While employees in many countries have been working virtually for some time, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us almost overnight to change how we live and work. Additional turmoil in American society related to civil rights and the economic recession is making an already difficult situation that much harder for employees struggling to focus on day-to-day work responsibilities.
Each employee is handling this experience in a unique way. Some are juggling work with taking care of young children, while others may be months into near-total isolation. Successful managers need to be able to recognize the disparate challenges employees are facing, even if their own experience is quite different.
Merriam-Webster defines “sympathy” as sharing the feelings of another person, while “empathy” is having the capacity to imagine feelings you may not actually have. It’s important to find out each employee’s situation and interact accordingly, swapping similar stories if possible, while lending an ear to those whose situation may be in total opposition to your own.
Employers are already seeing how emotional well-being is factoring into their workforce’s ability to perform under stress. Lead with understanding and forgiveness—if individual productivity has decreased a bit, recognize your team may be mentally and emotionally exhausted. (Luckily, fears about long-term productivity loss haven’t materialized, as evidenced by the growing number of CEOs who are planning “work from anywhere” policies.) Channel your inner empathetic Mr. Rogers instead of rigid Mary Poppins.
In addition to being empathetic toward the struggles of their employees, managers should also examine their own mental and emotional well-being. Creating a healthy workforce requires managers to first take care of themselves. To paraphrase the airlines, you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you put one on your child.
Information workers especially find it easy to blur work/life, forgetting to take breaks, meals, and showers. They often end up working long hours to compensate for productivity-sapping distractions. Scheduling blocks of time for personal tasks and wellness to cover your own requirements will make you better prepared to help others.
Recommendations for Helping Teleworkers
Here are five recommendations for Human Resources managers and team leads to follow when trying to help employees adjust to the challenges of their new teleworking culture:
1. Provide support, check in, and listen to employees. A quick “how are you feeling?” goes a long way. Ensure employees know what mental health resources are available and how to access them. Check back occasionally to monitor status, but be careful not to do it so frequently that employees feel smothered or untrusted. Find out if setting up regular check-ins would be of interest.
2. Communicate, communicate, and communicate! Employees are isolated but also bombarded with information from all angles. Managers should guide employees with clear communication and make sure no one feels he or she is getting overlapping or contradictory instructions or assignments. Leaders who provide consistent, regular guidance and training will develop stronger team members.
3.Help employees strike the right balance. With so many employees working from home, flexibility has taken on a whole new meaning. Some people may be forced to establish a completely new work schedule to allow for child care. Other employees feel compelled to be available at all times as a show of dedication.
Managers need to remind employees—not only with words but also with actions—to log off. And, they should ensure employees are indeed taking time off. With many people opting for “staycations” this year, there is a strong temptation to check e-mails and internal forums throughout the day, which prevents employees from fully disconnecting.
4. Don’t be afraid to mix things up! It’s a good idea to combine e-mails, phone messages, and video calls to reduce an employee’s sense of isolation from the team. But being on nonstop videoconferences is exhausting, so reassure your team it is acceptable to turn the camera off sometimes.
Encourage employees to take walks during calls and to try not to schedule meetings back to back. It’s also important to set aside time to have fun with your team and allow them to connect on topics beyond work.
5. Embrace interruptions as part of the new normal. Working from home while managing other aspects of everyday life can be a major challenge. Encourage employees to roll with the punches. If a child pops into a video meeting to say hi or the cat wants some screen time or the delivery guy knocks loudly on the door, just go with it!
We’re all human, and we’re all BBC Dad now. Letting colleagues see those aspects of your life can create a stronger bond between team members. But as a manager, if you hear an employee has consistent family interruptions, you could consider serving as a backup on important calls.
The fact is, not everyone has adapted to our new remote working challenges in the same way. Each person is on an individual journey that’s influenced by the current environment and the culture in which he or she lives and works.
We experience different levels of comfort and familiarity—and these can change throughout the weeks as we go through emotional ups and downs. Showing a little empathy and trust now will be rewarded with employee appreciation in the long term.
Eva Majercsik is the chief people officer for Genesys, a global customer experience and contact center solutions provider. She is based in the company’s headquarters in Daly City, California (San Francisco Bay Area), and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through @genesys on Twitter.