Leading with empathy during COVID-19

| By: Jen Locklear

As the global pandemic continues to evolve and we all continue to adjust to our new normal, it’s becoming increasingly important to be sensitive and attuned to people’s emotions. 

Every single person on the planet is being impacted by COVID-19, and the impacts are vast—from being sick or caring for someone who is, to losing a job, to having to fire or lay off an employee, to dealing with being self-isolated for an extended period of time. The reality is that anxiety levels are running high. 

Leaders and decision-makers are faced with the incredible challenge of figuring out how to keep their businesses afloat while still making sure employees are happy. 

While nobody has an exact formula for overcoming these challenges—remember, we are all dealing with this for the first time ever—we do believe that leading with empathy will make a great difference in how we adapt. 

Just ahead, you’ll find our tips for working with your remote workforce. 

Be sensitive to your employees

The primary thing to remember is that EVERYBODY is going through this. Nobody is excluded. Best-case scenario is that learning how to be productive while working from home is as bad as it gets, but we are aware that the situation is much more intense for many people. 

As everyone continues to be confused and overwhelmed, here are measures you can take to help your team navigate through this unprecedented situation:

1. Create a COVID-19 safe space. Plain and simple, people may be mentally freaking out. Be an outlet for them or point them towards one. Whether it’s an open (virtual) door policy to your office, or a direct line to human resources, make sure your employees know where to go if they need to vent or seek advice, are looking for solidarity, or if they need help figuring out how to cope. 

By creating a neutral, coronavirus-specific space, you can manage how overwhelmed employees feel and prevent COVID-19 concerns from infiltrating every piece of communication and conversation that occurs. 

You can do this by setting up a specific email address, Slack channel, landing page, phone number, and so on. 

2. Lead by example. Times are weird and hard. People are turning to their leaders for guidance on how to cope. However challenging it may be, this is your opportunity to set the right example. 

If employees see that you are willing to take on some of the burdens—especially as it relates to job security—it may ease their anxiety about where they stand from an employment point of view. 

If you need to cut costs, consider starting at the executive level. Decrease executive salaries, delay their bonus programs, freeze promotions and raises. Try cutting anything but your people. Starting at the executive level shows that you’re not exempt from any burdens and says a lot about your priority to protect as many employees as possible. 

Remind everyone (again and again) that this is only temporary. 

3. Communication is key. Now is definitely not the time to withhold any information from your employees. This doesn’t necessarily mean to increase the volume of communications that are sent out, but it does mean to increase the amount of details you’re disclosing. 

People want to know WHY decisions are being made—and it’s especially valuable to hear about this from the top. When possible, communication should come from the CEO, president, human resources, founder, etc.

If executive level salaries are being cut, it’s important to explain that this measure is being taken in order to prevent other, more drastic measures from taking place. 

If you have offices in multiple locations, share the status of all locations company-wide, so everyone can be in the loop. 

If a 401(k) matching program is normally in place at your organization and it needs to be cut back, communicate that this is a temporary and easily reversible measure, but quite an effective way to manage costs in the meantime. 

Constantly remind people where they can access important resources. 

And remember to be transparent, compassionate, and empathetic across the board. In times like these, leading with empathy really helps.

4. Pay attention, individually. Again, compassion and empathy are so important here. Take time to have regular one-on-one conversations with each of your direct reports. Lend an ear and talk through ways to make working from home a bit easier. 

If you suddenly find yourself having to home-school your children for part of the day, let your employees commiserate with you. Relating to one another as humans, not just colleagues, can provide a lot of relief. 

If you need to fire or furlough employees, help them make the transition. Communicate with each of them individually rather than sending a mass email to everyone who is impacted. Maybe have resources in place to help furloughed individuals find new work. Whatever you can do to ease the blow will be remembered and appreciated. 

Find ways to have social interactions with one another. It can’t be all work, all the time. And we’re all missing those watercooler moments that are so frequent in an office setting. Send gifs, funny videos, or simple check-in texts to break up the day and inject some levity into your conversations. 

5. Set expectations. As hard as it is to concentrate at times, performance does still matter. Make sure that your employees know what is expected of them throughout this ordeal. What benchmarks should they be hitting? How will performance be measured during this time? How will deadlines be set? 

Also be sure that your employees know when they’re expected to be available throughout the day. And ask them if they have any “off-limits” times you should be aware of. For example, a nursing mother that no longer has a daycare to send her baby to may need to block off her calendar throughout the day, or a father who is helping with virtual homeschooling may need to set aside specific time to help their children with their lessons for the day. 

Our routines have all shifted drastically as we adapt to a remote workforce, so it’s important to be flexible and adaptable while still managing and encouraging productivity. 

6. Familiarize yourself with new legislation. There are going to be employees who need to take time off because they are sick, are caring for someone who is sick, no longer have childcare options, and so on. 

Make sure you and your human resources team are up to date on new legislation that has passed that can benefit and protect your employees. Also be aware of how these acts will impact you as a business owner. 

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, an extension of FMLA, and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act were recently passed as a way to provide income for your employees while they are on leave (note, employers who have employees using these benefits will receive tax credits for the amount they are paying out). Visit our Legal Resources page for more information.

We’re all in this together

A quote has been making the rounds lately: “You’re not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”

While we strive to be productive and keep business running as usual, let’s all be empathetic to the realities we are facing. Remember to lead every action you take with kindness in your heart. These are trying times, but we will persevere, and we will emerge stronger than ever before.