Coaching employees in times of a pandemic

By Lena Lena Hørlyk Petersen,
Founder & Owner, Boldsteps

Coping with the circumstances and consequences of lock-down due to Covid-19 has been a challenge for all of us, in all aspects of life since early 2020. In Spring last year, when Europe and the US was in lock-down, I was approached by a fast-growing, international, tech company with headquarters in Denmark and employees in offices across Europe and the US. All employees were, as a matter of course, unable to physically connect with colleagues, clients, and unable to experience the buzz of the company, namely that of a young, dynamic, optimistic, and upbeat environment.

Struggles and aspirations

The topics people brought to coaching were many and reflected both struggles and aspirations. And they were related to and preventing them from achieving at least one of the following three objectives:

  • Peak performance.
  • Peace of mind, wellness
  • Healthy relationships, both professional and personal ones.
How can coaching help?

The pandemic is a stressful place to be in, with much uncertainty. This can cause stress.  When we are stressed, it is more difficult to have empathy, be innovative, control our impulses, and make effective plans and decisions. When stress is reduced, we have more access to creativity, empathy, and resilience, all of which are critical during a lockdown and a pandemic, for our well-being, our professional relationships and for our overall performance.

Coaching helps you process the difficult context we all find ourselves in.  The current situation is unprecedented which is making it difficult to process; we could end up breaking down when the pandemic is over, and/or our worries, fears and stress might turn into health issues, low energy, and have other negative impact.

During coaching, I guided people to take notice of, recognise and allowing feelings and concerns to come out which, in turn, would transform and channel this energy towards becoming more able to cope, both during and after the pandemic crisis.

Losing top talent has severe adverse impact for businesses, and even more so in a time like this. It requires extraordinary thinking and performance to get through the pandemic crisis. This extraordinary thinking and performance require innovative and concerted efforts for leaders in organisations impacted by the pandemic. Through the coaching sessions, I also supported employees on developing leadership strengths and confidence.

Management was concerned about their most valued assets: – their people. Yet all employees were working from home and potentially exposed to isolation and loneliness, or finding their homes transformed into office spaces, kindergartens, schools, and playgrounds. Management was concerned that staff might not cope well with the lockdown and that this would have a serious negative impact on their wellbeing, their performance and ability to change and make changes as the company was transitioning.

Therefore, management decided to offer employees coaching conversations and give them a confidential space to share and express concerns, struggles, thoughts, longings, frustrations, or anything else on their mind in a time of difficulty.  

“I struggle to be available for my employees. I just don’t have the time to be there for them.
And even when I do talk to them, I am not really there.”1

1 Manager during a coaching session, Spring 2020.

Trapped emotions appear in times of uncertainty, making it challenging to thrive. What many people need, in times such as we are currently experiencing, is a flexible mindset, the ability to be creative, thoughtful, and yet logical. The coaching conversations enabled employees to identify and question their limiting beliefs, change perspectives, and to have more open mindsets. Through the sessions, employees stuck with fixed patterns and mindsets had their mindsets gradually unstuck and they discovered ways of making choices that were grounded in who they were and strengthened and sustained their integrity.

“I feel that I am with my laptop almost 24/7, and I feel low on energy;
I am not feeling very productive or efficient when I am working.”

Some people begin to question their career and life during a time of crisis, such as the pandemic. Similarly, some of the employees in this company began to question themselves, including fundamental questions on what they wanted to do with their lives. Were they at the right place? What purpose did their job really serve? The coaching sessions enabled them to reflect on what they were learning about themselves; what strengths they were building or enhancing; which values were important to them and how they were honouring them, or what they could do to honour what they believed in.

“Lately I have been thinking, what´s next, for my career?”3

2 Employee during a coaching session, 2020.

3 Employee during a coaching session 2020.

About the coaching setup

During the coaching program, more than 50 per cent of the employees made use of the offer and booked coaching conversations with Boldsteps, the company I founded and own. These coaching sessions offered employees a confidential space to share and express their thoughts and aspirations. Bookings of sessions were done in a user-friendly way, through the system Calendly. All coaching sessions took place on Zoom.

Want to know how coaching can help you, your leadership talent, and your team?

I am a leadership performance coach for leaders in international, innovative and tech driven industries. My specialty is helping high-performing leaders – young and seasoned ones – grow inner leadership, transform relationships with people, and create successful results.

I am passionate about enabling people to take bold action and reach the results they aspire for, while at the same time staying true to their integrity and be the authentic people leaders they wish to be.

I am also the founder and owner of Boldsteps. In addition to leadership performance coaching, Boldsteps works with businesses to grow their people and teams in areas of cross-cultural understanding (especially Asian, Chinese, North European, and Scandinavian cultures), leadership development; and communication & influencing. I do this through workshops, individual training programs and coaching.   

Understanding cultures: 11 years of fascination and, occasionally, frustration

My Chinese CEO looked at me and yelled:” This is completely wrong! The data in your presentation is wrong!” I tried to tell him that the data I had been using was data provided by him, and that both data and presentation had been verified by him prior to my giving my presentation. Then I looked at my management colleagues. All, but one, were bowing their heads, looking down – at their feet, their notebooks, their mobile phones. Only my Danish colleague looked at me. And he looked just as astonished and shocked as I felt.

This was in 2008, before I began to learn about how our cultural backgrounds influence the ways we think, speak and act. Having spent 11 years in China, working with and learning about cultures through my work with management teams and organisations, I now understand a lot more about the situation back then.

The art of doing business in China has always been beyond seating arrangements at banquets and presenting and receiving business cards at meetings. China is an enormous country and very diverse. China in the South is different from China up North, and you will find cities with a population and wealth the size of a European country and places where people live a life in poverty. Add to this a country with a very long and rich history and country that has undergone an enormous transition for the past 20 – 30 years. So, I find it difficult to generalize a culture or cultural behaviour for a country with such diversity.

I sometimes hear: “I know China; I have been travelling to China and doing business there for the last xx years. I get it”. Well, I don’t always get it. I have lived and worked in China for 11 years. Throughout all these years, I have lived among local Beijing residents in a small hutong. I have worked in different regions of China, and I have travelled to remote locations. The organisations I have worked with have also been quite diverse. During this process I have learned a lot about Chinese culture and customs. And the key thing I have learned is that I still have a lot to learn. Some things are the same, some things look the same, and yet they can be very different. 

I keep thinking that the longer I live here the more I understand about myself and my own culture. I am not a China expert. I know how to navigate in the Chinese culture on behaviour, leadership, collaboration and communication. Yet, I sometimes fall into some of the same pitholes I train business leaders to avoid when I do cross-cultural training and coaching. And I do sometimes encounter cultural behaviour that is not like the available research on cultural behaviour. The art of decoding cultural behaviour is like the art of decoding human behaviour and personality: we are unique individuals. What cross-cultural training offers you is an understanding of yourself; an invitation to be curious and to investigate where you may differ from the culture you work and live in and with, combined with tools to help you learn navigate across cultures. There are not fixed answers or formula for working or living cross-culturally, the best you can do is: 1. don’t assume, 2. be aware and be present, 3. be curious – so, ask questions and share your own culture, and 4. reflect and learn.

Some say:“You just need to understand the language, then you will be ok”. Is it about language? Yes and no. No doubt that speaking and understanding the language will get you somewhere. That said, Chinese is a rich and refined language, and the culture is a so-called high-context culture, meaning: what is said is not always what is meant. Looking into the context of a situation and reading between lines is the skill needed to understand what is meant. And in this context you find culture. Language alone will not do the trick.

Others may think: “Why not just hire a Chinese to do your business? S/he speaks the language, understands the context and has the guanxi to get access to and close those deals.” Yes, a great idea. And with a Chinese business partner, it is still worthwhile learning more on the cultural part, so you can understand each other and grow the relationship for mutual benefit, of your common understanding, relationship and business.

Culture is about people, our attitudes and behavior – occasionally a source for frustration but, essentially, the core for the power of diversity.