Leading from a Distance: Tips for Supportive and Compassionate Leadership During COVID-19

Written by Marie-José (MJ) Bourassa on March 23, 2020.

Are you leading an offsite team? Perhaps for you, leading virtually is old hat, or perhaps it is your first time navigating this type of work environment. In times of uncertainty, caring and effective leadership is critical to maintaining workplace and employee wellbeing. Here are some basics to generate trust and demonstrate compassionate and supportive virtual leadership.

1. Be socially present.

  1. Write a short good morning and good evening email or message to your team.
  2. Acknowledge receipt of a team member’s message, especially if you cannot get back to them with a full response just now.
  3. Get familiar with free social media connectivity options – Zoom, Skype, What’s App and use these where appropriate – and use them (while respecting workplace information protection policies)!

2. Be empathetic.

  1. Recognize that your staff may experience a range of feelings that may or may not resemble your own. You may feel energized and challenged by the new dynamics of working from home. Or you may feel unsure, overwhelmed, and demotivated. Your team members may feel isolated, disconnected, and disoriented, or they may feel calm, energized, and committed. Once you recognize this, you can adjust your expectations and interactions to meet your employees where they are at.
  2. You cannot assume how people feel. So, ask them! Reach out to your team members for one-on-one chats. “Hey, I am checking in to see how you are…how are you feeling?  How are you setting yourself up at home?  What are some challenges and how can I help?”

3. Create inclusion and virtually shrink the social distance.

  1. Invite team members to share pictures of them working at home! We are all human. Don’t worry about the dust bunnies or the pile of books in the background!
  2. Start and end your team calls and meetings with a one word “check-in” and “check-out”. Here’s how:
    • Make sure everyone has a list of participants.
    • Say that from this point forward, you will start and end meetings with a one-word check in and check-out.  It can be a feeling, a thought, a verb, a noun, any one word that conveys your “personal space there and then.”
    • State that the word “pass” is appropriate if you wish to pass.
    • Go first to model the exercise (the first few times).
    • One word only, and others listen in silence.
    • Name someone on the participant list to go next.
    • Invite that participant to name someone else on the list, and so on.
    • After all participants have shared, including “pass” answers, express thanks and make an appropriate comment or offer based on what has been said.
    • Remember to check-out at the end of the call.
    • Make this a practice and move beyond the initial discomfort. You will see how it helps to keep connected and real.

4. Mind your etiquette.

  1. Re-read your emails and texts before pressing send, noting:
    • Did you include the right people?
    • Are you mass-emailing for ease when you should first write one-on-one for respect and clarity?
    • Is your tone only matter-of-fact or is it also caring?
  2. If you are holding offsite business meeting with select team members, ask yourself: Am I doing this because I am personally closer to them or is this something I do in the normal course of work? Please be transparent to others that you are meeting. As part of building and maintaining trust, it is important for staff to know where the team members are, what your own schedule is and if you are meeting with teammates.
  3. Remember: Accord praise and encouragement in public and keep personal learning conversations private.

5. Get comfortable managing for results, and not bums-in-seats.

  1. Where and when people perform their work is secondary. It is what they produce that counts.
  2. Ensure you and each of your team members have clear and shared understanding of the work at hand and the targeted progress for the week. Try to avoid day-to-day micromanagement; people need space to manage their new daily reality.
  3. Remember: Trust breeds trust. Mistrust breeds mistrust.
  4. Encourage your team to share their working patterns to help them find their groove at home. Some may work 3 hours in the early morning before the kids get up, 1 hour during the day when they are at play or napping, and 3.5 hours after they have gone to bed. Respect the accommodations that people must make in this new reality.
  5. Don’t expect all your team members to all be online and available from 9-5 as usual. Learn their schedule and agree to a common time where it makes sense for key people or the whole team to connect in the day or during the week.
Be open. Know your weak spots. Work on them. Build trust. Learn and grow. Build a better workplace.

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