Leading with compassion: How to cultivate well-being in a distributed workplace

What can leaders do to cultivate well-being?

Kim Rohrer headshot and image of someone typing

With the rise of remote and distributed work, people have gained the tremendous freedom of being able to choose when and where to work. They can be more flexible in how to integrate their work life and their personal life. But on the flip side, distributed teams also risk blurring the line between work and life, potentially leading to stress, isolation, and burnout.

What can leaders do to cultivate well-being in a distributed setting? Our partner Welcome recently hosted Leading with Compassion: How to Support a Distributed Workplace, a panel discussion with Bobby Melloy from Culture Amp and Kim Rohrer from Oyster to explore how organizations can rise to these challenges by providing an inclusive and compassionate employee experience—one that champions belonging, connection, and work-life balance.

Kim and Bobby discussed how to facilitate employee engagement and motivation, how to communicate tough situations like layoffs, how to cultivate compassion within an organization, and how to build culture in remote teams. If you missed the panel, you can watch the full recording here.

Since there wasn’t enough time to answer all the questions submitted by viewers, we decided to respond through a three-part post-webinar Q&A series. Oyster is answering questions this week, to be followed by Welcome and Culture Amp.

How do you create policies that are compassionate? 

Research shows that people who work for compassionate leaders are 25% more engaged, 20% more committed to the organization, and 11% less likely to burn out. While compassionate behaviors can be trained, it’s even more important for compassion to be part of the company’s operating system in the form of policies and processes, so this question is very much on-point.

So how can leaders create compassionate policies? The specifics will vary from one team or company to the next, but the important thing is to always keep in mind that we’re dealing with human beings. Taking a human-centric approach means realizing that everyone has struggles, challenges, and stuff going on in their lives outside of work. They might be parents or caregivers, or dealing with a chronic illness. All of these lived experiences impact how we show up at work.

It’s important to design policies in a way that acknowledges and supports the full humanity of the people who work for you. It means cultivating a work environment where they can show up as themselves and feel heard, supported, and valued. You can also solicit feedback and get their input so that policies are co-created rather than enforced in a hierarchical way from the top down. Ultimately, a more human and humane workplace will translate into greater engagement, productivity, and retention.

How does this discussion of compassion fit in with the idea of “quiet quitting” that’s going around right now?

First, let’s unpack the term and concept of “quiet quitting.” If someone is putting in their hours and fulfilling their job responsibilities, and then spending evenings and weekends with their family or pursuing their own hobbies, how is that a problem? If companies are expecting people to give 200%, maybe the problem is not “quiet quitting”—maybe the problem is unreasonable expectations arising from a toxic hustle culture. A culture of overwork will inevitably lead to burnout and a high churn rate.

At Oyster, we strongly believe in having healthy boundaries and prioritizing well-being and work-life balance. That’s much more sustainable in the long term—employees will be happier and more productive, and companies will have a loyal and committed workforce. If people feel valued and taken care of, they’ll be more motivated, invested, and engaged. 

The other aspect of “quiet quitting” is the idea of disengagement. But the onus is actually on the employer to keep the workforce engaged, not the other way around. Are you giving people a sense of mission and purpose, so that they know their work makes a difference? Do people feel that their contributions are valued? Do they have opportunities for learning and growth? Engagement arises out of the employee experience you create, so it’s the organization’s job to enable and facilitate engagement.

How do you maintain inclusivity when collaborating with employees across time zones?

It’s true that collaborating across time zones is one of the challenges of a globally distributed workplace. We need to design and implement ways of working that will ensure that everyone feels a sense of inclusion and belonging, regardless of time zone differences. 

One practical way of doing that is by leaning into asynchronous communication and collaboration. For instance, could the meeting be handled async as an email chain or Slack thread or Loom video? This would give people time to provide a more thoughtful response. It would be more inclusive of not just people in different time zones, but also people who tend to be introverted and less likely to speak up in a Zoom meeting.

In addition to working async, it’s also possible to create async opportunities for socializing and team building. For instance, you might use a tool like Donut to randomly match people for a coffee chat. You could have social Slack channels for people to talk about common interests or areas of affinity like pets, plants, travel, parenting, etc. At Oyster, we also have what we call Loom pen pals, where people in disparate time zones get to know each other by sending Loom messages back and forth. 

How can we build a team culture that promotes healthy boundaries and work-life balance? What systems or tools do you recommend to help reduce burnout? 

Building healthy boundaries and work-life balance starts with the culture and expectations set by the organization through its systems, policies, and processes. This ensures that a healthy work culture is embedded in the company’s operating system, setting expectations and creating workplace habits and norms.

At Oyster, for instance, we are very intentional about how we work. Our employee handbook explains in detail how we collaborate, communicate, manage projects, make decisions, handle meetings, socialize, and so on. Having clear guidelines and expectations in place means that people don’t have to feel like they should work late due to time zone differences, or feel pressured to respond to emails or Slack messages right away. These guidelines act as containers to prevent work from spilling over into non-work hours.

To avoid burnout, it’s important to be able to disconnect, and that too is something that can be facilitated by having clear guidelines and expectations. For instance, at Oyster we have a system of handing off work to help people put down their work and disconnect, whether it’s at the end of the day, the end of the week, or before going on vacation. A handoff is a process of putting work down to be picked up later—either by a colleague or your own future self. Handing off work before going on vacation lets you disconnect fully because you’ve entrusted any open loops to your teammates.

How will you know what’s working? How can teams be open to failure during this time of change?

You can find out if something is working by doing surveys and collecting data, or by soliciting feedback from employees. For instance, at Oyster the Workplace team conducts surveys several times a year to gain a better understanding of where people are in terms of culture and engagement. We also regularly check in with individuals to get casual and anecdotal feedback in between surveys. At the team level, managers should solicit input from their team on a regular basis, and collaborate on action plans to address feedback.

Failure is inevitable, especially in a startup environment where you’re often flying the plane as you’re building it. Company leaders and managers can create a safe space by honestly acknowledging mistakes or failures, and being transparent about things that didn’t go as planned. The important thing is how you respond to failure—it can be a way to learn and grow, to iterate and improve over time.

More Q&As to follow

We hope this answered some of your questions around compassion and well-being in the distributed workplace. Keep an eye out for the upcoming posts by Welcome and Culture Amp, where they too will be responding to audience questions from the webinar.

Finally, feel free to check out the Oyster Library, where you’ll find a wealth of information and advice about managing remote and distributed teams, facilitating culture and engagement, and more.

About Oyster

Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, engage, pay, manage, develop, and take care of a thriving distributed workforce. Oyster lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.

Oyster enables hiring anywhere in the world—with reliable, compliant payroll, and great local benefits and perks.

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