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This article was published on August 11, 2020

The key to compassionate leadership in the Zoom era

Treat your employees like customers

The key to compassionate leadership in the Zoom era

Remember February? While it feels like years ago, those were exciting times for me. I had just taken over as CEO of Aternity and was in the process of rebranding the company and recruiting several key members of the leadership team. I was scheduling time to meet with as many people as I could to ramp up as quickly as possible. 

Then, there were reports that a deadly virus was causing China to shut down. Then Italy. Then Europe. In just two short weeks, my colleagues and I were ordered into quarantine by local government leaders, and I was being asked to lead a company I had just joined, with a leadership team I had either never met before or had just met, through a historic downturn from the (dis)comfort of my home office. 

I had been through the 2008 recession, so I wasn’t intimidated by managing through a market downturn; however, managing a company without the ability to interact or speak with people in person was a new wrinkle to the challenge.

I’ve always relied on a management philosophy built on extreme empathy to fuel my ability to collaborate, build consensus among disparate groups, and provide direct feedback in previous leadership roles. While the circumstances had changed, the basic tenets of leadership didn’t so I had to adapt.

[Read: Here’s what the future of classrooms looks like]

Don’t be afraid to get personal

Good management is personal. The difference between CEOs and effective business leaders isn’t semantic. Business leaders treat everyone with respect at all times – even when their business is under duress. Do you tear people down during a crisis or are you able to unite behind a common cause? 

I’ve found that there are a lot of people that long for the celebrity and perks of being a world-class CEO but very few understand the EQ the role demands. Today, business leaders can’t just roll out tech-enabled digital workspaces and a set of WFH policies and expect business to continue as usual.

Employees are living in a volatile world where the health and safety of their family is their top priority, not their career. Be flexible, be respectful of people’s situations, and keep a clear channel of communication open. 

This is why it’s important for managers to make time in their schedules for personal interactions with their employees. One of the top things that people miss is small talk with their peers. To duck into someone’s office to talk about last night’s basketball game or TV show. Rather than focusing solely on the task at hand, build in time for people to chat during meetings.

It’s important that things like birthdays, work anniversaries, or other employee milestones don’t go by the wayside because people aren’t in the office. People are under an omnipresent level of stress these days so any type of personal interaction – digital or otherwise – is important.  

How can we help you?

Here’s what it boils down to: treat employees like customers. Give them the emotional and technological tools they need to succeed in their remote work environment. 

Whether it’s offering free subscriptions to meditation or wellness apps or moving away from traditional 9-to-5 work hours to better support remote workers, a little goes a long way. People are more disassociated from their employers than they’ve ever been, so it’s imperative that businesses remind their employees that they are not only appreciated but acknowledged. 

This is why it’s also important for business leaders to communicate the company’s mission, goals, and tactics regularly. The pandemic has forever changed the world we live in and disrupted – if not fundamentally changed – many markets. Business pivots and course corrections are required for many organizations. However, these are doomed to failure if all employees don’t buy-in to the changes. 

Not everyone is built for WFH

Walking the line between employee empathy and company culture is tricky in a WFH environment. People didn’t ask to bring their co-workers into their homes so while it’s uncomfortable to ask, businesses should feel comfortable instituting rules, particularly around meetings. 

For instance, if someone is forced to work through lunch because of back-to-back meetings in the office, it’s perfectly ok for them to grab a quick bite during a meeting. However, given the proximity and camera angle of most webcams, it’s a completely different matter on a video conference. This is why my team and I have made video optional for all meetings. 

Collaboration via webcam is new and foreign to most people. For introverts, it’s a nightmare as they literally have a camera on them for an entire conversation. Others may feel self-conscious or uncomfortable for other reasons. It’s important to respect that and implement policies that enable people to work to their preferences. 

It’s important to have a strong operational cadence to ensure the conversation runs smoothly. Given the unique dynamic of talking to your computer, many people won’t feel comfortable speaking up so it’s important a moderator solicit feedback from each participant rather than asking “Anyone have anything to add?” It’s important to integrate proactive measures that help people overcome the limitations of tech-enabled meetings. 

Don’t mince words

Similarly, direct and candid feedback must be delivered if people aren’t performing to expectations. Managers are often led astray when they mistake empathy for enabling. Leaders that tolerate sub-par work because they are either afraid to deliver critical feedback or don’t want to hurt people’s feelings exacerbate the situation. 

While it’s not optimal to have difficult conversations over a video conference call, avoiding one just kicks the can down the road. Again, because of the lack of physical cues, leaders need to be as direct as possible to ensure employees understand the feedback and can make the necessary changes.

Managing a business environment without personal contact is challenging but not impossible. Using empathy as the foundation for any ‘new normal’ work policies gives businesses the best chance at success. Helping people through these difficult times is critical in keeping them engaged. 

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