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How to Express Empathy While Working Remotely

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Startups have always faced great uncertainties while racing to solve problems with minimal resources. Founders who demonstrate empathy to their teams can help them become more resilient during periods of upheaval. As COVID-19 tests everyone in extreme ways, responding with empathy becomes even more important. Often, we associate empathy with in-person gestures. How can you express empathy while working remotely? We connected with entrepreneurs at various stages. Brad Feld, co-founder of Foundry Group, Mobius Venture Capital and Techstars, Andrew Dubowec, VP at League, Inc., and Sanchali Pal, co-founder and CEO at Joro. Each share tips on ways to express empathy to your team while working remotely

4 Ways  to Express Empathy While Working Remotely

  • Adjust Expectations
  • Respect that People Experience Stress Differently
  • Allocate Time and Space to Interact Socially with Your Team Online
  • Remember the Bigger Picture

Adjust Expectations

In an effort to halt the spread of the virus, non-essential businesses across the U.S. adopted work-from-home policies. Some are working remotely for the first time. With the physical boundary between work and home physically removed, some find the lack of structured work time challenging. Founders or startup employees accustomed to working 80+ hour weeks may find it hard to know when to stop working. But remote work during the pandemic is not “business as usual,” even for those accustomed to it.

Embrace More Flexible Options

What can you do as a leader to set the tone for your startup? Some experts, like Tsedal Neeley, Professor of Business Administration at HBS, encourage managers to be extra flexible. Adjust work expectations temporarily. Andrew Dubowec, VP at League, Inc., comments, “I don’t see anything really heroic in burning yourself to the ground. I don’t see that as something that is a positive example for other people.”

Dubowec cites the concept of the twenty-mile march, which Jim Collins developed in his book Great by Choice. It proposes that “enterprises that prevail in turbulence self-impose” a target to hit consistently. The theory holds that maintaining steady progress—setting goals but not expecting the team to supersede them—will help your team survive periods of crisis.

Having tangible goals can also help your team feel grounded. But Dubowec notes, allowing for some flexibility or relaxing of goals during periods of global uncertainty can help your team feel more grounded. Especially in these times, it’s important to remember that “great companies are built over decades, not overnight. If they’re built over decades, you can sustain yourself.”

Respect that People Experience Stress Differently

Living through a global pandemic and economic crisis will induce anxiety, to various degrees, in most of us. Tsedal Neeley Professor of Business Administration at HBS, urges leaders to “recognize that some of your team may be struggling” to balance the demands of work and family. Beyond those demands, chronic anxiety over financial security, physical health, and the future can lead to depressed thinking.

The Power of Empathy

Expressing empathy can be tricky while working remotely, but simply acknowledging the deep uncertainties people face is the first step. In the final point of TechStars’ Mentor Manifesto, co-founder Brad Feld reminds mentors to “have empathy.” Though it’s geared to TechStars Startup startup mentors, his advice, to “be aware when to suspend or defer your advice or judgment” can apply to interactions with any teammate during the COVID-19 crisis.

Having empathy requires you to feel what the other person is going through. To put yourselves in their shoes and feel their fear.

Expressing empathy while working remotely requires that you recognize that everyone is experiencing the ambient stress of the pandemic differently. And feelings may vacillate daily. During this time, effective leaders show patience and compassion for staff.

Don’t Minimize What People Feel

Feld notes, “the most powerful thing you can do” when a friend, a colleague, a peer or direct report is feeling depressed “is to try to approach it with empathy.” Don’t try to solve their problem, he recommends, “just try to be aware of what they’re struggling with.” Knowing that you care and empathize can help tremendously.

Dubowec agrees. He cautions against suggesting tangible actions, like “go for a run” or get more sleep. Such good-intentioned suggestions can “minimize the severity of what’s going on and doesn’t give people confidence that they can really ask for help.”

At the end of the day, it comes down to patience, support, empathy.

Allocate Time and Space to Interact Socially with Your Team Online

Sanchali Pal, co-founder and CEO at Joro, a platform that enables users to track and improve their carbon footprints on their smartphones, is finding creative ways to engage with her team as they work remotely. In some ways, Pal admits, Joro is lucky. As an app-based company, they had an infrastructure in place for remote work. And as an early-stage startup, they don’t yet have to worry about revenue.

But her entire team is relatively new. Two people joined the company within a couple of weeks of the stay-at-home directives caused by the virus. Working remotely makes it harder to help your team get better acquainted and bond, she acknowledges.

Under normal circumstances, working in person, Pal fosters team bonding “during lunches in the office, over coffee or walking around.” During the stay-at-home directive, she decided to set aside time to recreate casual social interaction online. She and her team meet virtually for lunches, meditation and mindfulness sessions, coffee breaks, and a book club. They even held a virtual happy hour to celebrate a colleague’s birthday. Echoing Dubowec, Pal underscores, “I’ve been trying to keep in mind everyone’s different situations” including teammates who recently moved.

Establish Regular 1:1 Time

In addition to scheduling time for social interactions with your team, make time to check in with people individually. During those 1:1s, ask people to rate how they feel each week. At League, Dubowec notes, each employee answers, on a weekly basis, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how are you feeling?”

