Addressing the Elephant in the (Zoom) Room: How to Approach Sensitive Topics with Your Employees While Operating Remotely
December 4, 2020
BR Labor Relations

Human resources professionals really had all eyes on them this past year as 2020 brought on an unprecedented amount of outside challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic, racial inequality in the U.S., the worldwide implications of climate change, and the tense U.S. presidential election. Many sensitive topics were brought to the surface. Employees were asking important questions regarding where their employers would stand on these topics and human resources professionals needed to have answers fast. Not only that, but many of these conversations were forced to take place remotely, which was also new for many folks on all levels.

Perhaps one positive outcome 2020 brought to human resources professionals was the realization that a well-developed human resources department is crucial. However, it probably took your team handling some serious situations for this necessity to be realized by your company’s leadership. As if juggling everything 2020 brought your way wasn’t challenging enough, your team also had to adjust your typical methods for navigating such issues remotely, which is no easy task.

Hats off to you and your team for getting the tough work done during this challenging year. However, your work isn’t nearly complete. 2020 was simply a tipping point for the real challenge ahead: ensuring all the changes and conversations that were sparked by outside events continue.

A company’s social and environmental responsibility is growing increasingly important to job seekers. The events of 2020 have heightened this desire. According to Talent Economy, 75% of the workforce will be comprised of millennials by 2025, which is going to come quicker than you think. So why should you care? Well, another study by Cone Communication revealed that 76% of millennials take a company’s social and environmental commitments into consideration when looking for a place to work. Additionally, 64% of millennials also will not accept a job if they feel that the company does not have strong corporate responsibility practices. In short, your company’s social standing and appearance can either help or hinder your recruitment efforts, which is why it is so crucial that you and your team are equipped and prepared to address these topics. It also appears as though remote work is going to become a permanent feature to the workforce, so you’ll need to be prepared for that as well.

Understand what topics matter most to your team

In order to have these conversations, it can first be helpful to understand what topics matter most to your team. Before changing your company’s mission or implementing new processes, policies, or procedures, you’ll have to ask some important questions. While we are seeing an upward trend in employees and job candidates coming forward with what matters most to them from their employers, different team members may feel differently towards certain topics. You also cannot assume that every single team member is going to jump at the opportunity to give you their honest thoughts. Creating an open-minded and welcoming environment will help your employees feel more comfortable coming to you, but there are several options that exist to gather this information and build that trust first.

Distribute surveys

Surveys are a great way to gather any type of information from your team as it can easily be done virtually (and anonymously) as you see fit. To understand what conversations need to be had, you have to ask. Kevin Oakes, CEO of i4CP, put it excellently in this article written by Samantha McLaren when he said, “One of the worst things an organization can do is for the senior team to lock themselves in a room for a couple of days and decide what the culture is because they’re going to get it wrong.”

McLaren elaborates saying, “Surveying and talking to employees about what the culture currently looks like is the best way to understand what needs to change.” To experience the most benefits from administering surveys, they should be ongoing and used in conjunction with analysis tools rather than being your singular source of information.

Conduct one-on-one check-ins

One of the methods that can be used in conjunction with your surveys is having individual and private meetings via Zoom, Skype, or any other telecommunications platform. While these meetings can (and usually do) serve a larger purpose than simply conducting a temperature check of your employees, it provides an excellent opportunity to check in and see how your employees are feeling towards your company and its current social efforts.

If your employees do take the opportunity to honestly let you know their thoughts, always be an attentive listener. Ask follow-up questions and open up the floor for them to present any ideas or suggestions they have. Thank them for their openness and if applicable, implement their suggestions. Also offer your employees the option to keep that conversation confidential if they would like. Ensuring your employees feel heard and respected is a great way to improve employee satisfaction and productivity.

Incorporate an “open-door” policy

Prior to the transition to remote work, your team most likely had open-door policies in place. Because of the transition, this policy probably took a backseat in your mind, which is completely understandable. How do you have an open-door policy when you can’t actually open your door to your team? Well, here’s our recommendation.

