June 27, 2020

In the highly uncertain times inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increased reliance on managers and supervisors to maintain the well-being, mental health, and emotional safety of their employees and other stakeholders. Most organizations globally have implemented remote work-from-home. Forced, full-time remote work in a situation of extreme, global uncertainty can take a huge toll on an employee as opposed to part-time, voluntary remote work in a normal situation. Almost overnight, millions of workers who used to work in an office have been asked to work from home. However, not all workers can work remotely: cleaning staff, cashiers, waiters/waitresses, nurses, and maintenance technicians can’t work from home. Many of these workers are now temporarily out of work.



Remote work in the context of a pandemic comes with a particular set of challenges: not knowing how long this situation will last, whether it will get better or worse, not knowing what the aftermath of the on-going crisis will be on our health and the economy. Most people find it difficult to keep their usual focus. As schools are now closed in most countries, parents need to work, look after their children and prepare meals during the day, all at the same time. There are no specific rules to deal with remote work under these very special conditions. Empathy is always critical to managing one’s workforce, but it is all the more important in these unusual times. Physical distancing comes with emotional challenges. With 100% remote work, a lot of small gestures and all our body language can no longer be used for better communication. Colleagues may not be family members, but all the physical interactions that occur at work do play a huge role in amplifying social inclusion. Isolated from their team, employees are more likely to feel lonely or lost. Without physical contact with their colleagues, and in the context of a pandemic, employees asked to work remotely require extra empathy from their manager. In this situation of a global health emergency, workers, and employees that need to show up to their workplace need the same amount of empathy as do the ones working from home.



The threat of the pandemic is evolving every day, and leaders are recognizing that they will have to respond and make adjustments in real-time. There are decisions that leaders will likely be called on to make during this current crisis and these decisions are to be taken very wisely. Besides decision making, leaders need to provide guidance and reassurance while acknowledging that the path ahead isn’t clear. Balancing this paradoxical tension needs leaders to lead with humanity. Few important things should be considered to actualize leading with humanity:

Make Employees your Prime Concern. The immediate concerns of a manager or supervisor should be the health and economic well-being of their employees. Cost savings and profit motives that may have previously served your company well could backfire in the current situation. For instance, within 24 hours of cutting the salaries of staff members, the owners of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers admitted they had a mistake, apologized, and reversed course, effectively avoiding a backlash. Customers are more likely to lose trust in a brand forever if they believed it was putting profit over people.

Be Flexible and Accessible. For leaders, the pandemic means, at the minimum, slowing down, being flexible, and giving employees leeway to deal with the everyday new challenges. It also means an opportunity to connect with the workforce more deeply. Leaders need to provide support as a secure base by being visible and accessible. They need to keep the virtual office door open and proactively reach out to employees, so they know they can ask for help. It is important to be reliable, clarify what people can expect, follow through on commitments, and make meetings a consistent experience that the team can count on.

Instill Confidence in Employees. It is critical that executives listen to and advocate for their employees, and acknowledge their importance in the company. In crises, where we all are experiencing a threat, offering an abundance of resources can help instill confidence in employees. These resources can range from financial to human, or from physical to mental. This could be IT support for virtual conferencing, tips for working remotely, wellbeing webinars, or more flexible workdays to oblige new demands. As leaders, it is important to recognize that the need to support each other is more important than the transactional needs during this crisis. The former supports the latter in the long run.



Emotional management is simultaneously one of the greatest challenges and opportunities for executives at all levels amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Managers must recognize and accept that they are dealing with much of the same uncertainties and stressors as their employees. While they need to dedicate time and resources to support their staff, the same must be done for themselves. Taking breaks from work and spending time focusing on family and friends will help in de-stressing. Enhancing personal wellbeing will also help you to be a better manager for your team. Atticus Finch said it best in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’: “You can never understand someone unless you understand their point of view, climb in that person’s skin, or stand and walk in that person’s shoes.” Empathy is the single most important leadership skill that outshines all others during crisis management. However, empathy is not comfortable to work. Pulling up the emotional drawbridge and sparing oneself from vulnerable emotions is far easier than climbing into another’s skin. And clearly, some leaders do just that. Of-course we need leaders to think rationally and act decisively, but leading from the head alone is not sufficient. Leaders need to be deeply connected to the emotional landscape of everyone involved in operating the company.



Brands are shifting their production and services to support health services and charities. Some brands are also keeping people productive and healthy, and helping employees and contract workers. French luxury goods group, LVMH (which owns many brands including Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Louis Vuitton) announced that it would start using its perfume and cosmetic production lines to produce hand sanitizer gel and will deliver them to French hospitals for free.  Sylhet Spice Cuisine, a local restaurant in Birmingham, UK is offering free takeaway meals to NHS staff as a thank you for the efforts of frontline staff during the coronavirus pandemic. Nike is donating 140,000 pieces of foot care, apparel, and equipment globally including pairs of Nike Air Zoom Pulse trainers and compression socks, to frontline healthcare staff around the world. Amazon has donated 8,200 laptops to Seattle Public Schools families to help those students without devices to continue their education at home. In America, Starbucks is teaming up with startup Lyra Health to expand mental health benefits for its thousands of employees and their eligible family members. They’ll be able to get up to 20 sessions a year with a mental health therapist or coach through Lyra Health’s platform. Microsoft committed to pay its hourly workers their usual income, despite them having to work fewer hours after the permanent staff members were told to work from home. These are just some of the ways that brands are giving back to society during the COVID-19 pandemic by showcasing empathetic leadership.



Empathy is about being genuinely concerned about your people, and not just about their performance or output. Empathy, kindness, and compassion are essential principles to keep at the forefront of your company now, more than ever. Business leaders should take the lead in doing the right thing, starting with their workforce. Executives need to treat employees as real people with families just like their own, not costs on a balance sheet. Look after employees first, followed by customers, suppliers, and the community. Your empathy may not improve their situation, but you will change their experience of the crisis by showing you genuinely care. It will pay off in the long run, as each group will surely remember how you treated them during this difficult period. The profits and dividends will come later if you make the right decisions and commitments now. When executives put the humanity of others at the heart of commercial decisions, it not only helps them make wiser ones but builds collective trust, loyalty, and engagement that pay dividends beyond incentive plans and brand campaigns.


Written by

Musarrat Sarwar Chowdhury

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