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Empathy, leadership, and listening during the pandemic pause

June 09, 2020

By Brenda Bush-Moline and Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

A conversation about what working from home teaches us about a design practice where we can fully embrace ourselves

We are a duo of design professionals who bonded over our hyphenated names and raising mixed-race families. Like all of you, we are also navigating the new routines of working from home during this global pandemic and have come to some realizations about our changing attitudes toward the balancing act of virtual meetings and homeschooling, new dimensions to time management, and professional relationships.

Like many of you, we are navigating the impact of the pandemic on our lives. Amidst this stress and disruption, we have found solace, companionship, and a few laughs as we shared our experiences. We do not have all the answers, but here are some of highlights from our conversations as they relate to our professional practice, with a few welcome interruptions from the next generation of resilient leaders.

What’s changed?

Rachel: Work and life are colliding, the boundaries are fluid, and communication now takes different forms.

The usual work/life separation has been disturbed and many of us had to quickly transition to working from home. This is not just a change of scenery. There is a change in ourselves. We are seeing a blending of our work and personal lives over an extended period that we simply haven’t experienced before. It has led me to ponder what this means for how we lead teams of problem-solvers in the face of this massive crisis.

Many of us have more time because there’s no commute. How do we spend that time? For some people, this is a time to learn a new skill, but for others it might be a moment to stop and pause, go for a walk, etc. We are looking at every minute of our day and thinking about the value of what we are doing. 

Family, school, and video calls

Brenda: Trying to juggle our video or virtual meeting schedules as well as that of our kids—thanks to virtual schooling—is a significant challenge. Not only is our IT bandwidth challenged, now our personal bandwidth is also stretched. And the video call/meeting from home isn’t a typical conference call, it’s a window into each other’s lives and I think recognizing this fact is critical.

Rachel: That moment when a kid or pet appears on a video call reminds me of our varied personal dimensions that make each of us unique. What might previously have been a distraction is now a welcome reminder that we are all more than our position descriptions.

Brenda: Yes. If someone joins a call in a rush or takes a moment to mute themselves it might well be because they are dealing something else in the background at that moment. It’s not an unusual circumstance and our acknowledgement allows trust to be created, it’s not disrespectful, it’s just our full lives appearing more intensely.

The higher volume of background sounds (sights, sounds, vibrations) and interruption we experience at home means we present a broader range of “self” than we do in our professional circles. 

This temporary normal can teach us about the emotional resources we need to relate to our colleagues and clients.

Rachel: Many of us are experiencing the challenge of working from home and homeschooling—but with wide-ranging levels of support and resources. As we head into a summer of canceled camps and months of pent-up energy, we need to be sensitive to the stress associated with that prolonged balancing act on both ourselves and our teams.

Communication with leaders, team, and clients

Brenda: I find that communication has new dimensions. I’m more aware of the power of the voice. The intonation, inflection, and emotion it carries make it invaluable in the absence of detailed visuals.

Virtual communication has its limits, naturally. There’s sometimes a disconnect on a video call if someone I’m communicating with isn’t looking into the camera. Eye contact contributes to present and active listening; however, it can also be stressful and draining. I’ve come to understand that intentional moments of respite add to resiliency throughout the day. Encouraging this with my colleagues and teams has been a delight as we share our experiences.

Rachel: As a leader I value transparency and openness with my team, but right now we don’t always have answers. So, the best we can do is be honest about the level of information we do have. Each of us can check in on each other. A call or a text message might help turn someone’s day around.

Brenda: I’m also noticing that the barriers between clients and practitioners are broken down somewhat when we communicate from home. There’s a hierarchy that comes with formal meetings that seems absent in a virtual world. That’s exciting to me and makes me want to investigate other virtual collaboration tools to see what’s possible.

A younger perspective

Rachel: I recently had the pleasure of co-teaching a monthlong series of weekly classes on sustainability with Nicola Mapelli and Matteo Rudello from Stantec’s Milan office to 13 children of Stantec employees from across Canada and the US. It was an attempt to help Stantec working parents by filling time in their children’s day. Not only did we get to hear valuable ideas from the next generation of leaders but we also got to form a bond with these children, which gave me a precious insight into the lives and values of my colleagues and their families.

Brenda: I’m embracing the access I have to a younger generation and listening to their concerns at the dinner table every evening. They have a different perspective on what is going on. I asked my kids what they’ve learned from watching my husband and I work from home—this is what they said.

Olivia (15): I’ve learned that leaders must be able to adapt to the unpredictable. Seeing you try to lead teams and projects from a distance is weirdly inspiring. And I’ve learned that putting on a brave face will go a long way for those looking for strength and for you, too.

Christopher (18): Having you work from home allowed me to acknowledge how privileged we are to be able to safely continue to earn a living at this time. I appreciate the dedication, the focus that is needed to pursue success, and the importance of maintaining positive communication with peers and clients.

Perseverance and perspective

Rachel: I also asked my kids what they have learnt from seeing much more of what my and my husband’s workday looks like. My 11-year-old said “perseverance” while my 6-year-old said, “never give up, just keep trying.”

They’ve seen the moments when I’ve been visibly tired or restless but had to jump on one more call. When they ask me how I’m doing—I straight-up tell them. But they’ve also seen the moments I’ve been so proud of a team accomplishment that I burst into their play area to tell them. My work is no longer some abstract thing that takes me away on buses and planes. It impacts their day as much as it does mine.

What we have learned

Brenda: This temporary normal can teach us about the emotional resources we need to relate to our colleagues and clients. I am drawing on my patience, empathy, and a wider range of listening skills and intuition every day.

I’m more acutely aware of the personal well-being of teammates and how factors outside of the workplace norm affect our professional lives. I’ve realized that by sharing some of my own personal challenges it gives permission to others to do the same, which gives me deeper understanding of them. It also enables a more tailored personalization of our interactions and unlocks performance potential, by understanding that person’s context.

To lead under these circumstances, it’s important to realize that everyone (colleagues included) have a wide range of emotions on any given day and that we can create opportunity for them to share/contribute/lead in a way that fully engages them.

This experience has galvanized my conviction that there is a place for empathetic leadership and that a professional practice that is relationship-based is much more fulfilling than a transactional one.

  • Brenda Bush-Moline

    Brenda is responsible for inspired and energized service for our healthcare clients.

    Contact Brenda
  • Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

    Under Rachel's direction, our teams are working to expand the definition of what it means to design spaces and places that not only improve building performance, but also drive health and wellbeing for our clients and employees alike.

    Contact Rachel
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