Working with your colleagues and coworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic brings up communication challenges that we’ve (thankfully) never dealt with before. I’m sharing tips for how to minimize conflicts and enhance your communications during the coronavirus emergency. This information is directed at those of us who are not on the front lines. Most likely you are able to work from home or in an office while social distancing and taking safety precautions.
We’ve already covered the dangers of assuming you know what is going on with your coworkers. The next tip builds on this. It’s about allowing time to be social, and well, human.
While riding the current wave of urgency and stress, we’re in triage mode and adopting a “cut to the chase” mindset. This is a normal reaction in an emergency. In this case the emergency is continuing for months and months. Goodbye to the small, friendly exchanges that used to pepper our days. We’re missing out on discussions of the weekend, shared dreams about vacation plans, and awkward chatter at forced office parties. Previously you may have thought these were unavoidable time wasters. Yet now we are lacking the messy social ‘glue’ that reminds us of our similarities, differences, and shared experiences.
Allowing space for social interaction with your colleagues and coworkers is important. This responsibility doesn’t rest solely with managers and leaders (who in some cases seem to have missed the message). You can do this by briefly and occasionally chatting with people when possible. This could be as simple as building time into a meeting to ask “How are you?” and “How is your family?” Perhaps in a text message you can check in with a coworker before you launch into your work request or question. Your boss will likely be pleasantly surprised if you say, “I’m checking in to see how you are holding up. How are you doing with all this craziness?” If you're missing chats with a particular work buddy, suggest having 10-minute virtual coffee breaks where you can just catch up.
You can also take this opportunity to contact colleagues you've lost touch with. It can simply be an email, a text, and or a message through LinkedIn or some other form of social media. It needn't be complicated. Try a short note saying, "I know it's been awhile, but I was thinking of you and hope you and your family are doing well."
Admittedly, it's frustrating to have to initiate friendliness. It feels even worse if it is not reciprocated, which will happen. I’ve been surprised, and honestly saddened, but the cold, sterile (no pun intended) exchanges I’ve had with people when reaching out to set up meetings and discuss projects. Despite this, I’ve been writing back asking how they are doing and how things are going. About half of the time I receive responses showing they are happily surprised and relieved by the question. The other half return robotic, cold, "I'm fine" responses. I can try, can’t I? Just the process of thinking about others helps remove me from the self-pitying quagmire that is so easy to get stuck in right now.
By taking some small steps to check in with people and socialize, you are rebuilding trust and teamwork, while helping yourself get centered and connected. We’re allowed to be human and treat others as humans.
Communicating with colleagues and coworkers during a pandemic is, thankfully, something you probably haven’t done before. It seems that whatever was happening before the pandemic is now heightened. The people that usually irritated you before may now make you outright furious. Perhaps your clueless coworker has checked out even more than usual.
Assuming you are one of the fortunate people who still has a job, you are now navigating a bizarre new world of work. We’re all grasping with this situation and realigning our jobs and our daily lives while we are in survival mode.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing tips for how to effectively work with your coworkers in this current COVID pandemic. While the information can apply to anyone, it is directed at those of us who are not on the front lines. Most likely you are able to work from home or in an office while social distancing and taking safety precautions.
Right now you are going through the stress of maintaining a job while protecting yourself and others from illness, getting the food and supplies you need, and having your work life blur with your homelife. You may be worried about sick or recovering loved ones, or, even worse, grieving the loss of someone. You may have children at home without daycare or a traditional school day. Family members or roommates are unexpected office mates. On top of this, we are isolated from our communities and support systems.
Naturally, you may find yourself comparing your situation to others. This is something we do even when things are going well. But, right now, this comparison can bring up deep resentment and frustration if you feel others are benefiting in ways you can’t. I’ve heard comments from people who feel their coworkers have it “easier.” Some people say that their coworkers who are home with children are getting more leeway and granted excused absences “just to spend time with their kids.” On the other hand, I’ve heard some say that their single colleagues or coworkers who don’t have children are getting a “vacation” and can just cruise through their day. I’m sick of hearing people respond with “It must be nice” to what another person is experiencing.
This toxic thinking can lead to assumptions of favoritism and preferential treatment. It’s easy to assume why certain people are being given desirable projects, about who is receiving technology upgrades or other perceived perks, and why coworkers don’t answer the phone on the first ring. This stirs up envy and resentment towards anyone who appears to have a more positive situation than you.
Judgment is exhausting. This is particularly true now, when we’re already exhausted and vulnerable. Here is my first and fundamental tip. Don’t allow your fear and frustration to lead you to criticize and vilify others. Beware of making assumptions about what anyone else is dealing with despite how many happy pictures of freshly baked bread they post on social media. We are all struggling. Each person is struggling in a different way.
You will feel a mental burden being released if you stop forcing your coworkers and colleagues to justify their situation to you. Once you assume the best of people, and create a different dialogue in your head about their situation, you’ll look at them with more empathy and less anger. They will notice the change in your interactions with them and you’ll stop adding to the pile of anger already on your back. You’ll be the better for it.