Would you consider yourself an empathetic person at work? Are you always willing to lend an ear to your co-worker’s latest band practice drama, or would you prefer to keep conversations at the corporate level?
A recent survey conducted for the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy reported that a whopping 96% of respondents rated empathy as an important quality for companies to demonstrate. Despite this, 92% of employees believe that empathy remains undervalued at their company, which is an increase from results in prior years.
Empathy is described as not just understanding another person’s perspective, but truly putting yourself in their shoes and feeling those emotions alongside that person. It's a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, and when a workplace demonstrates empathy, there are countless studies that correlate it to increased happiness, productivity, and retention amongst employees.
So more empathy at work is wanted, and many people feel empathetic, but the practice isn’t effectively translating into reality. This disconnect is further exacerbated by the rise of remote work, which removes much of the face-to-face interactions of a traditional office.
Remote work, by definition, removes the need for colleagues to be co-located in one place. This means that those small, impromptu social interactions don’t necessarily happen organically the way they would in an office kitchen or social space. These informal conversations are great ways to connect and demonstrate empathy at work, and for remote teams this process needs to be more intentional.
A lack of empathy may be having a serious negative impact on your remote team, which, if not corrected, can break down team dynamics and lead to burnout, loss of productivity, and turnover. Let’s look at a few examples of remote team disparities that can lead to an unintentional lack of empathy, and how to spot these scenarios before they impact your relationships with your teammates:
The Geographical Disparity
Let’s take the simple fact of geography: if you have a remote team that is located in New York, Chicago, Texas, and California, chances are that come January, there’s going to be a real mixed bag of emotions.
The weather is miserable in Chicago in January; they literally call it #Chiberia. Meanwhile, folks in Texas might be whistling dixie, enjoying the escape from oppressive summer heat.
Image Source: The Guardian
For some, these weather-induced mood changes are clinical. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs primarily in fall and winter months, and is believed to be caused by a lack of sun due to shorter daylight during this time of the year. This phenomenon causes decreased levels of serotonin, thus bringing down the mood of a suffering individual. Even if someone isn’t suffering from SAD, living in a temporary tundra is known to invoke general feelings of malaise.
Being conscious of the differing experiences of your colleagues can go a long way in understanding why energy levels might not match up with the sun schedule in your own timezone.
Do: Try to keep the mood light (and bright ☀️) in chat by posting funny tweets or memes.
Don’t: Lament the “lack of energy” and coax people to put on a fake smile. It’s disingenuous and runs the risk of giving people the impression that their true feelings are not welcome. By all means, avoid starting video calls and meetings with a full report of the weather. Let’s leave that to the meteorologists.
The Natural Disaster Disparity
In addition to geography, there are also natural forces to consider. The weather might be generally terrific in California, but those folks sadly encounter other disruptive elements, like forest fires and drought. Another fair weather area, Houston, Texas, was recently devastated by a hurricane.
If you’re based in New York City and you are on a remote team, you might come into work thinking it’s a normal day, whereas your coworker is petrified that their family and friends are being evacuated from their homes.
Even though many of these events are easily discoverable via news outlets, it’s not always obvious to draw these connections to a person you’re interacting with at work. That’s where the need for empathy comes into play.
Do: Foster a culture of sharing context within your team by allowing folks to bring their whole selves to work. When someone opens up about trials in their community, make sure that person feels heard. Ask about opportunities to help. Hosting a monthly team bonding meeting that doesn’t revolve around project updates and strategy can be a great opportunity to allow your remote team to share other aspects of their lives with the group.
Don’t: Put those people on the spot in a meeting and ask them to share, or make light of their experience. If you’re not sure if they want to talk about it, reach out to them privately in an asynchronous medium like chat or email.
The Lifestyle Disparity
There are a myriad of normal human conditions that can be extremely disruptive to a person’s ability to engage at work:
Commutes: Subway delays in New York City are increasingly common, and can add hours to a person’s commute. Traffic in Los Angeles is notorious in its difficulty. These little inconveniences at the start of a day can set a negative tone that carries over until clocking out.
Childcare: If one of your coworkers has a young child, chances are they aren’t getting half the sleep of a colleague with no dependents. They also aren’t able to work later hours, jump on last minute flights, or find childcare when their kids have a day off from school.
Chronic illness: There are many illnesses that are “invisible,” in that their symptoms cannot be observed externally. That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t cause the sufferer a great deal of pain. Don’t assume your coworker that is taking a lot of time off is slacking off: they may be dealing with the hassle of an underlying medical condition.
Demonstrating empathy for your colleagues in these circumstances allows you to respect their boundaries, and understand why sometimes they need to prioritize other aspects of their life outside of the 9 to 5.
Do: Be understanding when circumstances out of a person’s control come up. Things happen sometimes. Treat others how you would want to be treated.
Don’t: Fault that person for their life circumstances: for example not putting them on a project, or calling them out for their absences in a group setting.
The Political Disparity (There.. I Said It.)
This is an interesting one, especially considering politics are one of the most taboo topics in the workplace. In the modern workforce, however, teams don’t just span states, but also countries.
For example, most Americans remain largely unaware and unaffected by Brazil’s recent, contentious presidential election. Meanwhile, the ordeal would have been distracting and draining for a colleague based there.
It’s not just politics as usual, either. Humanitarian crises happen in many countries across the world, and if you have colleagues based in other countries, it’s more important to pay attention to the happenings of their home base.
It’s difficult to empathize when you are largely uninformed of the ramifications of a situation that has absolutely nothing to do with you. Out of sight out of mind, right? But if it’s affecting your colleague, it will inevitably affect you, too.
Do: Make it known to those people that you are following the news in their area, and you are available to talk.
Don’t: Offer your own (most likely uninformed) opinion on the subject. Allow those who are in the thick of things their own space to speak freely.
The Downside Of Showing Empathy
It’s always important to constantly challenge yourself to demonstrate empathy at your workplace, especially if you’re remote. But demonstrating empathy can sometimes backfire 😖
Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon where people become overwhelmed after repeated exposure to the suffering of others. It is categorized by numbness and even, at times, depression. The utter exhaustion of interfacing emotionally with unfortunate circumstances is enough to burn out even a person who is just observing from the sidelines.
Desensitization is the enemy of empathy, so educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue, and take a step back when you need to. Be open with your colleagues about how you’re feeling.
Another red flag to keep an eye out for is unconscious bias towards showing empathy for some groups of people and not others. According to research done at Harvard University, the lower portion of the brain, called the medial prefrontal cortex (MFPC) is the portion of the brain that is active when humans are exhibiting signs of empathy.
Researchers found that the MFPC was highly engaged when participants were discussing people they considered like-minded to them, but didn’t register activity when discussing those perceived as unlike them in areas like political affiliation and region of origin.
It’s important to keep unconscious bias in mind, particularly in a remote workplace, when you’re chatting and working with your co-workers. If you find yourself showing empathy for some colleagues but not others, ask yourself if there is an underlying reason that might be happening. Are you a parent, thus showing empathy for other parents? Do you live in a warm place all year, thus seemingly unaware of the struggles of those long winter months?
Incorporating Empathy Into Your Corporate Culture
Remember that empathy is a cornerstone of a positive workplace culture, and demonstrating an understanding of the experiences of your colleagues is a great way to foster community, even on a remote team.
Ask yourself how you are currently demonstrating empathy in your workplace, and come up with ways to amplify your contributions. A mile in someone else’s shoes can feel like a quick trip when you plan, pack your bag with some empathetic tools, and of course, wear comfy shoes.