27 September 2023

Reaching out: How to communicate compassionately from a distance

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Beck Bamberger* says it is possible — and essential — for managers to build rapport with their teams remotely.

The number of remote workers has climbed steeply since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

For many CEOs, this means suddenly leading teams from a distance, at a time when we need to be deeply connected.

Communicating real compassion through your screen is hard.

But it can be done.

Lean in, literally

Body language and facial cues typically tell people you care.

Of course, that’s watered down via videoconferencing.

But there are some workarounds.

“Emotional nuances are not easily communicated in the digital experience,” explains Analisa Goodin, founder and CEO of Catch & Release.

“But … humans can use their imagination to bridge these gaps.”

“Listening deeply, leaning into the camera, asking more questions, and showing great follow-through are all signals that you care.”

Be realistic

“If you are worried about productivity versus people, you are worried about the wrong thing,” says Mike Massaro, CEO of the fintech Flywire.

“Of course, things will be less productive in this new world, but longer term that will solve itself.”

“Focusing on the wrong things will ultimately have you miss a massive opportunity to engage your teams at a personal and deeper level.”

In that vein, he is choosing to show compassion in a number of ways, including flexibility — for himself and his team.

“Know that every day of remote working will bring a new challenge to your team,” he says.

“Many people will need to adapt their work schedules to support their families or other responsibilities.”

“Accommodating these revised schedules and being open to flexible working hours will keep your team engaged and productive.”

Prioritise connection

With stress levels through the roof, group check-ins can be a great way to show your team that you care about their emotional wellbeing.

“One thing we’ve been doing as a team is playing ‘Rose, Bud, Thorn’ on Zoom every Friday,” says Claire Schmidt, CEO and cofounder of All Voices.

“You share the most challenging thing that happened the past week, the best thing that happened, and something you’re looking forward to for next week.”

“Personal anecdotes are encouraged,” she says.

“Giving people that structured space to open up and share about whatever is happening in their lives allows us to connect as people, not just as colleagues.”

Dig deeper

Managers typically have one-on-one meetings with their direct reports.

But during this pandemic, managers should also use those calls to make a human connection, according to Enrico Palmerino, CEO and founder of Botkeeper.

“It’s important to take time during each check-in to see how everyone’s doing overall,” he says.

“For example, what did they do over the weekend?”

“How’s the family?”

“This helps signal that you’re listening and you care about them on and off the clock.”

Be open

“That old-school business mentality of the ‘big boss’ who leads his team through an emotionally disconnected management style is so outdated,” says David Shove-Brown, cofounder and Principal of architects //3877.

“Leadership is about creating and maintaining a two-way street of open communication.”

For him, that has meant finding a way to connect with his team in deeper ways, even though he can’t do it in person.

“Last week, we sent out a company-wide email that wasn’t necessarily about the company itself, but rather about reminding our team that we’re a community, and part of something bigger than current world events,” he says.

Mirror your office culture

When teams are working in person, it’s easier to keep your team connected.

But when you’re working remotely, it’s much easier to inadvertently leave someone out of the loop.

There are workarounds, says Christopher Auer-Welsbach, co-CEO and co-founder of Kaizo.

“There are a few obvious ones, such as pushing for calls rather than emails,” he says.

“Less obvious elements are to conduct more ad-hoc calls than scheduled meetings to keep people alert and mimic the office-like ‘quick question’ culture.”

This can nurture “creative moments and quick decision-making”.

Be open

“Communicating compassionately in a time of uncertainty is all about being clear and consistent,” says Jay Reno, founder and CEO of Feather.

“Early on, our leadership team at Feather made a commitment to share company news and updates with our entire staff on a daily basis, so that everyone would feel that they’re up to speed on business operations.”

Joanna McFarland has also embraced transparency as the cofounder and CEO of HopSkipDrive.

She says being forthright invites compassion, especially during hard times.

“I’m fully transparent about what’s happening, the context and decision-making process, and what will happen to the best of my knowledge,” she explains.

“If I don’t know, I say I don’t know.”

“I don’t put on a show.”

“If I’m emotional and it’s been a tough day, I show that.”

“I think vulnerability engenders compassion toward my team, and I see them show compassion toward me in turn.”

* Beck Bamberger is founder of BAM Communications and a contributor to Fast Company. She tweets at @beckbamberger. Her website is beckbamberger.com.

This article first appeared at www.fastcompany.com.

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