Life isn’t always smooth sailing, and (like it or not), what happens to us personally does indeed affect our work lives. The same goes for remote workers, who are often separated from teammates by great distances.
Although we can’t physically be there for our colleagues, there are other ways of supporting colleagues from afar when they run into bumps in the road. Keep in mind that finding the most appropriate response will always depend upon the nuances of the situation, as well as the personality of the coworker involved.
Rather than shying away from responding, however, remote teams can proceed thoughtfully, bolstering their work relationships and their company culture in the process.
Here are a few suggestions on supporting colleagues when you’re part of a remote team:
In the case of illness:
Your teammate might have recently received difficult news, in the form of their own diagnosis or that of a loved one. It may not be terminal, thank goodness; however, it could be a chronic illness or ongoing disease. It might be something that is openly discussed, or something you’ve heard only through the grapevine. How can your actions possible alleviate any of the stress they’re experiencing?
Start by showing compassion to your colleague; if a project is falling behind, ask how you can help. Recognize that they have a lot on their hands these days, and don’t fault them for not functioning at 100 percent, all of the time. Here the proverbial Golden Rule really comes into play: treat them as you’d want to be treated if you were in their shoes. If your colleague is involved with a charitable organization, consider supporting their efforts through a monetary donation or a donation of your time; volunteering for an event or doing a 5K walk/run, for example, go a long way in demonstrating that you care.
In the case of loss:
At some point, death inevitably touches all of our lives. It could be the loss of a beloved grandparent with a storied life, a parent who bravely battled a disease, or a child who departed suddenly. Or it might involve a cherished pet. Loss is one of the biggest challenges we’ll encounter, and (in my opinion), one of life’s most significant teachers. Yet knowing exactly how to help others as they navigate through their grief can be tough.
I was young—just a few weeks shy of my 27th birthday—when I lost my wonderful dad to pancreatic cancer. It was a swift and very sudden illness. My organization sent flowers, coworkers attended the viewing and funeral, and when I returned to the office, there were plenty of hugs waiting for me. You can send gifts to remote workers, and I would absolutely recommend that: a floral arrangement or fruit basket is welcome at a time when beauty or comfort is needed.
Beyond this, be attuned to your coworker’s preferences; if he or she would like to open up about their experience after returning to the daily grind, let them. Ask about their loved one. Listen to stories. For some, talking and sharing really helps the healing process. Hearing, “I was so very sorry to hear about your dad, Kristi…what was he like?” changed entire days for me.
In the case of a personal crisis:
These are some of the thorniest and most sensitive situations of all. This person may very well not wish to discuss what’s going on in their life, and that is absolutely fine. Whether your colleague is going through a divorce, is encountering other issues with relatives, or has a mental health crisis, it could be that work is the one place where life remains at some sort of stasis. Many folks don’t want to disrupt that—and those boundaries are to be respected.
All of these crises have occurred in my family, and I can assure you they’re much more common than they may seem—we simply don’t hear about them at work. But if a colleague confides in you, by all means, take the time to listen and show him or her that their feelings matter. Gently offer advice only when asked, and when you feel comfortable doing so. It could be helpful to share your own story if you’ve been down a similar path. If you haven’t, I’ve found that offering a “cone of silence” for venting or simply being willing to lend an extra hand on projects to be wonderful ways of showing support.
It doesn’t take a major in psychology to make smart decisions in these tough scenarios—although I’ve no doubt that the background would help. If you take into account the suggestions above and pay attention to your intuition, you’ll be well on your way to making a challenging experience much more comfortable for your colleague!