Early-Career Employees Face the Pandemic

Employers: Remember, your younger workers are probably feeling uncertain

By Kyra Sutton March 23, 2020
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worried young woman

​Last week, before we understood the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, I spoke with several Millennials. During our discussions, we very quickly transitioned from plans for classes and graduation to what-if questions about the coronavirus pandemic.

More than the questions, though, the body language of the Millennials struck me. It screamed, "Help me get through this—all of it!"

Most of the conversations ended with "I feel so much better now that I talked to you."

Truthfully, I didn't say a lot because I didn't know many of the answers. However, I offered a listening ear, and it made the young adults feel heard and enabled them to share their thoughts, fears and concerns.

I realized at this moment that the power of listening is real, especially during times of uncertainty and crisis. Upon reflection, I wondered what made the Millennials feel safe enough to be vulnerable in front of me, and I realized they saw me as a trusted source.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

We have to remember that although we're focused on delivering results, working remotely, managing our family responsibilities and practicing social distancing, as more-experienced workers, we've been doing this (i.e., dealing with uncertainty) a lot longer than early-career employees.

A lot of us have lived and, more importantly, worked during difficult, uncertain times, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, an economic recession, corporate layoffs, and the list goes on.

Each time we faced uncertainty, our tolerance for ambiguity improved, and we were reminded that we can get through this, albeit sometimes with scars.

The coronavirus outbreak may be the most significant uncertainty early-career employees have yet faced at work.

As a result, it is essential that organizations, and especially managers of early-career employees, do the following:

  1. Give employees a chance to vent. Listen more than you talk.
  2. Encourage them to ask questions.
  3. But when you don't know the answer to a question, admit that you don't know.
  4. Share concrete yet simple suggestions to encourage employees (e.g., practice self-care, turn off the news occasionally, go outside for fresh air).
  5. Ask for their input if you feel like that's the natural course of the conversation, but remember that sometimes, asking for ideas creates stress.
  6. Set clear expectations about work deadlines. If you can reduce uncertainty at work, it will help employees navigate other responsibilities.  
  7. Communicate the amount of time you expect them to be online, and let them know when it's OK to get offline.
  8. Create fun, daily challenges (e.g., ask your team to share pictures from their favorite vacation spots).
  9. Continue meeting with employees one-on-one virtually, if possible. While it's helpful to have team meetings to ensure that projects and tasks are moving forward, during times of uncertainty, spending time with each of your employees is crucial.
  10. Encourage your employees to follow a routine.

Lastly, although it may sound cliché, remind employees that we will get through this—and remind them more than once.

Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as in staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.

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