A People Ops guide to providing emotional support to employees

People Ops guide to providing emotional support

Stefania Chiorboli leads Global HR at Boundless. Passing through and leaving an impact in companies such as Automattic, Booking.com, and Status, she knows what it takes to make remote employees happy, engaged and productive. A remote worker for the past five years, she has learned from the best and shares her lessons on the blog.

I have dealt with a fair share of uncomfortable moments throughout my career. I once had to lay off quite a few people due to circumstances outside of my control. It felt awful. But once I closed my computer and looked through the window, I could still see an ordinary world outside. My children were with friends; my parents weren’t locked in their house for days on end; I could meet a friend for a drink or have dinner in a restaurant with my partner. Even though I had done what’s arguably one of the toughest things a People Ops leader individual has to do, I could heal through the sense of normalcy around me.

Nowadays, nothing is normal, which means that any work-life troubles are only a small puzzle of a very complex and challenging situation. In this unchartered territory, which none of us know how to navigate, we all need to support and be there for each other. This is as valid for the support employers give to their employees as it is the support they may be getting in their personal lives. In this post, I would like to outline what I believe are some ways companies can emotionally support the humans in their teams.

Understand and mitigate the challenges

This is what is going on right now: 

  • People that have worked alongside each other until recently are having to work from home with probably suboptimal setups
  • These ‘suddenly remote’ employees have to face a whole new set of challenges, which their employers are facing as well
  • Those who ‘were remote already’ have to face the sudden presence of others at home
  • Employees who are parents have to deal with some very variable degrees of homeschooling, entertainment and full-time parenting, often with energetic kids
  • Everyone is finding themselves in the presence of newfound fear about health, well being for themselves and loved ones, economy and overall lack of certainty that is keeping many awake at 3 am. 
  • Everyone has to confront many personal struggles face on because there are no distractions and places to go to postpone having to think about those.  

How people respond to all this individually and collectively differs a lot. Understandably their focus will not be the same. Ideally, work should avoid adding stress and instead alleviate some of it, bringing back a sense of accomplishment and purpose. This is where leadership should help to create a sense of safety and security. 

Leaders need to be able to understand what people are going through, lower their ‘practical’ expectations for the time being and take some time to make that clear with their teams. Don’t leave people guessing, especially in the time of transition in which we are right now. When we have lived through this a bit longer, it will get easier, and we’ll have a better sense of what we can expect of ourselves and how we deliver it. Communicate that you don’t expect anyone to be ‘their best self’ as people will likely feel a bit afraid that their lack of ‘productivity’ could have consequences. 

the key to providing emotional support to employees

Give ownership and control

As much as you or your employees may want to keep a sense of normalcy by working from 9 to 5, the reality is that there are too many interferences right now that feel very urgent and cannot be postponed until the evening. Taking care of restless children, staying in touch with loved ones who are quarantined or isolated, staying on top of news notifications of latest numbers or measures in place are only some of those distractions. 

Even if people on your team want to avoid worrying about any of these, at times, they won’t be able to, as this isn’t something we can compartmentalize and consciously control. Trying to avoid it won’t be good for them, their families or their output. Here is what you can do to help them balance work and worries:

  • Allow them to do their work in their own time 
  • Outline flexible deadlines for their projects and don’t make them feel that they need to be online at a particular time.
  • Trust them that they can perform as good in their terms. And tell them you do – also leaving room for them to ask you for help if they feel they need it
  • Let them own the work, rather than feel like the work is holding them 
  • Allow them to have the safe space to come to you and say – I need to deal with something related to my family, what’s the latest I can give you X? 
  • Make sure they know that they can set aside some time during work hours to deal with whatever personal crisis they need to, which will give them an invaluable piece of mind
  • Suggest that they do not look at the news as often, not so they are more productive but because it isn’t good for their mental health. If you’re all in the same country, suggest one or two reliable sources of information that all of you look at no more than once or twice a day. 

More than ever, people need to know they’re able to produce something meaningful and of value, so they can see for themselves how good they are and mitigate the considerable loss of security. You can help them do that by allowing them to do their job on their terms and letting them shine instead of micromanaging them from a distance. All that will help them very much as they face whatever difficulties they have in their daily life. 

When your people know they are the captain of the ship, they will feel better because even in this super uncertain time they are in charge. This is not a time for micromanagement. 

Communicate openly and honestly

“A brave leader is someone who says I see you. I hear you. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m going to keep listening and asking questions,”

Brene Brown

Be sure to provide updates on the company situation. How you do that will depend on the specific situation of your business. Ask your People Ops team to help with the messaging, as they know your people and the ways to address matters in a way that is human and transparent.

In the worst possible case (=if layoffs are imminent), try to be as clear as possible about the timeline and how you will support your employees in the transition.  

  • Explain why what is happening is inevitable
  • Express that maybe in the future you will be back with another idea and would love to work with them 
  • Pay people’s salaries until the latest you can – and if possible, allow them not to perform work during that time of transition
  • Research and provide information on local government support 
  • Write and give reference letters to all of your employees, and let them know they can count on you if they need additional references, introductions, etc.

If you happen to be in a situation where the business will have leeway, you can communicate in different ways.

  • Aim to give a status update about once every week, either on a video chat or longform written communication that people can read asynchronously. 
  • Include updates on what is being put in place, what your contingency plan is, what you are hearing from customers, investors and other stakeholders, how various measures introduced by the government affect the business. 
  • Be very candid and talk about money openly so people get a sense that they won’t be laid off, what governmental support program you are looking into availing of. If nobody is at risk, say so.
  • Be honest and don’t lie to people, making it seem as if things are better or worse than they are. The worst you can do is to give people hope that something is going to be okay when it’s not.
  • Be transparent and tell them the truth, which is most likely better than they expect, as people naturally tend to lean in negative thought patterns in moments of confusion, such as this one.
  • Invite anyone afraid to talk to you.

Let people decide what is in their best interest. If someone is a parent of small children, they would want to be extremely secure and may need to look for a position where the leeway of money is far longer and the security firmer. If they decide to look for another job, respect that. It doesn’t mean they are not loyal to you; they simply have to put the wellbeing of their family first.

people need to feel like they are in charge rather than micromanaged

Stay on top of COVID-19 support systems

In every country, governments are creating special schemes to support employees affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Make it a priority —for you or your people ops teams— to collect the information that is relevant for your workforce and share it in a format your people understand and can act upon.

It’s a good idea to take the official websites and summarise the main points in simpler language, providing the direct links to forms they might need to fill in to request any benefits they might be entitled to. If you have the capacity, offer to help them step by step. 

If you—like us— have people in several countries, it might take a little longer; but it will reinforce trust between you and your team members. We’ve collected the most recent information for a few countries – you can start your research here: UK, Ireland, USA, The Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Canada.

Make work feel as safe as you can 

Each one of your employees is afraid right now. Beyond the updates you communicate with everyone, it’s crucial to talk privately with people. During those conversations, make sure that beyond asking them about their work, you also proactively inquire how they are doing and listen carefully to them. 

As you have personal conversations with them, be explicit that what they share about how unproductive they might be will not be used against them. Create a safe space where they can be vulnerable and honest, and there won’t be any consequences for them. Be sure they know that.

I hope these tips will help you support your people during this difficult time. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to get in touch on Twitter: @boundless_HQ. We will keep sharing information on remote work and our own experience of trying to stay sane. Learn more about how to employ remote employees legally and compliantly.


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