It’s one question. “How are you feeling?” Scale of 1 to 5. It’s a very powerful tool, because when you see someone says that there are a 2 and they’ve historically had 4s, it gives you a chance to start the conversation.

He elaborates that it’s incumbent on leadership to start these conversations. “Sharing is hard. People are scared. People don’t want to show they’re vulnerable because at the end of the day, as a manager, you’re in a very unique—and privileged—position in that you control this person’s livelihood.”

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, studies show that mental health challenges, especially depression, have an enormous impact on underperformance at work. Dubowec notes that for founders, mental health is “a pervasive issue. It’s affecting all companies and all teams.”

During times of crisis, such as the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, leaders need to be especially vigilant about the mental health of their team. Expect that productivity will dip temporarily and adjust short term goals. Dubowec stresses, “let people know” those decisions. He encourages leaders to take the initiative in “opening up the dialogue and making people feel comfortable sharing” how they are feeling.

Stay Connected to  Other Founders

For Pal, being a part of a founder support group that investors established for founders managing Coronavirus helps. Having a group of peers to converse with about managing is valuable. “It’s hard to gauge sometimes how much and what to share with every member of our team.” She encourages founders to reach out to each other.

Hearing others’ stories can ignite a sense of resilience. Pal’s lead investor, like others, points to the economic downturn of 2008 as evidence that this downturn will end. Remind your team that, “A lot of big companies—Dropbox, Stripe, the successes of today—were built in 2008, 2009. There is always a market for good products and good ideas.”

Remember the Bigger Picture

Circumstances are changing rapidly. It can be difficult not to react immediately to disruptive news. But taking time to digest any news and respond thoughtfully can benefit your team. Effective leaders can acknowledge the magnitude of difficulty they face while exuding a belief that they will survive. HBS professor Tsedal Neeley advises, the founders “may not be able to completely reassure workers about what will happen tomorrow but they can provide a glimpse of the big picture from their perspective.” By expressing empathy while working remotely, you can foster a sense of cohesiveness among your team.

For some, reflecting on the past can help provide perspective. Pal shares, “we’ve been through hard times in the past and this is only one more of those. Actually, many of the things we’ve gone through in the past probably were more difficult for the company than even this situation.”

Set Structured Meeting Times in Advance & Encourage Autonomy

For many unaccustomed to working remotely, the shift can be overwhelming. Not only are people separated from peers. But the workday no longer contains a clear stop and start. Help your team to adapt to less structured time by allowing them to work when it’s best for them. Set a schedule of regular times to meet as a team. Plan and inform your team when you’ll meet as a group for formal discussions and social interactions. Otherwise, experts advise, allow them to work at their own pace to meet metrics.

Expressing empathy to your team can help them to see the silver lining. Pal notes, when working remotely, “you have the freedom to hunker down and focus on building something that your customers really want and holding yourself to a higher standard of that.”

Explore More

Resources for Self Growth & Building Resilience

Reboot, a coaching company founded by Jerry Colonna, focuses on helping leaders become more self-aware, authentic, and resilient as “better humans make better leaders.” Techstars co-founder Brad Feld has praised Reboot as the best organization in the world for entrepreneurs.

Jerry Colonna’s book, Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, walks readers through a “journey of radical self-inquiry, helping you to reset your life by sorting through the emotional baggage that is holding you back professionally, and even more important, in your relationships.”

Though it’s geared to TechStars Startup Mentors, “Have Empathy. Remember That Startups Are Hard,” the final point of eighteen in Techstars Mentor Manifesto offers practical advice any can apply to a teammate during the COVID-19 crisis. Techstars co-founder Brad Feld advises mentors to “be aware when to suspend, or defer, your advice or judgment” as “the entrepreneur you are mentoring may not be in a headspace to hear your solution. Mentoring is often an emotional rather than a functional or intellectual role. Take a breath and be empathetic, instead of jumping in to solve the problem.”

Resources to Help Leaders Navigate through COVID-19

In “How to Remain Remotely Agile Through COVID-19,” Boston Consulting Group recommends that leaders, 1) set priorities. Create backlogs ensure “that individuals and teams can work on the most valuable things even when they are remote.” 2) work in small, cross-functional autonomous teams. 3) set a regular cadence for meetings. Having set meetings “helps to make sure that everyone is aligned and enables collaboration when people are working from home.”
Good leaders, it concludes, “focus on concrete output and goals, allowing teams to have a common vision to work toward.”

In “The New Rules for Remote Work: Pandemic Edition,” HBS professors share ten practical tips for managing large-scale, long-term remote work during this global economic and health crisis. These include communicating clearly and decisively, being more flexible, adjusting expectations,

In “4 Ways to Be a Resilient Leader During the Coronavirus,” Carl Robinson, founding partner of the Chicago-based executive coaching firm Vantage Leadership Consulting, offers four recommendations for leadership during the pandemic. If faced with the difficult task of laying off employees to prolong your startup’s life, he recommends CEOS, behaving in a way that “acknowledges the downside of events but balances that with optimism about the future.” Help your team see the long-term picture by being responsive, not reactive.

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