Modern corporate work involves relationship building, negotiation, camaraderie, and interpersonal challenges- all of which is aided by using empathy, our ability to see things from another's perspective. But working from home limits our abilities to understand what colleagues are thinking by diminishing our body language, the frequency of our interaction, and adding physical and emotional distance between us. As a leader, it’s your responsibility that the channels your virtual team uses to stay in touch and get work done meet everyone's needs. Communications can often be the breaking point in virtual work, with distant colleagues seeming more like 2d avatars than players on the same team. Fostering a culture of empathetic communication can combat these effects of remote employees.
Here are three ways to increasing your ability to understand the context of communications and be more empathetic in remote work:
Rate Your Channels
Cultivate a Culture of Perspective Taking
The first step towards creating a model of empathetic, virtual communication is understanding the channels most present in your organization. Some channels are more asynchronous, like email, and some are more synchronous, like the phone, and most fall somewhere in between. Categorizing each channel by the speed and necessity of response helps to understand where you might fall short in creating the context to react effectively to the messages coming your way.
After taking stock of your channels, with the help of trusted members of your team, come up with a brief guide to using them. What are your team’s Slack best practices? When are after-hours emails ok? Can you Whatsapp each other? When must you have your video on? And most importantly, what is each channel good for? In my company, we’ve learned that essential messages tend to get buried in Slack, and thus, if you must get a response, an email, even subject line only, is the gold standard.
The second step is to cultivate perspective-taking. Empathy can be learned! From reading fiction to taking acting classes, people can increase their ability to understand each others' points of view. While that might be a bridge too far for day-to-today management, finding ways to remind your team that there is a human on the other end of that email is helpful. In-person team building is best for that, but if safety precautions bar you from that, there are practical activities you can implement. Sharing small, personal anecdotes at the beginning of every team meeting or hosting a life map drawing session are virtual ways to remind each other that you are more than avatars. And remember that leaders should go first; an open culture starts at the top. On a more accessible note, having everyone tape post-its with reminders on your laptop or change their passwords to something mindful can remind the team to take a step back, reconsider the other party’s perspective, and know it's not all about them.
The third step is creating and then demanding boundaries. Emotions are contagious, and that is even true for digital communications at work. While emotional contagion relies mainly on facial and other non-verbal communications, it has been demonstrated to occur via text-only communications as well. People interacting through emails and "chats" are affected by another's emotions without being able to perceive facial or non-verbal cues. Take one study from Haifa/Johns Hopkins, which showed that emotional contagion occurs even when non-verbal cues are scarce, and only textual cues are present. Teams of coworkers were assigned a negotiation, and even only using email, "different behaviors are perceived as emotionally charged, resolute behavior interpreted as a display of anger, and flexibility as a display of happiness." And "that incongruence between text-based communication of (negative) emotion and emotionally charged behaviors elicits negative emotion in fellow teammates."* Virtual work can seep into all parts of the day. Great leaders want their teams to recharge, and that starts with creating boundaries and sticking to them yourself. Set up times and channels to interact on certain subjects, as mapped to the uses of the channels.
If you’re managing a team that effectively understands their channels, weaves empathy and humanity into their correspondence, and respects communication boundaries, you’ve set them up for successful virtual collaboration and success.
*Cheshin, Arik, Anat Rafaeli, and Nathan Bos. "Anger and Happiness in Virtual Teams: Emotional Influences of Text and Behavior on Others' Affect in the Absence of Non-Verbal Cues." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes