Encouraging Empathy in the Remote Workforce

Empathy isn’t an easy thing to teach and it certainly isn’t something Training professionals are typically focused on. But it’s more important than ever in today’s COVID-19 world.

It has now been more than seven months since many of us have seen our colleagues in-person. When we were together in the office, it was easier to connect—whether that meant stopping by a work friend’s desk to chat or discussing our weekends in the conference room before a Monday morning meeting. Now, it’s much harder to cultivate these moments, especially as we all juggle balancing work with our different circumstances at home.

When we lose the important moments of connection with colleagues that we get when working in an office together, we also lose our ability to fully empathize with each other. That may sound dramatic, but my team recently asked 1,000 U.S. employees about workplace topics, including their feelings about remote work, and what we found is a widespread lack of connection and understanding for colleagues. Are we becoming less empathetic due to distance?

Here’s an example: When we asked what employees consider top violations of remote workplace etiquette, one-third of Baby Boomers said they consider having kids in the background of video calls a violation. That’s compared to just 22 percent of Millennials and 11 percent of Gen Zers. Unfortunately, for many working parents, having kids in the background is a part of their new reality and doesn’t come with an easy fix. So they not only have to cope with the challenges of being a parent working remotely—such as managing online school and comforting crying little ones who need more attention—but also judgement from colleagues who can’t empathize with their situation.

Further, organizations need to acknowledge the challenges plaguing all employees—after all, it’s not just those of us with children who are struggling; there is a wide spectrum of experiences across the board. Consider another finding from our survey: Almost a third of Gen Zers are working from their beds. In fact, overall, younger generations such as Gen Zers (30 percent) and Millennials (20 percent) are more likely to work from their beds compared to older generations such as Gen Xers (15 percent) and Boomers (3 percent). And while working from bed may not sound like a hardship initially, when we start to think about exactly why these younger generations are working from bed, we can sympathize with their situation. In many cases, these younger generations live in smaller apartments or homes and don’t have an extra room or space to set up a temporary home office. The mental toll of not having a separate workspace in your home, especially more than a half year into remote work, is considerable, and it’s another unique circumstance leaders need to address.

Tips to Foster Understanding

These issues beg the question of how leaders can acknowledge the difficulties of remote work for all employees and express empathy to their teams, while also promoting an overall culture of empathy. Here are some tactics I encourage leaders to incorporate into their workplaces to foster a culture of empathy and understanding among colleagues:

  • Don’t be afraid to think differently. Unique times require unique solutions. If you had told me last year that employers were considering hiring fitness instructors to lead virtual classes or mindfulness experts to discuss mental wellness and self-care during a pandemic, I would have been very confused. “Unprecedented” may just be the official word of 2020, but it perfectly captures where we are and what we need to do to help one another. As leaders, we have to move beyond our standard toolkit. Now, it’s critical for us to really consider what our employees need and not be afraid to pursue and advocate for non-traditional workplace benefits and training.
  • Find creative ways to break through the noise. Nuanced topics such as supporting working parents demand new forms of communication, not standard company-wide e-mails that are easy for workers to ignore. Alternatively, leaders can use other tactics, such as dynamic video communications (I recently shared this video with my team) to engage employees and help them put their colleagues’ experiences in perspective. Most importantly, skip the HR jargon and use this opportunity to be human in your communications to employees.
  • Lead by example. Leaders aren’t immune to pandemic-related challenges, and we shouldn’t hesitate to admit what our challenges look like. Employees tend to mirror our actions, and what we do can encourage them to feel comfortable doing the same. If you’re having trouble dealing with the news of the day, spend the first few minutes of a meeting with colleagues talking about it. Find a great article about self-care? Share it in an e-mail and ask your team if they have any resources they’ve been leaning on. Making those gestures send the message that it’s OK to be struggling right now and that we’re here to help one another.
  • Encourage celebrating the good. We could all benefit from more good news. A great way to bring more to the workplace is highlighting the good that exists all around us within our colleagues. If your office has a weekly newsletter, you can add an employee highlight section to share the triumphs—both personal and professional—of your employees. It not only lifts up the employee being profiled, but also encourages others to nominate their colleagues and recognize the good in their peers.

Empathy isn’t an easy thing to teach and it certainly isn’t something Training professionals are typically focused on. Still, as we continue to work remotely and grapple with our constantly changing world, it’s more important than ever.

Stacy Adams is dedicated to helping companies build better professional trainings as part of her role as head of Marketing at Vyond, a video animation software company that supports businesses in easily creating corporate videos. She is passionate about the power of video storytelling and believes in its unique ability to bolster corporate learning and address workplace issues. Vyond’s mission is to put the power of video in the hands of everyone. Vyond allows people of all skill levels in all industries and job roles to create dynamic and powerful media. Founded as GoAnimate in 2007, Vyond has helped Global 2000 organizations, small businesses, and individuals produce more than 30 million videos. To learn more, visit vyond.com.