Getting Closer While We’re Farther Apart

By Kendra E. Davenport, Chief Development Officer, Operation Smile

Operation Smile
6 min readApr 7, 2020


The latest challenge to face the human race is upon us. The precautions we’re all striving to take seriously to contain the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing, mandate that most people work from home for the foreseeable future.

For many, the shift from working five days a week in a crowded office to working alone at home is a big change. Some people thrive in a remote work situation, while others struggle with feeling isolated. The longer strict physical distancing measures remain in place, the greater the propensity of all workers to feel disconnected from their colleagues and increasingly isolated.

Kendra on a video call with colleagues while working from home.
I encourage my staff to turn video on during calls while we’re all working from home.

As people adapt and begin to play their part in the global response to the pandemic, it’s important that managers actively empathize and try hard to understand how much more stressful everyone’s lives have become. For example, many families are already coping with lost income if a spouse has been laid off or furloughed and working parents are having to care for their children and get their work done. The hurdles that parents of young children must overcome to be productive as they endeavor to work from home are obvious, but even parents of older children who have been sent home early from high school or college are contending with issues that compound the stress they’re feeling. Knowing that no one’s life is devoid of these stresses helps keep things in perspective.

There is no “business as usual” in the midst of our response to the pandemic and the quicker managers make peace with that and adapt, the quicker they can begin to help their teams adjust and get into a productive and consistent routine. The more effective teams are at mastering the art of working together while physically apart, the better their chances for maintaining the momentum needed achieve their collective goals now and in the future. But the cloud of stress and uncertainty that employees are working under demands that managers pay closer attention to the mental health and emotional well-being of their staff — not just to their time online or the work they’re generating.

One of my best friends says that, as parents, we are only ever as happy as our saddest child. As a manager of a highly successful team, I recognize that each member of our team brings unique skills and expertise to the fore, which when combined create a powerful and dynamic fire that fuels our ability to achieve, and often exceed, our goals. My spin on my friend’s adage is that as a team, we are only as strong as our weakest player. It is my responsibility as their manager to help strengthen these individuals.

It’s worth remembering that people are not defined solely by their careers.

So much more goes into making us who we are. Our families and friends, interests and hobbies, our religion and upbringing, our ethnicity and culture, and a ton of other factors play a part in making each of us unique. I believe truly successful managers try to understand and learn as much as they can about each individual on the teams they manage and let their teams get to know them as well.

Photo of hand written jokes sent to Kendra by her colleague's daughter.
I was delighted to receive these word-teaser jokes my colleague’s daughter sent to me via mail. I shared these with my staff during a daily morning email message in hopes that it would brighten their day, like it did mine.

Teams that transcend mundane, day-to-day interaction, which revolves exclusively around work and develop friendships and a healthy respect and even admiration for one another achieve more, do more, work more collaboratively and have more fun. It isn’t rocket science, but surprisingly few teams reach, let alone sustain, that kind of esprit de corps, because it requires consistent ongoing effort and leadership. It is up to managers to lead the charge and encourage team members to get to know one another, to champion kindness in the workplace, to get them to go beyond asking the perfunctory “how was your weekend?” and really listen to responses so they can actually learn about one another. Understanding and knowing each other fosters respect and empathy, and facilitates more thoughtful interactions, which in turn, creates a more stable, happy and healthy workplace culture.

I believe the work-from-home mandate that we’re currently operating under represents a terrific opportunity for managers to connect with our direct reports and larger teams and encourage them to connect with each other. If we use this time to reach out to one another in thoughtful, kind and fun ways, we can turn a very difficult situation into a tremendous opportunity for growth.

My Five Tips for Bringing Teams Together While They’re Apart

  1. Step up daily email, text phone and video communication and maintain it throughout the COVID-19 crisis until people return to their offices.
  2. Keep in mind that not every message needs to focus on work. Look for the humor that’s inherent in everything, especially in the unusual and unique situation in which so many of us currently find ourselves.
  3. Send your teams video messages that incorporate work-related topics and heartfelt comments too. Never underestimate the value of face-to-face communication.
  4. Send your teams hand-written notes or cards. Everyone loves to receive snail mail. Taking the time to write and send a card speaks volumes and will show you truly care. The best part is that you don’t even need to leave your home to do so — order everything from stamps to stationary online and get it delivered to your door.
A picture of postmarked cards Kendra mailed to every team member.
Hand-written notes for every member of my development team.

5. Encourage staff to share photos of themselves, their pets and the things they’re doing when they aren’t working to stay busy, whether it’s gardening, exercising, painting or playing with their dog.

Photo of Kendra’s Scottish Terrier puppy Finn.
My work from home sidekick Finn.

Don’t be afraid to ask your staff for thoughts and feedback about how they feel you’re communicating to and with them, and be sure to solicit their ideas and suggestions for additional methods you can employ to foster greater communication, understanding and thoughtfulness among your team, especially now.

While the world endures and perseveres through this novel coronavirus, take the time to let your staff know you’re thinking about them and that you care. If you take the lead, they will follow, and, together, you will emerge stronger and closer as a team.

Kendra Davenport is the Chief Development Officer for Operation Smile and manages global development strategy, brand, marketing and public relations. She previously served as the president of the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, the vice president of institutional advancement and external affairs at Africare. Kendra has also supported development at Project HOPE, the Population Reference Bureau, International SeaKeepers Society, First Candle and the SIDS Alliance, and Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and communications from Chestnut Hill College and an Executive Master of Policy Leadership from Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy. Additionally, she is CFRE International certified as a fundraising executive, and volunteers her skills and expertise to assist the Loudoun County government, Leadership Roundtable and Georgetown University.



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