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Blog Author: 
Welcome to the office. Today is Blursday, and you’ve got five deadlines, back-to-back Zoom meetings, a dog that won’t quit barking, a food delivery at the door, and a kid who’s chanting the seven times table in the next room. Loudly.

It’s enough to stress out even the most committed worker. The technology-driven, 21st century workplace was already fast-paced, complex, and demanding before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered disruption on a mass scale. Adjusting to the pandemic unleashed extraordinary demands on employers and employees to steer through new terrain — without the benefit of a map. 
No wonder employee burnout and depression are on the rise. More than one in three workers (34 percent) report feeling burned-out at least half the time, up from 27 percent the year prior, according to MetLife’s 19th annual Employee Benefits Trend Survey. About 22 percent said they are depressed, up from 17 percent in April 2020, and 37 percent said they feel stressed, up from 34 percent.
The good news is that organizational leaders are gleaning human capital management lessons from the pandemic, and these lessons can help build workers’ resilience as business gradually returns to normal.  A Howard Bank webinar featuring a panel of business leaders offered a range of insights and practical tips that employers can use to hold their teams together and move forward in the post-COVID environment.
An instant survey conducted during the webinar found that 47 percent of the roughly 300 participants were working entirely virtually and 33 percent were following a hybrid schedule. Only 20 percent were in the office on a full-time basis. The results reflect that a transition is underway from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Frank Turner, chief commercial banking officer at Howard Bank, who moderated the panel.
Helping employees to cope with work stress is an investment in people, and that makes it good business. “Engaged employees are psychological owners of their companies,” said Ray Sweet, CEO of PSA Insurance and Financial Services in Baltimore, and that’s what makes them willing to go the extra mile in pursuit of success.
Todd Marks, founder and CEO of Baltimore-based Mindgrub, a provider of digital corporate services, recalled how little was known about the trajectory of the COVID-19 shutdown when it began in March 2020.
“We forget, but we were all in our houses for three or four weeks. I remember not seeing a single car drive by,” Marks said. “My team was getting really panicky. There was no end in sight.”
After a month, Marks told his employees to expect the shutdown to last a year — and he also started looking for creative ways to re-engage as a team, including socially distanced get-togethers when possible. One such event pulled the entire team together at corporate headquarters for a group photo taken by a drone. Workers physically formed the company’s logo — a lightbulb with an M for the filament — while maintaining a safe distance from one another and wearing masks. Just getting out in the fresh air as a team lifted spirits, Marks said.
“What we know about burnout is that it’s really about fatigue,” said Megan Staczek, who advises organizations on driving growth and transformation in her role as founder and CEO of Capacity Group, which is based in Towson, Maryland. And fatigued employees can become disengaged — which Staczek said is a significant risk, given that employee engagement has “about a 30 percent impact on the bottom line.”
One of the lessons of COVID-19 is that some of the routines we take for granted are important to fostering camaraderie and helping teams operate smoothly, panelists said. For example, “simple connections” like office lunches have been lost, Sweet points out.
Most workers have also lost their daily commute, Marks added. And though that particular routine can be a grind at times, it also gives people an unstructured block of time to clear their minds, transition between work and home, and, in effect, meditate, he said.
Identifying the challenges of employee engagement in the time of COVID isn’t hard; but what about solutions? The panelists shared numerous ideas. Among them:
  • Rethink Meetings: For example, Marks recently planned a meeting with a colleague at Patapsco Valley State Park — while mountain biking. “I like to find out what my employees are passionate about,” and it’s exciting when interests coincide. Colleagues can easily maintain physical distance while outdoors, and get a much-needed boost of vitamin D from the sunshine, Marks said. Additionally, “We can keep a decent pace and still have our conversation. It’s about engagement.”
  • Make Time for Downtime: Staczek said scheduling time out of the office, even when the office is at home, is a valuable way of keeping burnout at bay. She said it’s especially important for leaders in an organization to remember the lesson every flight attendant recites: In an emergency, put the oxygen mask on yourself before attempting to assist other passengers. Self-care isn’t selfish, she emphasized. It’s a way of replenishing yourself so that you are fit to lead and guide others.
  • Create Zoom-free Zones: Staczek recommends and maintains no-Zoom afternoons. She also blocks out an hour each day — from noon to 1 p.m. — when her whole staff can take a walk, do yoga, meditate, or whatever else relaxes and revives them.
  • Revisit Perks and Benefits: Sweet, who helps design benefit programs for companies, said the shift to remote work brought more flexible work schedules, as employers understood that many workers were pulling double-duty as caregivers and teachers. He’s seen more companies offering reimbursement for online exercise programs such as Peloton and NordicTrack classes. Some are offering monthly stipends to cover work-related costs such as desk chairs and other office equipment. Some allow workers to order meals for staff meetings through online food ordering and delivery platforms such as UberEats and GrubHub.
  • Create Shared Experiences: It’s easy for employees who are not in the office to become disengaged not just from work, but from the culture of the company, Marks said. Mindgrub sent shirts, blankets, and socks with its corporate logo to employees at home to reinforce the brand identity and their shared purpose. They also seek ways to have fun together. For example, one of the company’s chief engineers taught everyone to make pizza via videoconference. “They were all making the same thing remotely and having the same experience in real-time. That’s real connectivity, and it’s so important.”
Companies are beginning to map plans to return to the office. Marks said Mindgrub would return to in-person work on May 10 — but with some adaptations. There will be mask zones and no-mask zones and special rules for collaborative workspaces. Sweet is bringing his team back on site July 19.
More adjustments lie ahead as employees return to the office. Organizations that grew during the crisis will have to help new employees get used to the work environment. Mindgrub added 70 to 80 workers over the last year, Marks said. PSA onboarded 27 new people during the same time period, Sweet noted.
Typically, Sweet said, “People come into the company and they learn the culture just by being immersed in it. Now you have to make a conscious effort to figure out how to explain it to them.”
Companies can’t overlook the cultural challenges created by bringing new people on board at such an unusual time, Staczek said. “Assimilation is going to take longer. Think about using buddy systems to help people learn your culture.”
As Permanent Blursday draws to an end, it’s increasingly clear that organizations can’t go wrong investing in their teams and that there’s no such thing as over-communication, Sweet said. But the whole dynamic of the office is changing, and it’s up to employers to harness what COVID has taught them about energizing and engaging employees and helping them become resilient.
That’s the kind of knowledge you can take to the bank.
To access a recording of the webinar, click here.
Monday, May 17, 2021
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