Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, distributed work models have surged in popularity. Suddenly, one-third of the U.S. workforce works from home, many without clear policies, workflows, or communication channels. Research prior to the pandemic indicated a host of benefits associated with remote work, including increased job satisfaction, employee retention, and productivity. However, there are also challenges that may be exacerbated right now due to the lack of remote policies and procedures. One of those is the development and support of empathy for others in a remote work environment.
In the upcoming weeks, some businesses are reopening with employees returning to the office. But according to a recent report released by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 68% of businesses are considering the adoption of broader, more flexible work-from-home policies. Since a permanent shift to a more remote workforce appears inevitable, employers will need to address these drawbacks in order to optimize the benefits of telecommuting while also minimizing the problems.
One of the most powerful ways to address the challenges of remote work environments is to increase empathy levels. Empathy is frequently referred to when a business wants to improve its culture or increase employee engagement. But what exactly is empathy for others? How does it work? Can it be fostered and developed? Read on for answers to these questions and learn how you can harness the superpowers of empathy for the good of yourself and your remote team.
What is Empathy for Others?
Empathy refers to the ability to sense the emotions of others and to imagine how others feel. This is a natural ability that predates humanity itself according to primatologist Frans de Waal. The origins of empathy probably evolved for two main reasons. First, to reinforce the successful behavior of mothers caring for their young, and second, to promote cooperation for the completion of social projects. These early forms of empathy have evolved to the point where we are now able to adopt the perspective of others.
Experts believe that empathy has been hardwired into our brains and bodies due to evolution. Researchers have identified special mirror neurons in the brain that fire when we see someone perform an action that we would perform similarly ourselves. In addition, evidence points to a genetic aspect as a secondary cause of empathy.
The Power of Empathy
Empathy brings out the best in us humans. It allows us to forgive those who harm us, as well as protest against injustice. Both of these noble actions can move mountains. Consider the recent protests against police brutality that have expanded across the United States. This is a powerful example of how empathy can cause record numbers of people to organize and act to improve the situation of others. Empathy may not make us help others, but it is a necessary precursor to compassionate actions.
Another recent example is the phrase “We’ll get through this together.” One of the key phrases repeated again and again throughout the COVID-19 crisis, its origin in this context is uncertain, but its purpose to unify is crystal clear. How does this phrase achieve unity? By triggering empathy for others. It reminds us that our struggles are similar to everyone else’s. This simple phrase has managed to get 350+ million people on the same page and illustrates the power of empathy to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Why is Empathy Important in a Remote Work Environment?
Even under the best circumstances, challenges to productivity and corporate culture can arise when employees work at home. Fear and uncertainty associated with the pandemic have compounded those challenges, as well as the lack of formal telecommute policies and procedures. Common challenges associated with remote work can include lack of face-to-face supervision, daily structure, and information, as well as social and professional isolation and loneliness.
In most cases, physical separation from office and co-workers can breed these complications. Also, because we are not in physical proximity, we sometimes forget that we are also working with people who have their own lives, families, and problems. We get caught up in our personal situation and neglect to pay attention to how others may be feeling. In other words, we forget empathy for others.
When a lack of empathy exists, remote workplace problems have the potential to increase. In addition to causing conflict and pain, these problems may impact team productivity and the company’s bottom line.
The hardest-hit area when one or more individuals lack empathy is usually communication. In many cases, technology itself serves as the biggest barrier to our relationship building. The impersonal nature of email and text messages can easily cause misinterpretations and mistakes.
Without empathy, we do not pay attention to the value they contribute. If an employee is misunderstood or undervalued, then the chances of that employee fully participating with the team are slim. A lack of engagement will increase employee turnover.
Lack of Trust
Without empathy, building trust can lag. This leads to individuals feeling uncertain about their place and unwilling to speak up. Without trust, the remote workplace will experience disharmony, as well as less innovation and risk-taking.
At its worst, a lack of empathy for others will cause conflict. Without the ability to understand and feel the emotions behind a co-worker’s actions, the possibility of misinterpretation exists. A recent Myers-Briggs study found that workplace conflict costs the economy over $359 billion annually.
How Does Empathy for Others Work?
Researchers have identified three different types of empathy:
- Emotional empathy is when we experience feelings and sensations in response to the emotions of others. These feelings can often mirror those of the other.
- The second type of empathy is cognitive empathy, which allows us to identify and understand the perspective of others.
- The third type is compassionate empathy. This type of empathy goes beyond feeling and perspective to taking action to help.
While researchers may have identified different types of empathy, they do not work best in isolation. Rather, they are most effective when working in concert. First, understand how a person feels, then develop similar feelings. Lastly, undertake a compassionate action as a result.
