Working remotely can create feelings of isolation and frustration. When we work remotely, we are not communicating as much and as well as if we were in the same room. The digital tools we use for communicating are not optimal for capturing and expressing human traits such as empathy and emotions.
We live in a world full of information, but without emotions and the capacity to sense, understand and respond to emotions, a certain level of understanding and connection will go missing. In a modern organisation we have tools and practices for efficient transfer of information, but these leave out a big portion of what makes us human. Current research highlights the importance of empathy at work and when it comes to remote work the importance of developing empathy in your team can not be emphasised enough.
Empathy, in short, is the sum of all the skills that allow us to understand each other and to cooperate. Empathy, neuroscientists tell us, is the magic potion that to a great extent explains how humans have survived and thrived throughout evolution. Humans are not as strong or fast as lions, for example, but with our ability to cooperate and solve problems using our collective intelligence, we have been successful, together. Empathy is at the root of these collaboration skills, and for that reason empathy is crucial to any team working on a task together.
Empathy requires that we communicate not only about facts and figures, but allow ourselves to express emotions and open up to feel what someone else is feeling, to be moved by someone else’s reality. Empathy is forming a connection between two people. Our brains literally harmonize to the same wave-length, allowing us to understand what another person is experiencing. This form of openness to emotions is what unlocks better collaboration.
Many of us are used to the idea that sharing emotions or insight into our personal life at work is unprofessional, but this is changing as work is changing. Many people today appreciate leaders who can show a more human side. By being more open and vulnerable as a leader, you are helping create a more human culture in your organisation, where everyone knows it is safe to be a human being with feelings and a life outside work. Sharing emotions with your team and developing empathy can be scary and difficult at first, but here are a few ideas of how to take steps in the right direction.
1. See the whole person
In any team, remote or not, it is crucial to be mindful and considerate of your colleagues as whole people. While this may sound too simple to be worth mentioning, it is clear that we are not that good at considering things outside our immediate range of experience.
We are all a combination of roles and parts that come together to create a whole person. These parts include not only your professional role, but also a range of personal roles, for example being a mother, father, spouse, friend, competitive athlete, drummer in a heavy metal band, organic tomato farmer or having a supporting role in the community theatre production of Les Miserables. Just because all these experiences are not visible in your online team meeting, does not mean they are not there and part of the person you call “our accounts guy Tom”.
What you can do: Create regular opportunities for your team to meet, both formally and informally, and encourage them to share more about themselves, their families and personal interests. As a team, create and nurture a work culture where it is ok to express a more personal side of yourself. More social communication of this kind is related to higher levels of trust in remote teams.
2. Human-proofing your communication
One of the unfortunate down-sides of quick and easy online communication is that empathy often goes missing in these digital interactions. As mentioned before, digital tools are not the best for expressing human emotions and almost all non-verbal communication is missing completely. This leads to it being very easy to be (unintentionally) mean or inconsiderate online, in a way that would not happen in face-to-face interaction.
What you can do: Practice “human-proofing” by making sure you re-read all messages, however short, before sending them. A short “ok.” that was meant to indicate that you agree with what was said, might be misinterpreted as a blunt or even a passive-aggressive end to the conversation. Use a few seconds to add some context to your communication, to avoid such misunderstandings.
3. Balance it out
Expressing emotions at work is beneficial to building empathy and a sense of belonging in a team, but there is also a risk of over-sharing. The key is to find a balance between sharing and being vulnerable enough to create bonds, but not burdening your colleagues with issues that don’t concern them.
What you can do: Reflect on how you personally express emotions, both positive and negative, and try to think about whether being less or more expressive of them in work situations might be beneficial. Take a step back to check how you would feel if the roles were reversed. Would you feel that the other person sharing this type of information would help you understand them better, or make you uncomfortable? If you are unsure, refrain from sharing. You can always get back to this tomorrow.
4. Assume the best in people
Remote work and the endless flood of information and online communication can easily lead to misunderstandings, turning what was supposed to be fast and easy communication into a source of endless irritation, frustration, envy or resentment. Assuming negative intentions where there are none will slowly break a team apart and can quickly spiral out of control. Developing your empathy skills will help you escape these negative emotions and work towards better collaboration.
What you can do: Practice a mindset of intentionally giving people the benefit of the doubt. If someone does or says something you find ignorant or arrogant, stop to consider – is it possible that their intent was good even though the way they expressed it was bad? When someone does something that irritates or frustrates you, try to come up with alternative explanations for why they did that, other than them trying to be difficult or obstructionist. If you can come up with a few different options for their intent, it is possible that your first assumption was wrong. Regularly work on being more aware of your assumptions. Reflect on how this changes the way you interact with your team.
5. Developing psychological safety
A high level of psychological safety is one of the strongest indicators of successful teams. On psychologically safe teams people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. In other words, people feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. Psychological safety is also conducive of a stronger sense of belonging on the team, which according to research predicts team productivity, commitment and well-being.
What you can do: As a team, commit to developing and nurturing a psychologically safe culture. Discuss shared “team rules” openly, when necessary. Create a supportive environment where it feels safe to admit mistakes. Show a good example yourself by talking about challenges and tough issues that you are facing. Open up for suggestions and ideas from your team.
All teams are different and what works best for one team, is not always the same for all teams. Find ways that work for you as a team. Experiment, try out different ways of reaching out to each other and talk about how everyone on the team feels about these actions. But above all, be generous and kind with each other. Kindness really doesn’t cost anything.