Telecommunications platforms such as Zoom and Skype can run in the background while you accomplish other tasks. Similar to how you would go about establishing a regular open-door policy, you can set aside a few hours each week for your employees to go into “your office.” To put it simply, you can keep these applications running in the background while you work and allow your employees to join as needed during those hours.

If you’re using Zoom, you’ll have to be mindful of users asking for permission to join your call if you have your settings to place any guests in a waiting room first. Even though it can be a bit distracting since you’ll have to check the waiting room regularly, we would recommend having your settings set this way to avoid the possibility of having any guests join in on a private conversation.

Skype may be a preferred method for this policy as it can run in the background and will also show those in your contact list when you are active on the platform. From here, your employees can call you to begin a conversation. While neither of these options is completely perfect, they will still manage to accomplish the implementation of a remote open door policy despite the obstacles.

Start the conversation

Now that you understand what it is your employees want to discuss, actually discuss it! While this isn’t necessarily the hardest step, it can certainly become the most uncomfortable, which is why some companies choose not to do it at all. However, choosing to ignore a problem often leads to it worsening, so we highly recommend addressing what needs to be addressed and doing so without hesitation. If you’ve taken the time to focus on what needs to be discussed and prepared to have these discussions, you’re already heading in the right direction. Once you’ve been able to start the conversation, here are some ways to keep it going.

Hold team meetings to solely discuss these topics

One conversation will not solve any issues nor will it bring about enough necessary change to keep your employees engaged and excited to work for your company. These conversations need to be ongoing if your company is serious about its internal growth and mission. Once the floor has been opened up, you may find that employees either have much to say or nothing to say at all. To ensure the conversations don’t take over your regularly scheduled meetings and to provide employees plenty of opportunities to talk, schedule these types of meetings on a regularly occurring basis.

Whether your company chooses to make these discussions optional or not is up to you and dependent on the conversations at hand. Perhaps these meetings need to be held each month or even every other month. Again, that’s dependent on your specific needs. So long as the opportunity exists, you’ll already be at least one step closer to your goals. Again, these meetings will most likely be happening virtually, so ensure your form of communication is one that works well for your team.

Create resources for your employees

As these discussions are happening, you may find that some of your employees require extra support. This type of reaction is completely normal and to be expected. If and when this situation happens, you’ll want to be prepared. Knowing what resources are available to your employees and being able to inform them of such resources is important. Below are a few of the potential options you can offer employees needing extra support.

Times are trying and we could all use a little bit of extra support and understanding. When discussing sensitive topics remotely, this support is even more important, which is why you should strive to offer your employees as many resources as you can. While we only named a few possibilities, there are so many out there. Be sure to do your research and know what’s available and realistic for your company so you know what will best suit the needs of your team.

Change your company’s mindset

Simply gathering information and bringing it up once isn’t enough of a step. You’ll have to work towards changing the mindset that your company runs on. As we previously mentioned, the younger generations of workers hold different ideas when it comes to the workforce. They want to work for companies that have real purpose and meaning that align with their own. Not only does this help your recruitment efforts and employee retention, but it also improves employee productivity, so it’s worth the time and effort.

You’ve probably heard this advice before, but you have to be the change you want to see. Lead by example. Once these discussions have begun, listen to the needs of your employees, address their concerns, and make the change. Depending on what it is your HR team needs to accomplish, you may face different challenges. Some of which may be made even more difficult by the fact that you have to overcome such challenges remotely. However, you’ve taken the first step by having the conversation, which you should be proud of.

Discussing sensitive topics in the workplace is never easy, but it can be even more difficult if it has to be done remotely. Regardless of the difficulty, remote work is our new reality. If you want to manage it, you have to be well-prepared. We hope this information provides you with the extra guidance you need. Good luck and continue to check in every Friday for more from BrandResumes’ HR Corner.


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By Emily Provost

Emily is BrandResumes' Content Specialist and is an Associate Resume Writer. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in Publishing Studies with double minors in Marketing and Journalism from Hofstra University. She has had editorial experience working as an editor for various publications from Hofstra and worked as a writing tutor for undergraduate students.

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