In these unprecedented times, it’s critical for managers to lead with understanding and forgiveness. Many employees and managers are new to the experience of teleworking and are deeply challenged by the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost overnight we had to change how and where we work, shop, exercise, worship, and learn.

Merriam-Webster defines “empathy” as having the capacity to imagine the feelings that you may not actually have, while “sympathy” is sharing the feelings of another person. Successful managers need to be able to recognize the unique challenges an employee is facing even if your own experience of the pandemic is quite different. Besides the virus, our topsy-turvy world has been made even more confusing by supermarket shortages, street protests, and natural disasters.

As a manager, you can’t help but see how emotional well-being factors into the ability of employees to perform under stress. Some employees are fighting to balance work responsibilities with home-schooling their children. Other people have been living alone for months and are starved for conversation.

It’s important to find out each employee’s unique situation and recognize that if individual productivity has decreased a bit, your team may be emotionally exhausted. Showing a little empathy and trust now will be rewarded with employee appreciation in the long-term.

How you can help teleworkers

Here are five recommendations for managers to follow when trying to help employees adjust to the challenges of their new teleworking culture:

  1. Provide support, check in, and listen to employees. A quick “how are you feeling?” goes a long way. Ensure employees know what mental health resources are available and how to access them. Check back occasionally to monitor status, but be careful not to do it so frequently the employee feels smothered or untrusted. Find out if setting up regular check-ins would be of interest.
  2. Communicate, communicate and communicate! Employees are isolated yet at the same time bombarded with information from all angles. Managers should guide employees with clear communication and make sure no one feels they get overlapping or contradictory instructions and assignments. Leaders who provide consistent, regular guidance and training will find they’re developing stronger team members.
  3. Help employees strike the right balance. With so many employees working from home, flexibility has taken on a whole new meaning. Some people may be forced to establish a completely new work schedule to allow for childcare. Other employees feel compelled to be available at all times as a show of dedication. Managers need to remind employees — not only with words but with actions – to log off. And, they should ensure employees are indeed taking time off. With many people opting for “staycations” this year, there is a strong temptation to check emails and internal forums throughout the day, which prevents the employee from fully disconnecting.
  4. Don’t be afraid to mix things up! It’s a good idea to combine emails, phone messages and video calls to reduce an employee’s sense of isolation from the team. But non-stop video conferences are exhausting, so reassure your team it is acceptable to turn the camera off sometimes. Encourage them to take walks during calls and to try not to schedule themselves back-to-back. It’s also important to set aside time to have fun and allow them to connect on topics beyond work.
  5. Embrace interruptions as part of the new normal. Working from home while managing other aspects of everyday life can be a major challenge. Encourage employees to roll with the punches. If the cat wants some screen time or the delivery guy knocks loudly on the door – just go with it! We’re all human, and we’re all BBC Dad now. Letting colleagues see those aspects of your life can create a stronger bond between team members.

Creating a healthy workforce requires managers to set a good example and make your own mental and emotional well-being a priority. To paraphrase the airlines, you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you put one on your child.

When working at home, it’s too easy to blur work/life, forgetting to take breaks, meals and showers, and end up working long hours to compensate for productivity-sapping distractions. Scheduling blocks of time for your personal tasks and wellness will help you adjust to the “new normal” and make you better prepared to help others.