Who here has found themselves remarking on how nice everyone is being on conference calls in the last week?

And it’s not that insincere, business-as-usual nice. It’s like everyone is genuinely concerned about everyone else. Like the whole world has developed a deeper sense of community. Like somehow in the process of practicing social distance, we’re creating more human connection.

Work relationships always involve a bit of distance. No matter how genuinely “us” we are at the office, there’s always a separation. Stuff we wouldn’t say at work, or parts of our lives we don’t really share. Sometimes that’s for practical reasons - like, toddlers aren’t great in meetings or the dining table in your tiny one-bedroom apartment won’t fit your team. Sometimes people create the distance intentionally, to make it easier to make tough decisions or command respect.

More often than not, it just happens for unconscious reasons - you’re too stressed or busy to form real connections, it’s intimidating, or maybe suppliers and partners are talked about as titles so often - “our sales rep”, “my customer manager” - it’s easy to forget they’re real, three dimensional people.

That all changes in times of crisis. We see it in more “normal” times - when someone’s kid is really sick or there’s an accident, everyone becomes more vulnerable, honest and human.

It's no different in a global crisis. When everyone is united by the same grief or fear or anxiety, it creates the space to unite around positive things - compassion, neighbourliness, a sense of community and learning.

Compassion in lockdown

NZ is following places like China and Italy into full lockdown mode. New South Wales, Victoria and (hopefully) the rest of Australia are close behind. Ignoring the toilet paper feuds for a second, it’s awesome to see that in the face of all that uncertainty, there’s an overwhelming trend toward compassion.

Many of us are scrambling to reassure our people that their jobs and livelihoods are safe, some of us are having really difficult conversations with teams when we can’t provide those assurances. More of us are in limbo - unsure exactly what this is going to mean for the people we work with.

“Be Kind” is the constant message coming from Jacinda Ardern each time she addresses the NZ public. Treat each other the way you hope someone will treat you. We’re noticing our customers are taking a minute before we launch into work stuff to ask how we’re doing. And not just as a business, but like, how are you? It’s such a simple thing but it makes the world of difference.

When it comes to our teams, you might not be able to promise someone everything’s going to be fine, but you can make sure they know you see them as fully human. Not a resource, a person. It puts any conversations you need to have over the next uncertain period into a different context. You’re not an agent of a faceless corporation. You’re a person, talking to a person about a hard situation. The decisions might be being made along financial lines, but the delivery is compassionate and the experience - positive or negative - is shared.

What happens next?

A lot is going to change over the next weeks and months. The novelty will wear off as zoom meetings get more tedious, we run out of stuff to watch on Netflix and the extroverts start banging their heads against the wall.

Let’s make a commitment to hold on to the kindness. Protect these new patterns of interaction based on compassion. This is an opportunity for reprogramming the way we do business - let’s make it truly people-first. And let’s keep being nice to each other on conference calls.

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