On March 20, our world was turned upside down. In a matter of days we went into lockdown and virtually overnight companies switched to a “Work from Home” (WFH) model. The focus remained ostensibly the same—focus on customers, keep the business moving forward—it was just location and working conditions that changed. Prior to March 20, the “office” was the great equalizer: If I had a question I could walk down the hall; in meetings I could read the body language nuances. Work has changed but have we adapted to support these changes?

Empathy is now Job #1 for managers

Much has been written in the past couple of months highlighting resiliency and authentic leadership and we have been overwhelmed with clever hashtags: #newnormal, #unprecedentedtimes, #wfh, #lockdown. Companies have had to pivot quickly and are doing their best to support employees, but do managers and leaders have the capabilities to support all their employees' needs? There are a million different employee stories and a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting employees is not enough. Being an “authentic leader” is one thing but an important starting point is understanding the behind the scenes realities employees are dealing with, some of which include:

  • My apartment is too small for my children, my spouse/partner, and me to work in a quiet space. We need to take turns and it makes it difficult for me to work a full day or to ever have a quiet space.
  • My children are young and I am single. I have no child care; it is a real struggle for me to find any time except late at night and I am exhausted.
  • My spouse/partner and I have been arguing a lot because of the stress of COVID. It causes me a lot of stress and I am worried that my job will be cut; I haven’t heard from my employer what they are doing about jobs.
  • I have a mental health disorder that usually I can manage but with the pressure of finances, kid’s home schooling, etc., I have a very hard time focusing.
  • We share technology at home between my spouse/partner, me, and my kids; my time and internet are limited.
  • On top of everything, I am caring for an ailing, elderly parent, and
  • Many more.

Stress and mental health

The pressures of balancing the new WFH needs with the many and varied home situations are amplifying stress, anxiety, and worse for many employees. “I think we’re going to have a lot more mental health issues as time goes on,” said Rima Styra, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, in an interview with CTV News broadcast April 27, 2020.

The risk is that left under-supported, there will be an accumulated and significant impact on mental health—depression, anxiety, and stress—which will ultimately impact employees’ ability to be fully productive. It is increasingly critical for companies to ensure that their employees’ needs, including their mental health, are attended to and supported. Only then will business results follow. To not provide this focus and support will have a profound impact on employees and business results will surely suffer.

Reframing priorities: Some guidelines for employees

Employee support starts with leaders and frontline managers. It is important for managers to understand the needs of their individual team members. In a widely quoted tweet on May 11, 2020, Mark Richardson said he received the following set of guidelines from his employer, a Canadian government department, for working remotely:

Working remotely: COVID-19 principles

  1. You are not “working from home.” You are, “At your home, during a crisis, trying to work.”
  2. Your personal physical, mental, and emotional health is far more important than anything else right now.
  3. You should not try to compensate for lost productivity by working longer hours.
  4. You will be kind to yourself and not judge how you are coping based on how you see others coping.
  5. You will be kind to others and not judge how they are coping based on how you are coping.
  6. Your team’s success will not be measured the same way it was when things were normal.

Reading the signs and responding

What might a manager be seeing in employees who are struggling? It could be an employee who:

  • Is struggling with deadlines
  • Avoids or is late for meetings
  • Is not contributing in meetings
  • Drops off of meetings before they are finished
  • Is spotty on communications responses (email, Skype, etc.)

It is easy for managers to fall into the same patterns that worked in the office—the 1-on-1 as a download, less frequent check-ins, etc.—but in this new normal, the status quo is not enough. A great starting point for managers is to connect with employees and spend time asking meaningful questions and actively listening. The following questions may help kick off the dialogue between an employee and manager:

  • How are you doing? (Don’t be afraid of silence and reflection.)
  • Are there parts of your home life that are having an impact on your job? Are there ways we can support/flex to help you?
  • Are there things we could do help make you feel more effective at both home and work? (Some employees are more introverted and really take to working from home. They even thrive. But some really need the personal contact. It is okay to ask employees where they stand, and then ask what would make them feel more engaged and supported.)
  • Are there impediments at home? Do you have what you need to work effectively from home?
  • How are you planning your day? Are you finding that you can plan effectively? Do you feel overwhelmed with online meetings?

Not only are the questions and active listening signaling empathy, but the intent is to better understand the employee’s needs and to be able to work with the employee to provide (or get) the support and flexibility required. You’ll need to be more intentional than you’ve ever been before.

Priorities for managers

What can managers do to better support remote teams? The relationship and connection between employee and manager are critical in these extremely fluid times. When connecting with employees, managers can consider the following as part of the dialogue:

  • Integrity, transparency, and honesty balanced with discretion: Managers should plan to communicate status of work/employment contracts/agreements/arrangements.
  • Flexibility, adaptability, compromise, and moderation: The current state requires a LOT of all of these—it is the manager’s challenge to figure out the new world. Inviting employees to shape it is even better!
  • Empathy supported with action: Employees need to know that their managers are prepared to empathize with their situation AND do something about it to make it work.
  • Resilience: As leaders, management should model what resilience looks like. If they don’t know, then now is a great time to learn.
  • Provide a framework of what effective meetings look like and model it.
  • Can the manager put aside time to bring the team together for some “fun” activities?

The key is to be flexible and be able to pivot/adapt—this can be about work-hours, re-prioritizing goals, etc. Now is a time to communicate regularly, ensure regular check-ins and, as much as possible, provide clarity. Worry and fear grow in the absence of up-to-date information. It is important to let employees know that they can expect regular updates from you.

A sense of urgency

Now may be the time to leverage various assessment instruments that companies have at their disposal. These tools can help to better understand where employees are at and the kind of support they need. This could include customized employee engagement pulse surveys, various leadership assessments, etc. These can be quickly deployed and can give real insights into some of the areas to focus on.

The Working remotely: COVID-19 principles mentioned earlier in this article are an acknowledgment of the realities faced by employees. None of us is working at 100 percent or being our best self; each of us is dealing with a different set of challenges and our ability to “cope” varies widely. These principles work in any country and in any culture. Now is not the time to insist upon business as usual. Now is a time for companies, and specifically managers, to double down on the support for employees and teams—to be aware and provide the support for the stresses and anxieties that many are facing. Now more than ever, #BusinessIsPersonal #WeAreAllInThisTogether.