Coronavirus: Why you need to be more empathetic than ever with your employees

Laetitia Vitaud

Editor in Chief

Remote workers are generally more exposed to stress and anxiety. But in a period of crisis, they are even more at risk. Here are some ideas and tools to adapt your communication and display more empathy towards your people, in order to preserve a level of emotional safety that’s conducive to trust and productivity.

Forced, full-time remote work in a situation of extreme, global uncertainty is not the same thing as part-time, voluntary remote work in a normal situation. Almost overnight, millions of knowledge workers used to working in an office have been asked to work from home. But let’s not forget that most workers can’t work remotely: cleaning men/women, cashiers, waiters/waitresses, nurses, and maintenance technicians can’t work from home. And many of them are now temporarily out of work. 

Furthermore remote work in the context of a pandemic comes with a particular set of challenges: not knowing how long this situation will last (and whether or not it will get worse), not knowing what the consequences of the current crisis will be on our health and the economy. Most people find it hard to keep their usual focus. Last but not least, in the countries where schools are now closed, parents need to work, look after their children and prepare meals during the day, all at the same time! To my knowledge, there is no study, book or report that deals with remote work under these very special conditions.

Interestingly the subject of balancing work and raising children, which is rarely tackled by managers, is now receiving all the coverage it deserves. In fact there is no separating work and family life, even under normal circumstances. So there’s an upside to the measures taken to contain the epidemic: they make the intersection between work and children suddenly visible, for men as well as women.

To manage scattered teams (and office teams too), empathy is always critical—see our ebook on the subject of “Managing scattered teams”—but it is all the more important in these unusual times. 

Not being able to touch and see people “in real life” will take a toll on employees’ mental health

Most people started changing their greeting habits a few weeks ago: handshakes and kisses are now non grata. But with 100% remote work, it’s a lot of other small gestures and all our body language that can no longer be used for better communication. Alas, physical distancing comes with emotional challenges. Without the (huge) input of body language, our communication is poorer. There’s more frustration and misunderstanding.

The office is not just a place designed for work, it’s also an essential playground for the social creatures we are. It comes with opportunities to share rituals and bond with other people. The physical dimension of our work relations is more important to our mental health than we know. 100% remote work is rarely ideal. It is emotionally challenging.

Even before the epidemic, a “crisis of touch” had been distressing more and more people in all age groups. In this remarkable article titled “No hugging: are we living through a crisis of touch”, a Guardian journalist explains that we are less and less touched by others, and this deprivation is detrimental to our mental health. Among the people who live alone, many rely on work exclusively to satisfy their social and emotional needs.

“The gentle touch of another individual soothes the effects of social exclusion, one of the most emotionally painful human experiences”.

UCL Research

Colleagues may not be family members, but all the physical interactions that occur at work do play a huge role: eye contact, handshakes, high fives, taps on the shoulders, and hugs keep us mentally healthy. According to UCL research, “the gentle touch of another individual soothes the effects of social exclusion, one of the most emotionally painful human experiences”.

Without physical contacts with their colleagues, and in a context of extreme uncertainty, employees asked to work remotely require extra empathy from their manager. Isolated from their team, they are more likely to feel lonely or lost. 

Here’s some advice to help you display twice as much empathy in your management 

Pay more attention to communication 

There are three components to communication: words, tone and body language (in particular facial expressions). In fact, words play a relatively minor part in communication, whereas tone and body language are essential elements. There are more communication problems when you can only rely on words (chats, emails) to communicate. Unless you have incredible literary talent, it’s harder to have nuanced, layered communication (irony, humour) in writing.

Emojis can help convey some emotions but the range of emotions and nuances they enable is quite limited. The person who receives the message will always wonder what the tone of the message is and what the sender had in mind. They may even become paranoid and imagine their colleagues don’t like them, their manager is profoundly dissatisfied with their work, or their position is under threat. Therefore you should:

  • Choose your medium of communication carefully: keep chats and emails (writing) for more factual communication. It’s not ideal for feedback, for example. Also in times when a lot of things can cause anxiety, it’s best to opt for video and audio messaging more often, so communication can be more nuanced—there can be humour and it’s easier to express empathy clearly. In writing, craft your messages with extra care, lest your spelling mistakes and typos indicate you’re anxious or in panic (or you don’t care enough about your people).
  • Provide context and be more explicit: in a scattered team, not everyone will have the same information. You must avoid ambiguity, make sure to share information systematically and provide all the necessary instructions in writing. Information relative to the company should also be shared as widely as possible. Debrief your employees about your war-room meetings
  • Avoid continuous instant messaging: your people aren’t just working remotely, they’re also busy with new logistical constraints (groceries, finding toilet paper, cooking…), new worries about the crisis, new family duties. For the parents of young children at home, asynchronous work is the only way. 
  • Reassure your people worried they might find themselves without a job and without revenues: either their job is not under threat in the short term, in which case you should make it explicit to them, or they may benefit from social protection mechanisms (which vary from country to country). Countries “at war” (that was the expression used by French President Macron) generally unlock extraordinary additional resources to fight the “war”. Make sure you stay informed about what new measures are implemented in your country. 
  • Imagine new rituals so your team can share little moments together: virtual meetings, a “channel” to share information (and jokes) not related to work, a virtual water-cooler to chat freely with your colleagues, entertainment and educational resources for your people… 

Put kindness at the heart of your management 

Today’s remote workers are more exposed to stress and anxiety. Now suddenly they no longer receive all the little belonging cues from their colleagues that they need even more today. In short, they are emotionally insecure. As Daniel Coyle explains it is in his book The Culture Code, “emotional safety is the very foundation of culture” (see our  ”must-read” article about Coyle’s book). 

Emotional safety depends on all the small day-to-day social interactions we have at work —eye contact, smiles, coffee time, chats, etc. That’s why even more empathy is required when you’re deprived of these interactions. Here are some tips on how to display more empathy:

  • Eliminate all superfluous work: even if your company is still active, your team will function in a more “minimalist” way. Focus on what’s essential and urgent. Right now your remote workers don’t have the same (physical, mental, family) space to work normally the way they do at the office. 
  • Check how your people are doing all the time: some of your employees may be alone at home. The contacts they have at work are vital to them. Ask how they are (physically and mentally). A simple “How are you?” becomes literally critical. Implement new support mechanisms in your team.
  • Think of special touches for your employees: some of your employees may have their children at home with them. Why not send them educational resources for their children? A subscription to a MOOC or to an educational service? Why not create and coordinate a channel to help parents share resources?
  • Understand positive feedback is essential: when you are with your people IRL, a lot of things go without saying. But for remote workers, what usually goes without saying must be said. Seize every opportunity to say “thank you” and “well done”. It can increase emotional safety. 
  • Check they don’t work too much: some people may cope with stress by working all the time. Even in normal times, remote workers are at higher risk of burnout because the lines between work and life are blurred. Pay attention to signs of exhaustion and stress. 

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