A simple example is learning your friend is suffering in the hospital (cognitive empathy). You develop a feeling of suffering in response (emotional empathy), and you deliver a get well card as a way to help both your friend and yourself feel better (compassionate empathy).
In isolation, the three types of empathy can be a drawback rather than a benefit. Imagine someone who overidentifies with someone’s suffering. They would become paralyzed by their feelings of suffering and be unable to act. Pure cognitive empathy is not beneficial either. Understanding how someone feels without feeling it yourself can lead to using this understanding against the person.
Can Empathy for Others Be Fostered and Developed?
As mentioned above, research shows a genetic basis for empathy, but it is generally thought that most of our empathy is learned as a child. We see examples of empathy in action and the benefits that result. Thus, we have encouragement to practice it ourselves.
Sometimes, individual and situational factors can interfere with empathy development. For example, an individual’s background may have lacked good examples and certain personality types have more difficulty experiencing empathy. In addition, situational factors such as working remotely and the added stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic can add to the difficulty of developing empathy.
Despite these difficulties, research studies suggest that people can enhance their natural empathic abilities through training. Much in the same way that we learn any new behavior or skill, we can implement a cycle of instruction, modeling, rehearsal, and feedback. So we learn about empathy, we look for examples of empathy, we rehearse showing empathy, and we look for feedback. We can use this model to develop training for others, or we can apply it to ourselves.
How to Develop Empathy in Yourself and Others
Below are some simple methods to foster empathy for a happy and harmonious remote work environment for individuals, teams, and leadership.
Tips for Remote Workers
As an individual, use these methods to develop and improve empathy on your own:
- Pay extra attention to non-linguistic cues to get a better sense of how someone is feeling, especially when you are video conferencing or talking on the phone. Notice signs of emotion in the face, in gestures, or in the tone of voice.
- If you are having difficulty understanding someone’s point of view, spend some time imagining yourself in their position. Take what you know of that person and their situation to examine their feelings and motivations.
- When you identify that someone is struggling, try to remember what may have helped you or would have helped you at that time. Consider performing that action on behalf of the other person. What helps you may not help that other person, but a positive intention can work wonders.
- When you’re struggling, employing empathy can make you feel better too! You are never alone in your struggles. So when you have difficulties, simply imagine all the other people in the world who have the same difficulties. This reminder never fails to lift the spirits.
Tips for Remote Teams
To improve the empathy of all group members, the team should be aware of the circumstances of other team members. In distributed teams, many geographic and lifestyle disparities can interfere with the development of empathy. Therefore, the ability of the team to work effectively suffers. In order to develop empathy and gain insight into the motivations and actions of team members, try implementing the following strategies:
- Incorporate unstructured face time into meetings. Establish a regular video conference schedule and spend time as a group discussing the situation of each member. Remember that the situation for each is different. Taking the time to identify and explore these differences is an opportunity to build empathy.
- Develop meeting rules to promote equality. Remote meetings can be challenging in a variety of ways. Set up rules to allow each member time and space to contribute.
- If tension or misunderstanding plagues the group, try to discuss where it comes from and encourage an understanding of different perspectives. If team members feel safe and understood, they will be more likely to give other members the benefit of the doubt when there are disagreements.
Tips for Remote Leaders
As a leader of remote employees or distributed teams, the onus falls on you to set the example and develop the culture. This means empathy is even more important for leaders and managers to develop themselves as well as to promote to employees. A few ways for leaders to increase empathy include:
- Work closely with your team or direct reports to get a good idea of their day-to-day experience. By understanding how their workflows operate you will get a good understanding of what may cause frustration.
- Encourage open communication between yourself and your remote team and its members. Focus on listening to what your employees are saying and not just waiting to speak.
- Identify and challenge your biases. We are all biased toward those who share our point of view that comes with being ourselves; man, woman, old, young, rich, poor, and so on. Overcome these biases to improve empathy and become more inclusive of diverse perspectives.
By implementing these ideas, you can increase empathy for others in the workplace. What follows is a more inclusive, harmonious, and efficient remote team. That’s a result that’s worth the effort.
For further information on some of the ideas presented, check out the articles below:
- Caring for Your Newly Remote Employees During COVID-19
- Mental Health Strategies for Remote Workers During COVID-19
- Online Communications for Remote Teams: The Do’s and Don’ts
- How to Build Trust in Your Remote Team and See Results
- Remote Work Conflict: An In-Depth Guide to Resolving Issues
Do you have ideas or proven methods to increase empathy for others in a remote work environment? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to share your advice. We’d love to hear from you!
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