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Five Ways to Communicate Compassionately During a Pandemic

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

Over 23 years ago, I was thrown into crisis when I gave birth at just 24 weeks gestation. Completely unprepared, I found that my son’s four months in the NICU upended my life and my job. Five months earlier I had taken on a huge new role, leading a 70-person publications team for my company’s Northwest region. I was supposed to be in Seattle at a business meeting the day my son was born.  My boss, Mike Payne, was our region's financial manager and a childless bachelor. He’d moved to the Northwest to lead the company's first megaregion, and the rumor mill had labeled him the “axe man of the east.” But never, ever did he give me anything less than complete support. Because of his advocacy, I was able to take the time I needed to recover from my emergency c-section and then go back to work part-time while visiting my son in the NICU every chance I got. When my tiny son came home from the hospital 117 days later, I took my full three months of maternity leave with Mike's full support. I’m sure it inconvenienced him considerably not having me completely there for several months at a time.

Mike with my miracle boy
The "axe man from the east," my most significant mentor and boss, Mike Payne, with my miracle baby boy. Christopher was actually born on Mike's birthday, but I didn't learn that until later.

Fast forward to today: Grace Johnson works as an administrator for a major health care corporation in Seattle. Her children’s schools were cancelled for six weeks, and as a single mom, she doesn’t have any relatives nearby. She’s scrambling to figure out how she will work and take care of her two daughters without affecting her income. Fortunately, her supervisor assured her that the company would do everything it could to support her while she figures out child care. These are the ways you earn employee loyalty. These are the ways you become present for your employees during stressful times. Be a leader who communicates authentically and compassionately during any type of crisis by following these guidelines.

1. Be a calm, confident leader

You’ll need to find the perfect combination of reassurance and hopefulness with confidence, authenticity, and honesty. Take, for example, Rep. Katie Porter pressing the head of the CDC, Robert Redfield, to agree to offer free COVID-19 testing. Redfield did not instill me with confidence whatsoever, although Porter certainly did. Be like Katie Porter! Here’s how you do that:

  • Present the latest data and information (from reputable news and government sources). Porter used a visual aid, writing the prices of medical tests on a white board.

  • Be compassionate, acknowledging the risks to those in our society who are aged or fragile. 

  • Project understanding, recognizing that some of your employees might be worried and anxious about what will happen.

  • Be confident while recognizing the unknowns. Nerves and anxiety in a leader beget panic and stress. Your staff need you to keep everyone calm. For example, Bishop Laurie Larson Caesar of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Oregon Synod sent a letter to all pastors, beginning with, “God knows there is enough anxiety in the air in this intense and polarized election season when climate change is eroding our planet and our denials, and the church we love is aging, shrinking, and increasingly misunderstood. We do not need the coronavirus in the mix, but in the mix it is. Social distancing and self-quarantining appear to be critical ways of dealing with the spread of the disease. As we in the Oregon Synod strive to be faithful and courageous leaders, here are a few things we know…” After sharing the facts, she presented 10 suggestions for churches to implement at their discretion.  My favorite online business coach, Marie Forleo, sent a reassuring message to her team. "As the leader of my company, I shared a letter today via Slack...I reassured them that their jobs, their income, and their healthcare benefits were 100% secure and rock solid. I talked about how their safety and their family’s safety was a top priority. We also talked about the fact that many of us will be working from home with new folks (spouses, kids, etc.) and how it’s okay that our work dynamic shifts. That’s to be expected. I also shared what I am doing and opened up the space for questions, recipe sharing, and some open and vulnerable conversations."This is what a calm, confident, and compassionate leader looks like.

2. Encourage people to work from home and require it if they have any symptoms

We know that slowing the virus “flattens the curve." Flattening the curve stretches the pandemic over a longer period, easing the burden on our health care facilities. Given the fact that the United States does not have enough tests and people with symptoms are still not being tested, the virus has most likely spread much further than we can imagine. At the epicenter of the virus in Kirkland, Washington, medical centers are over capacity. Even though young people are unlikely to die from coronavirus, they can die from other untreated conditions if hospitals cannot treat them. As most of us know by now, “social distancing” will slow down the pandemic. Here are important measures for companies to take:

  • Insist that anyone who has any cold or flu symptoms stays home. Consider implementing disciplinary consequences if people do not follow this instruction. It’s important to emphasize that everyone’s ability to get work done will be affected if they spread illness.

  • Prepare people for working from home by educating them about home ergonomics, mobile working tools, and videoconferencing. Equip them with accessories, and suggest they transfer files to the cloud so they can grab them from home if needed.

  • Offer videoconferencing opportunities for all in-office meetings.

