Leading with empathy in uncertain times

We can all agree that this is not business as usual. Employees are collectively experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety because of the uncertainty around what the future will hold. Between the impact of COVID-19, the social injustices impacting marginalized communities, natural disasters, and the polarizing political climate, employees and leaders alike are trying to make sense of the moment.

At Box, we’ve been thinking a lot about what lies beneath the surface. At first glance, employees might seem fine. They are showing up to meetings, laughing at all the right moments, and meeting deadlines. However, beneath the surface, many employees are emotionally and physically exhausted.

This year at BoxWorks Digital, I had the privilege of hosting Dr. David Rock, Co-Founder and Executive Director of theNeuroLeadership Institute, to discuss how leadership can support employees during these unprecedented times, and help them make sense of this new normal. Here are the 3 main takeaways from that conversation:

Enable employees to create a sustainable ‘work from home’ schedule

Because of COVID-19, more than two-thirds of employees in the U.S. are now working remotely. In addition to that,73% of the 100 biggest U.S school districts opted to go fully remote this fall. This means that not only are employees navigating a new world without hallway chats, and in-person meetings, but employees with children have found themselves managing a second full-time job of keeping their kids focused and engaged in their schoolwork.

It’s important for leaders to encourage and enable employees to create a sustainable schedule that works with their current circumstances. It might not be possible for some employees to sit on back-to-back Zoom calls from 9-5 while setting up their children for virtual learning, for example. In this new normal, we need to empower our teams to define synchronous and asynchronous schedules with enough structured flexibility to support sustainable productivity and allow them to do their best work. We should be checking in with team members regularly to ensure that their schedules and team work practices are supporting their success. 

Create a sense of certainty

There is no shortage of uncertainty these days. Dr. Rock reminds us of the physical and psychological impact of uncertainty explaining that “the threat response from uncertainty pulls away resources from [our] ability to think-long term.” When it’s possible, it’s important for leaders to provide employees with clarity to reduce this threat.

At Box, we kept this front of mind when developing and updating our ‘work from anywhere’ policy throughout the pandemic. Instead of just telling employees that offices will be closed until notified otherwise, we’ve provided broad timelines so employees can plan accordingly and find comfort knowing they won’t be expected to be back in the physical office without ample warning.

Listen deeply, unite widely, and act boldly

In addition to the pandemic, employees are also being impacted deeply by the many challenging events happening around us. No matter our personal proximity to these issues, this is a critical time for us to connect with our teams, and not shy away from meaningful and heartfelt conversations- a need that is particularly heightened in our remote environment. Through our monthly Manager Power Hours and manager enablement tools, we’ve reinforced the message that vulnerability, empathy and compassion are the new power skills for leaders. Theodore Roosevelt said it best People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It’s our job to create a sense of care and connectedness as leaders by making space for employees to acknowledge hurt, concern or frustration, to help reinforce safety and regain focus even amidst the chaos.

As it relates to allyship and promoting inclusion, Dr. Rock highlights that now is a time for leaders to “listen deeply, unite widely, and act boldly.” He notes that by focusing on mitigating biases and patterns in our thinking, it can have exponential impact and promote higher quality decisions as it relates to hiring, developing and retaining our teams.  At Box, we develop leaders to show curiosity, empathy and action when it comes to exploring our own biases and understanding the ways in which we can better support the needs of our teams. 

The path forward

This is not business as usual. It’s imperative for us to remember that these outside factors are not only impacting our business strategy, but the overall health and performance of our teams. This is an important moment for us to examine our organization's leadership practices and enablement plans to ensure that we are equipping leaders to support the holistic needs of our teams while driving peak performance. By asking the right questions and developing a human-centered approach to learning and development, we can put new practices in place that enable both the personal success of our employees, as well as drive our important businesses forward.

Watch the full session below: 

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