replied to in the morning? Or when a deadline is set for a certain day, what time of day should that task be completed by?

Not only does a boundaries agreement help set clear expectations, but it also can help workers better separate their work and personal lives. Workers can even share their boundaries agreement with family members in order to clarify their responsibilities and how they should manage time around the home.

Keep people updated: As more teams work remotely, trying to manage employees can be a challenge. One of the biggest keys to success with these teams is engaging them with transparent communication, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to change company strategies.

How to accomplish this? Make sure you are able to reach employees across multiple channels, including email, phone and video chat applications, and give them frequent updates about what is happening at the company. While it might come off as annoying to update often, over-communicating is far better than under-communicating.

Help your team prioritize: With more employees working from home than ever before, the lines between work and personal life get further blurred. This has led to increasing reports of employee burnout and lost productivity in the coronavirus era. One way to help people work through this is task prioritization and focusing on the most important things.

You should work closely with your employees to review tasks and try to help them focus on the big picture. Talk about goals and how each task can contribute meaningfully to business results. Once big tasks are done, encourage employees to sign off to prevent more burnout.

There are multiple clever methods that employees can use to help prioritize tasks as well, including Eat the Frog, the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, the ABCDE Method and Chunking. If needed, work with employees to find the method that works best with their workflow or personality.

Model the change you wish to see: Many changes companies are going through today are not controlled by owners and managers. For example, COVID-19 shutdowns that force remote work on employees who may not want it or radically revising cleaning protocols at offices are clearly unavoidable. These situations are not easy but the best way to get everyone on board is having leaders model the changes themselves.

Recent research shows that when leaders model behavioral changes well, successful company transformations are more likely to happen. “Leaders not only need to be equipped with information and resources, but they need to feel confident leading through change,” the Harvard Business Review writes. “This can be especially challenging, as leaders encounter more pressure to provide better answers and to support their teams. But how your leadership reacts to change will trickle down and impact your managers, who then impact your employees and their engagement.”

Request regular employee feedback: With many companies in a period of sweeping change, it continues to be important to engage with your employees in multiple ways. One aspect of this is requesting direct feedback, which can help you assess employee satisfaction, happiness, and productivity and make changes as needed.

Numerous tools exist to help you collect and manage employee feedback, including TINYpulse, Weekdone and SurveyMonkey. They can help managers track, measure and ultimately fix workplace problems of all kinds. One of the most important aspects of these tools is that the feedback can be completely anonymous, which incentivizes employees to be honest and forthcoming if they want to request changes or ask questions.

Avoid micromanagement: In this new environment where remote work is much more accepted, management norms are changing, especially when it comes to micromanagement. Perhaps in the office, it may have been more acceptable to pop your head in often and ask how a project was going. But this doesn’t come off the same when you are trying to engage remote workers and micromanagement can make them feel like they are not trusted.

Practice transparency as much as possible: While there may be an instinct to hide tough news, transparency is deeply important for organizations in flux. During these uncertain times, it may be difficult to explain everything that is happening, but it’s imperative to try.

Leaders should do whatever they can to explain the why behind the change. “It’s important to share what you know — including what’s changing, when, and how,” wrote Harvard Business Review. “But for most change initiatives, it is also helpful to start with a narrative or story that clearly articulates the ‘big picture’ – why change is important and how it will positively affect the organization long-term. This should serve as the foundation for how you communicate about the change moving forward.”

For example, if your company anticipates having employees work from home longer than originally expected due to COVID-19, tell them exactly what went into the decision-making process. Talk about how this change will keep employees and customers safe and do your best to communicate what can be done to accommodate employees who have trouble working remotely.

Be flexible: During this new era of dramatic change in the workplace, there’s never been a more important time for managers and supervisors to adopt a flexible approach to work. This is essential for helping employees meet new challenges in managing their work-life balance, according to MetLife’s 18th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study 2020.

If you want to better accommodate your employees, create a culture of flexibility and lead by example. Some newly remote workers may want to work the exact same hours they did in the office, while others may need to change it up because they have children they must watch or educate during the day. Using a system where employees can log daily and weekly tasks on their own time means productivity is still achievable in this new framework.

Practice regular communication: If you’re not communicating well with employees, especially during periods of change, your company will ultimately be less successful. So says a study from McKinsey that focuses on transformational change, which takes on greater relevance in the age of COVID-19.

Managers should communicate openly and regularly about transformational efforts, including strategy and courses of action. Company-wide change efforts are between eight and 12 times more likely to be successful if communication efforts are continuous. Updates should be used to focus your team on reaching common goals, answering employee questions and discussing operation changes. And if you don’t have all the answers, let employees know that, too. They’ll appreciate it.

Engage with empathy: Employers who understand what their employees are going through at and outside of work ⁠— and take constructive action to address the needs of those employees ⁠— will end up with a more engaged and productive workforce, according to MetLife’s 18th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study 2020. Dig deep to find empathy and try to help your employees in new ways.

To find out what the most pressing issues are for employees, you can start to request regular feedback. On top of using tech tools to collect feedback, you can also talk with employees directly using in-person and online meetings. For example, if you do a regular weekly check-in meeting, allocate a few minutes to talk about what would make their lives easier inside and outside of work and see if there is any way you can help. Gathering insights into your employee’s headspace can not only help you be a more informed manager, but it can also create a more open environment where employees speak their minds freely.