  • Restrict or halt business travel to decrease the chances of the virus spreading in your company, and require self-quarantines when people return from travel.

  • Encourage people to refrain from touching each other and meet virtually online instead of in person.

  • If you don’t already have one, develop an emergency plan with an employee phone tree in case you need to quarantine the office.

3. Be a good example and offer special benefits to your staff

This is the time when great leaders and companies rise to the top. Think about how your company can extend gratitude to your employees by providing extra benefits during this time of stress.

  • Beyond the basics of equipping your workspaces with plenty of sanitizer, soap, and wipes, think about creative ways to encourage self-care and promote wellness. How about covering your employees’ medical copays if they show Coronavirus symptoms? Can you ensure paid time off to cover any needed time out of the office? How about offering hand sanitizer and soap for employees to take home? Shopify is offering workers a $1,000 stipend to purchase any necessary office supplies and ease the transition to remote work. Be creative and kind.

  • Take special care of your critical employees…the ones who need to be in the office to keep everything humming along, like facilities, accounting, or other functions that the company needs to operate. See if their duties can be reduced or shared in case one of them becomes sick. Check in with them to see if they need special accommodations during this time.

4. Stay in touch with your clients, and flex your services to accommodate them

  • Before the virus had reached pandemic proportions, I received emails from Delta and Alaska Airlines, announcing they would extend exchanges to their customers who had bought plane tickets. Many theaters with cancelled shows are offering free ticket exchanges. 

  • The owners of Pastini Restaurants sent a message to assure customers they are being hypervigilant about sanitizing and requiring employees to stay home if they show any signs of illness. All of their employees are covered by paid sickleave. They closed their message by saying that their owners, managers, and staff are dining daily in their restaurants so they can ensure firsthand that the extra-cautious procedures are being implemented. 

  • Think about how you can adapt your services to meet your clients’ needs. If you provide a service, offer to meet by videoconferencing or phone. Call your clients to see how you can help them during this period of unrest. Be creative like fine dining restaurant Canlis in Seattle, which retooled itself to offer drive-through lunches, a bagel shed, and a family meal delivery service. What can you do to ease your clients’ stress or pain points? Shine Distillery & Grill in Portland began making their own hand sanitizer and giving it away for free! Now that's something everyone needs. Who can mass-produce toilet paper, I wonder?

5.  Nurture connections and encourage kindness

  • Talk with your leaders about nurturing connection with their employees when they are working from home. Make sure your leaders encourage their staff to stay home if they exhibit any virus symptoms and extend understanding to any employees who need to take care of children or ill family members.

  • Encourage regular videoconferencing calls to check in, both emotionally and tactically.

  • Frequently communicate with your staff during confinement, recommending that they take care of themselves and practice self-care.

  • Stay regularly connected with your employees and clients through email and phone calls. Suggest that each person make four to five personal phone calls each day and especially take time to check in with people who are elderly, in fragile health, or single and might be feeling isolated.

  • Think about how your company can assist people who will be disadvantaged by the quarantine and time off school. For example, Pita Pit in Oregon City is offering up to four free small pitas per week to students who are on the free or reduced lunch program. Lionheart Coffee is offering free brown bag lunches at both of their locations for anyone who needs them. Plate & Pitchfork, a farm-to-table dinner event company, has a Pandemic Resources page with ideas of how to support restaurants, wineries, nonprofits, farmers, and artists. Comcast is offering internet-essential services for free to low-income customers in the next 60 days. Zoom CEO Eric Yuan announced they are offering free videoconferencing tools to K-12 schools! People are stepping up, trying to support small businesses, offering their assistance on social media, and starting collectives to help people in need. What can your business or organization do for the greater good?

  • Be a role model in encouraging people to practice love and compassion to all, to people of any race and background (especially Asian, as racist acts toward Asians have skyrocketed). Model understanding of all the ways people are responding to this news…whether they are anxious or calm.When my boss extended me compassion and understanding during my biggest life crisis, I became forever grateful to him and the company. My coworkers brought us meals and filled in the gap I left. I have never forgotten their unprecedented kindness. 

This is how you lead with compassion. This is how you create employee engagement and loyalty. This is how you live out your values as a purpose-driven company. The most important thing is to communicate, communicate, communicate. We will get through this, together. We are all connected, as we are discovering in ways we never would have imagined.

Let me know if you have any questions or if you can use help with your crisis communications.

With Mike a few years ago
Meeting up with Mike in Seattle a few years ago--he's long retired, but we stay in touch. Kind and compassionate bosses are worth their weight in gold.

Fertile Ground Communications LLC inspires people through story and turns dry language into compelling communications.

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