How to Be a Respectful and Empathetic Remote Coworker During the COVID-19 Crisis
April 17, 2020
By: Christopher Littlefield
Days before the global novel coronavirus outbreak, we were sitting in meetings with coworkers, laughing with peers over lunch, and maybe even gearing up for a big presentation in front of the boss—now most of us are working from home in self-isolation with no clear end in sight. Few could have predicted or prepared for how much life and work as we knew it would change in a matter of weeks.
Research by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield found that “virtual teammates are 2.5 times more likely to perceive mistrust, incompetence, broken commitments, and bad decision making with distant colleagues than those who are co-located. Worse, they report taking 5 to 10 times longer to address their concerns.” Moreover, this does not account for working in the midst of a global health crisis.
Grenny goes on to share that in order to address this issue, the key is creating safety. “When people feel safe, they open up. When they don’t, they shut down. People only feel safe enough to venture into dicey dialogue when those around them generate sufficient positive evidence of their intentions and respect.” The question is, how do we build this safety and respect given our current circumstances, and now that nearly everyone is working remotely?
Over the last several years, I have been running virtual training for leaders at organizations like Salesforce and UNICEF, whose team members are dispersed across different locations, time zones, and cultures. In the program, we talk about how to insure our people feel valued and appreciated, regardless of where they are located. No matter if they are sitting next to you at work, across town, or are based halfway around the world, the most important thing to understand is that it is impossible to build a strong relationship with someone we never interact with.
Here are a few ways to be a respectful coworker in times like the one we’re finding ourselves in.
Understand what each person is dealing with at home
Although everyone is facing the same threat, not everyone is facing the same circumstances. With most schools and daycares closed, parents are forced to juggle fulfilling their work obligations with caring for their kids in a confined space. Others are cut off from family and friends, alone, working and living in complete self-isolation. Show your peers you care by taking time to understand what they are dealing with each day. If you have not already reached out to your coworkers, find out how they are coping, and how you can best support them.
Take time to understand the following about your colleagues:
- How are they feeling (mentally and physically) with the current situation?
- Do they live alone? Are they away from family and friends? Do they have any social support?
- Do they have kids, siblings, roommates, or elderly parents that they are sharing a space with?
- Do they have the ability to work during the day or are they trying to get things done when the home is quieter at night?
- Do they have the resources and support to stay in self-isolation?
- Do they have access to shops, food, and internet where they are?
We don’t know how someone is doing until we take time to ask. And, it is important to remember that just because someone was doing well yesterday, does not mean they are doing the same today.
Stay in touch daily
The challenge is when people are based remotely, they often fall into “out of sight, out of mind.” When this is the case, managers and colleagues alike often make the mistake of only connecting with people when there is a problem or if they need something. Now, more than ever, we need to get into the habit of checking in daily with our peers. This may be a simple text like, “Hey John, how are you and your family doing? Is everyone ok?” or “I know yesterday you were feeling a little down. How are you feeling today?” If needed, set up a longer call or virtual coffee to talk through any challenges, or just stay connected. Regardless, show people you care by remembering that they are there!
Make it safe to ask for help
Offer help to others at every opportunity. Also, show others it is ok to ask for help by doing it yourself. For example, you could reach out to a colleague with: “I am struggling to stay focused when working from home. Would it be ok if I checked in a few times a day? It would really make a difference for me.” By asking for help ourselves, it supports others to feel safe to do the same.
Be forgiving and patient
If you or your colleague turns in a report late, sends an email without cc’ing you, or makes a mistake, remember to be forgiving and patient. We are all managing an increased cognitive load as we adapt to a new way of living and working. And, it is inevitable mistakes will happen. Instead of chastising someone for dropping the ball, take time to check in. For example: “Maria, I noticed you have not turned in your report yet. I wanted to check and see how you and your family are doing. Is there anything I can do to help?” Whether we are in a crisis or not, how we respond when people make a mistake has a profound impact on whether or not they feel safe when they are around us.
Make it ok to not be perfect
Messy hair, messy house, and background noise: Make it ok for people to not be perfect by acknowledging it upfront in your meetings. Also, when you share you don’t have it all together, it supports others to do the same.
Share resources and self-care ideas
Trusty coworkers share resources with each other. Did you find a fun indoor activity, discover a list of what businesses are still open in your area, or develop a great self-care routine? Share it with your peers via chat, email, or in your next virtual meeting. Support each other by helping to find the support they need.
“Anxiety is through the roof and people are scared, so you have to use every tool in the tool bag to take care of yourself. If you don’t already, use any counseling or therapy services your insurance provider may offer. Many are now providing video chat options that are covered. This is exactly the time to leverage something like this.”
-Lauren, Attorney in the nonprofit sector
Nurture a culture of gratitude
In my article, How to Trigger Gratitude in Ourselves and Others, I share that when we flood our mind with a constant flow of worry, self-criticism, compounded by a barrage of news and other media, it impacts our mental wellbeing. Help nurture a culture of gratitude with your peers by always expressing your appreciation when people join a meeting, finish a task, or reach out to offer support. Consider initiating a team gratitude practice by starting or finishing each day with a question:
- What are you most grateful for today?
- What made you smile today?
- What did I take for granted in the past that now I really appreciate?
Just because you’re not sitting next to each other does not mean you can’t laugh and play together! Infuse your chats, texts, emails, and virtual meetings with games, memes, and personal reflection. Host a virtual happy hour after work one day. Bring a little laughter, fun and joy to each other’s day.
If you want to be a respectful coworker during this challenging time, show your peers you care by taking time to understand their world, stay in touch, and find ways to offer support. If we do, we may just come out of the other side of this health crises closer and more connected to our coworkers.
Christopher Littlefield is an International and TEDx Speaker specializing in Employee Recognition and Engagement. He has trained thousands of leaders around the world how to understand what their people really want and need to be at their best. He is the founder of"Beyond Thank You" and you can follow his work through his weekly mailing The Nudge.
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