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July 19, 2022 7:30 AM EDT

For all the talk about boundaries between work and home, especially during the pandemic, sometimes there’s real beauty to be found in the blurriness.

Over the last five months, two events schooled me profoundly in this space: the death of my mother-in-law in February, and my bout with Covid earlier this month. In both cases, colleagues, neighbors, and associates stocked my home with soups, salads, fruit, flowers, Robitussin, pudding, cakes, cookies, cards, and CBD oil. My inbox burst with gift cards to food-delivery services and emails just “checking in.” I was given the freedom to work or not work, and, perhaps more importantly, to choose the types of tasks that felt possible and comfortable to engage in.

Before that time, I thought I was pretty good at supporting colleagues. Last year, in a column on mentoring, I shared my go-to tactic: “Feed people, early and often.” I detailed my approach in the pandemic of caring for colleagues going through hard times by sending meals, plants, and small gifts. “Once a staffer tweeted that she was missing her mom at Easter so I sent a basket of plastic eggs and candy,” I wrote. “Gifts need not be expensive as much as meaningful, and food literally nurtures.”

Yet to be on the receiving end, and twice in a relatively short period, has made me dissect what being supportive actually entails, from the ask to the action. It’s forced me to confront some things I (and all of us) might be getting wrong.

Getting this right matters more than ever: Covid cases are again spiking in many parts of the country. Hospital admissions have doubled since May. We are now a world in a constant state of recuperation—and mourning, with more than 1 million Covid deaths in the US alone.

The idea of showing support has also taken on renewed importance as the pandemic forces new ways of establishing work relationships. Remote work means fewer people connect in offices, and so more interactions are built via telephone, videoconference, and thoughtful gestures (that’s where the plants and the Easter eggs come in).

A recent EY report on business-client relationships underscores this point: “The focus on humanization becomes more important for remote communications,” it reads. “While we were used to a conversation to be human and physical automatically, now we need to take the time to make sure this remains, so we don’t lose this emotional connection.”

So important is this task that there are now startups devoted to helping us figure it out. Brendan Kamm is the CEO & co-founder of Thnks, a relationship-building platform where you can send personalized gestures of appreciation optimized for business development. “There’s a Fred De Witt Van Amburgh quote that really resonates with me, especially in a time of economic uncertainty,” he told me: “‘Gratitude is a currency that we can mint for ourselves and spend without fear of bankruptcy.’”

Being there for a colleague who’s going through something is one of the most powerful ways to show that gratitude: A small note or show of support says “I value you” in an outsized way. But it doesn’t come naturally to all leaders, and even those (like me) who thought we were pretty good at it could use some refreshers. Here are some things I’ve learned, shared with my (almost regular) refrain that the failure of institutions to keep us safe from Covid—from inconsistent mask mandates to a lack of accessible testing—has forced the workplace and all of us to more acutely look out for each other.

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There are many ways to send food.

Some people send or drop off meals or elaborate spreads, a thoughtful gesture that doesn’t really land if it doesn’t account for dietary restrictions or preferences. A gluten-free colleague doesn’t have much use for the Tupperware of spaghetti. A household with a peanut allergy won’t be able to partake in the cookie tray. Someone with a particular taste may not be interested in eating the strawberry chia pudding. (For all who sent me food, though, rest assured that my hungry, undiscerning household ate everything.)

Our company has largely shifted to sending gift cards to food-delivery services so people can put in their own orders. Startups such as Thnks offer other ideas of items to send colleagues and contacts, from the useful (coffee) to the whimsical (cocktail kit), to let them know you are thinking of them.

Not all offers of help are created equal.

There’s a big difference between asking “Do you need anything?” and making it easier to ask for help. One of my colleagues recently sent me an email with these transformative words: “At about 8pm, I’m going to put in an order for you for a nice care package from Target. Is there anything you’d like me to get in particular for you and your family?”

As it turned out, we did need a few things (Gatorade and pudding) and I had no qualms telling her because of the way she so specifically framed her intention of helping.

There are always ways to lighten someone’s workload—and there’s no hard end date for doing so.

When you run your own business, one of the hardest things about being sick or unavailable is that the latter is actually impossible. What helped me when I needed to be out of commission: Colleagues who offered to take over entire processes or tasks and simply turned to me for final approval. Clients, vendors, or business associates who would defer deadlines till much later. And finally, clear communications on both sides of what was possible. On Day 3 of Covid, I sent an email to teams saying I was checking email twice a day and would let them know when I planned to resume a more normal cadence.

Also, whether someone returns to work on Day 5 or Day 15 after (or during) testing positive for Covid, know that the work and requests and rescheduled meetings will feel overwhelming. The nature of long Covid, and the uncertainty of whether it will strike, also makes those of us who have gotten Covid afraid to say it’s really over. Try to acknowledge, alleviate, or not contribute to the avalanche.

There’s a corollary to the mourning period and uncertainty here as well. Two cards we recently received – literally months after my mother-in-law died – exemplify another meaningful gesture: to show up for people long after the funeral and let them know you know it’s still hard.

Work can be a great distraction.

I have hesitated to say this, because the language around boundaries often emphasizes the importance of unplugging to get through tough times. But when my mother-in-law was dying, I found work to be a distraction I actually needed. I didn’t want to be on Zoom or in deep strategy sessions, but writing this column – through hospice, her death, memorial service – was an important anchor for me. Checking in with my co-founder in brief, reflective moments to get updates on the day or progress of our business felt comfortable, but also oddly kept me idealistic during a really tough time.

The thought of talking to other people or presiding over meetings in those harrowing days, on the other hand, was not. I basically told teams this and said I would be in touch about what felt possible. I was honest about why I was working on some things and not on others. Completely unplugging felt impossible—for my companies, yes, but also for me.

Does it feel murky? Yes, but mourning is a process and rarely fits into the bereavement periods offered by employers. In some cases, that in-between or somewhere-in-the-middle of totally-on and totally-off can be exactly what someone needs to get to the other side.

The daily check-in is a kindness—as long as there isn’t expectation of a response.

One business associate of mine sent me a daily subject line “plague” and wrote: “Each day I do my Covid rounds, checking on those that are still suffering from Covid. How are you and your daughter?” Sometimes these check-ins turned into volleys of jokes and gossip; other times I did not respond and just stayed in bed.

On that note, these notes are best given with no expectation: of a reply, of a return favor, of a sale, or deal. My favorite line is something like, “There’s no need to reply to this email” or “No need to send a thank-you card. You’ve got enough going on.”

FOMO will be with us for some time. You can help!

The collision of a Covid surge with the reopening of workplaces, conferences, and other gatherings is a guaranteed recipe for FOMO, otherwise known as the fear of missing out. Such was the case recently as my Covid coincided with a small but meaningful industry gathering that I was truly sad to miss.

But other attendees, perhaps equal parts guilted into keeping me updated and legitimately missing my presence too, did a few things to make me feel included:

  • They added me to the WhatsApp group for attendees.
  • They shared pictures from the event in real time and texted me funny things I was missing.
  • They called me with updates on industry news, trends and headwinds.

There’s no need to wait.

Kindness begets kindness, and there’s no wrong time to bestow it on your colleagues. Over the pandemic, “people sought new ways to connect and show appreciation from afar. We saw it across client relationship building, in sales, with internal employee appreciation,” says Kamm. “It permeated the entire workforce.”

A constant show of appreciation helps build the kind of companies people actually want to work for. It also helps employees learn one of the greatest lessons, not just for the workplace but life: Don’t wait until someone is sick or gone to show your gratitude.

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