Managing Employees With Empathy During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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XpertHR, 28th April 2020
David Weisenfeld

In these highly uncertain times of social isolation, job uncertainty and concerns about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), employees are relying on their company leaders for support more than ever. However, it’s been no picnic for leaders either since they are often grappling with dwindling bottom lines and work-life challenges of their own.

The change from office-based work to telework during this crisis may lead even high-performing employees to become a bit less productive. Whether it’s the stress of being self-quarantined, working from home while homeschooling children, or other issues relating to the widespread shelter-in-place orders, the experience can be daunting.

XpertHR Managing Director Scott Walker hit on perhaps the biggest challenge of all during a recent podcast. “We don’t know when this is going to end. All of our offices are in a form of lockdown,” said Walker, who manages teams in the US, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Employees are experiencing that stress as well. Dr. Tracy Brower writes about workplace issues for and said that people are increasingly turning to their companies as a source of truth with so much information coming at them. In an interview with XpertHR, she said, “A lot of times people are really eager for that CEO message, or that company that’s reaching out giving a sense of how to make sense of things for that particular industry.”

Walker understands that firsthand and has been giving weekly updates to his employees. He also said the business is planning for every contingency, including business continuity plans for how to adapt if the teams (and most customers) remain 100% remote through June 1, September 1, or the end of 2020.

But he also recognizes that it can’t be all business either, stating that, “You need to strike that right balance between creating a sense of fun and engagement when people are working at home disconnected from their team members.”

Walker notes that he has enjoyed meeting employees’ pets and children at the beginning of video conference calls. “It kind of gives you a window into your colleagues’ lives that you never previously got,” said Walker. “You get to know each other a little bit better.”

Some of the tangible actions that managers can take during this time, according to Walker, include:

  • Allowing people to take time off during the day if needed;
  • Ensuring the mental well-being of employees; and
  • Taking advantage of video technology to keep employees connected.

On the subject of mental well-being, the extent to which managers demonstrate empathy and ask questions is key, said Tracy Brower. “They can be really authentic. This is a moment to let people know you’re going through this as well,” said Brower. She added that organizations need to realize that employees need extra space during this time to care for themselves and their families.

In fact, research shows employees perform better and are less stressed when their managers take work-life balance issues into account.

At the same time, people also need a sense of how their work still matters, Brower explained. Managers can play a key role in that process by bringing teams together and providing much-needed vision. A good message for leaders to send, Brower said, is, “We will get through this. We don’t know exactly what the future holds, but we know we’ll be in this together.”

To help keep employees grounded, Brower recommends that they:

  • Maintain a daily routine;
  • Be grateful for the little things;
  • Set boundaries (e.g. not talking about the coronavirus over dinner); and
  • Limit time reading or watching the news.

One thing that’s clear is that employees are looking to their leaders during this unprecedented crisis for signals that their work lives will not be upended.