Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation
I’ve had a hard time concentrating at work lately. The coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping across the world is taking up a fair chunk of my mental energy. I tend to have news reports on in the background while I work, trying to keep up to date on what is happening with COVID-19.
I know I am far from the only person obsessively checking the news these days. Part of my worry is that I have a 10-year-old son with cerebral palsy. He falls into the high-risk category for people if they contract this virus. Thankfully, I work from home and my husband is a stay-at-home dad and primary caregiver for our son, so we have been isolating ourselves at home as much as possible.
Self-distancing has been a way of life for us since our son was born; he was 12 weeks premature and spent three and a half months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where he was on and off a ventilator and other breathing support for weeks.
Being NICU veterans has given us a better handle on what we have to do to keep our distance from people - even friends and family. (And people who used to roll their eyes at us for our constant hand-washing finally understand why we do so.)
Our past has also given us a solid understanding of how to remain connected even when we miss holidays, visits with friends, and family parties. Phone calls, texting, and video chats are among our go-to solutions.
I also know how to stay connected with my coworkers who are 1,200 miles away from me. I’ve worked from home for nearly 20 years, and that experience has shown me that being physically distant from someone doesn’t mean I have to be isolated.
Many people have been thrown into an unfamiliar situation in recent weeks where they suddenly have to work from home. It may feel unsettling as you try to find your footing in this whole new working-at-a-distance thing. But don’t confuse social distancing with social isolation.
Now is absolutely the time when you need to be reaching out to your professional network, reinvigorating your mentoring relationships, and reminding yourself that you have personal connections who could use a quick hello just as much as you could.
Virtual mentoring software can help you stay connected with colleagues and provide you with the space to work on some personal and professional development - all from a safe distance. Consider using online mentoring relationships as a way to combat social isolation while also improving your critical business skills. For example, you could use a virtual mentoring relationship to work on:
- Soft skills – Not everyone is proficient at communicating from a distance. But with many more of us working from home, we could likely all use some refreshers on this. Engage your mentoring partner on ways to improve your soft skills such as active listening, written communication, and even empathy. Or consider finding a mentoring group where you can practice these critical skills in a safe environment. Now is definitely a time where better interpersonal skills need to shine. Everyone on that group video chat later in the week will thank you.
- Managing a remote workforce – If you manage a team, chances are you now find yourself among the ranks who are managing their teams remotely. It can take a different set of skills to manage someone who you cannot actually see at their desk. How do you set priorities? How to you judge productivity? How do you address problems or concerns? How can you calm nerves and provide reassurance? Improving these skills can help you be a better manager at this time of crisis, but also a better manager in the long run. Seek out support from a mentor who can help guide you through this new reality. And if you are an expert at managing a remote team, be sure to offer your expertise to colleagues!
- Strategic thinking – Plans we had yesterday are just memories today. That conference we wanted to attend? Cancelled. That business trip we had scheduled? Reorganised as a video call. That vacation we had been planning? Postponed. Things that were important yesterday may be nowhere near the front of our minds today. Our priorities have shifted and our plans have changed. The same is happening at work. A mentoring relationship can be a good place for you to talk through ideas on what plans can change/need to change, what priorities can shift, and what your focus should be today. Looking at this from a strategic planning perspective will help you analyse how your actions impact your colleagues, customers, and job. It could be a mental shift for you, but the good news is that this type of conversation is a great one to have with a mentor.
As we engage in social distancing, we can counteract isolation with virtual mentoring. Reach out to your network and colleagues, and find ways to support each other amidst this unprecedented pandemic. It will do your mental health some good.
About the Author
Laura Francis is Chief Knowledge Officer for River, a mentoring software company based in Denver, Colorado.