Our vocabularies have changed since the COVID-19 outbreak. Words such as pandemic, shelter in place, flattening the curve, essential worker, and my least favorite, social distancing, are now commonplace.

Social distancing is defined by Dictionary.com as “measures that reduce contact between large groups of people. Social distancing measures often entail canceling big gatherings (such as conferences, classes, church services, concerts, and sporting events), restricting mass transit and travel, and working from home.” As someone who spends what seems like 28 hours a day on Zoom for religious services, business conference calls, virtual club meetings, and catch up calls with family and friends, I prefer “physical distancing.” Dictionary.com defines physical distancing as “an alternative term for social distancing. The term also emphasizes that people should still socialize using digital technology and social media while they are separated physically.” Our work situations and vocabularies must change to accommodate physical distancing without creating social distance. This blog will offer some tips on how to do so.

Put systems in place
When employees work from home, it is important to set expectations that for the most part, the same work culture will apply in this new circumstance as when everyone was in the office. It is important to position the work from home not as a vacation or opportunity to postpone tasks until back at the office since that date is unknown. While it is important to have some flexibility, there should be rules about adhering to deadlines and if status reports are needed. It is important to demonstrate trust in your employees; if they were hard working and productive at the office, it is likely that the same work ethics will apply at home.

Show some empathy
While it is important to maintain a work-as-usual culture, it is also necessary to realize that conditions are not the same. Employees now may be faced with childcare and homeschooling, limited space, disruptive pets, and shared bandwidth. Everyone is a bit stressed and some understanding may be in order. Work of course is a good antidote to focusing on a bad situation and employees should try to leave problems at the invisible door.

Focus on output
Because the work situation is not the same, it is crucial to remain results-oriented. If an employee is working independently on a project and needs to take breaks during the day for family issues, but not missing meetings, or creating bottlenecks for others, managers should offer some leeway if the work is done with the usual quality and within the expected timeframe. Just as they do in the office, employees like to feel they have ownership of tasks and do not want to be micromanaged if the deliverables are met.

Have regular meetings
Social connection with the full team and coworkers helps to alleviate feelings of isolation and reduces stress. According to Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine Stallard, when one is feeling alone, the person is more likely to react more intensely to negative inputs and feel helpless, which has a detrimental effect on productivity. Even for employees who are not lonely, regular face-to-face interaction helps to satisfy the need for community, which in turn fosters cooperation and collaboration. Regular daily “fire up” morning meetings enable teams to set priorities, socialize, and assure everyone is on the same page and has necessary information and resources. Leaders should encourage team members to meet with one another to work on projects just as they would in the office. This can be accomplished through Zoom, WebEx, Skype or other platforms.

The Psychology of Remote Workers
Conflict can more easily erupt when employees are not in-person with one another. Non-verbal communication is more difficult to interpret and unfortunately, people may feel freer to speak their minds without filtering when distanced from the person. Christopher Terry in The Emerging Issue of Digital Empathy explains that the personal thoughts and attitudes of the people expressed in digital media may be different from those expressed in real life. Simply put, people are more likely to be jerks and feel they can more freely speak their minds, known as Online Disinhibition. This lack of empathy is also due to asynchronicity in response time and lack of face-to-face presence. The response may not be immediate in a digital exchange and they avoid seeing the physical reaction of the other person.

The bottom line is that we are all going through a difficult time filled with uncertainty. It is vital that we maintain a sense of connectivity, kindness and humanity to keep each other going. We also need to remain positive and optimistic about the future even if a company may be headed toward hardship. We may be physically dispersed, but we do not need to be distanced. Stay safe, stay well.