How to Be People First in a Pandemic

How we're caring for ourselves and one another during an anxious and uncertain time

Jon Berbaum

President

March 23rd, 2020

Our Highland team members during our first all-remote company-wide standup meeting last Monday

When the Highland team closed our office in Chicago last week and shifted to entirely remote work, the logistical change was smooth and immediate. 

But I think we are just beginning to understand the journey we’re all on together. For my fellow people-first leaders swimming in this change and trying, like me, to not lose sight of what is really important, here are three things on my mind:


I recorded a video message sharing my thoughts below. If you'd prefer to watch instead of read, please do.

First, let’s tend to our own anxiety.

Some of us are leading teams and organizations in crisis right now. Some of us aren’t impacted so immediately but know some tough months are coming sooner rather than later. For all of us, we can welcome our uncertainty and anxiety as the first step to not letting it overwhelm us.

How are you responding to the anxiety in our society, in your organization, in yourself? We can’t lead anyone else anywhere worth going unless we’re honestly tending to ourselves.

Being non-anxious takes tending. I’ve inserted 30 minutes of exercise around 11:00 AM each day, and pay attention to when I stop working each evening. I have little kids, so wrestle breaks are good for everybody’s soul. I check in on the news only once a day. And every so often I stop, admit that I’m feeling anxious, allow myself to feel afraid, and then choose to live and lead out of what I want for myself, Highlanders, and the world instead of out of my fear.

Second, let’s make space for each other.

Even teams that are not working through an active crisis are feeling the strain of being more isolated and the heightened anxiety around us. We’ve all suddenly lost the vast majority of our face to face interactions, and most of our ability to joke, relax, and play. That’s going to take a toll. 

Our team is tending to the practical realities of being fully remote: sourcing standing desks, recommending yoga balls, advising walking breaks, etc. That’s tending to the work, and it’s important. We’re also trying to tend to each other. 

Here’s the kanban board we’ve got going of social experiments:

A Kanban board with ideas for keeping us connected while working as a fully remote team

Some of these will be terrible, I’m sure. (I can verify it is indeed awkward to watch myself eat a salad during video lunch time.) But the impact of this isolation and anxiety is going to grow, so we need to try new things that are for people and not just the work. 

Here are a few of the strategies we’ve implemented to help lessen anxiety and foster connectedness that seem to be working so far:  

  • Doing personal check-ins at the start of most meetings. At Highland, we already had habits of sharing personal updates at the start of some of our most important meetings. We’ve continued to encourage one another to keep up this practice, especially since personal stories can get pushed aside for the sake of productivity in an all-remote work environment. We regularly ask each other, “How are you?” and give space for sharing our anxieties and optimism during this challenging time.

  • Sharing everyday moments. People love sharing pictures of their kids, pets, and neighborhood scenery in our #everyday-life-pics Slack channel.

  • Alone together time. Some Highlanders have enjoyed practicing “alone together time” on Zoom meetings. They join a meeting together, mute themselves, and keep the video window up. The feeling of having someone else sitting alongside them in a virtual office has helped some team members feel connected and stay focused. 

If you’re creative enough to figure out ways to evoke joy, surprise, or play, go for it. If not, at least go for connection.

Third, don’t forget the poor.

There’s a real danger that tending to the challenges in front of us can close us off to those who need help right now. There are older folks in our neighborhood who shouldn’t be out at all and need someone to buy and deliver groceries. We all know folks who work in low-paying service jobs who are largely off work with no pay for who knows how long. 

I have no idea how to solve the macro-economic challenge we’ve just entered, but it breaks my heart how it falls the heaviest on those who can least afford it. I recognize how the size of the problem overall can keep me from doing the small things around me I can actually affect. We can all lift our eyes up out of our own challenges to be intentionally kind and generous to those around us who most need it.

What else? How are you leaning in to being people first in this moment? I'd love to hear what others are doing during these challenging and uncertain times. Send me an email or shoot me a message on LinkedIn and let me know how you're approaching things.