8 Tips for Empathy in Remote Workplaces

The remote workplace needs us to intentionally practice empathy even more than the in-person office.

“Remote employees are more likely to report feeling that colleagues mistreat them and leave them out. Specifically, they worry that coworkers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them in advance, lobby against them, and don’t fight for their priorities.”

– Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, Harvard Business Review

None of us want a work environment that feels like that, so how can we increase empathy and help people feel included, valued, and respected when we’re working remotely?

1. Stay Connected

Building a connection with someone else makes empathy a lot easier. With the loss of those casual “watercooler” conversations and face-to-face communication, connections can start to break down when your whole team is remote.

Ways to Stay Connected:

2. Listen More

Listening is a cornerstone of empathy, especially when you’re working remotely. It allows you to understand the context that your colleagues are working in, and can help you to recognize when an employee is struggling.

It’s important to be thoughtful about the questions that you are asking in check-ins and to recognize that each employee may be facing unique challenges based on their identity and circumstances. The standard small talk question “how are you?” might not only be unhelpful, it might be harmful.

“[It] can become a trigger point and can place lots of pressure [on] employees to come up with the "right" answer. [You can] help with the mental overload by removing the pressure – by using curiosity, [and] trying different ways or prompts to check-in.”

– Karlyn Percil, CEO and Certified Emotional Intelligence & Neuro-Life Coach

Expert Listening Advice:

  • Listen to understand, instead of listening to respond.

  • Asking follow-up questions shows that you were paying attention.

  • “Listen” for changes in tone over email or other messages, or changes in body language on video calls.

3. Make it safe to ask for help

Asking for help can be hard. Harvard Business Review Ascend recognizes that there are two ways to make it safer for people to ask for help:

“Offer help to others at every opportunity. Also, show others it is ok to ask for help by doing it yourself. [...] By asking for help ourselves, it supports others to feel safe to do the same.”

– Harvard Business Review Ascend

Showing people that you are willing to be vulnerable by asking for help is a great way to demonstrate empathy, and get more accomplished.

Why asking for help is a strength:

  • Asking for help can show initiative. Celebrate people who bring possible solutions when they ask for help.

  • Asking for help is a way to learn how to do new things so that you can do them independently in the future.

  • Asking for help can save time. Instead of putting in extra hours, work smart and ask someone for help!

4. Be helpful

Thinking critically and proactively about what might be helpful to people on your team shows that you’re stepping into their shoes and looking for things that would benefit them. These offers to help can be made to individuals or to your team as a whole, based on what you’ve learned from listening.

Examples of help you could offer:

  • Offer flexibility in scheduling to ensure that people can be fully focused when they are working.

  • Share what has worked well for you, or resources that you have found helpful.

  • Encourage people to set boundaries between working hours and personal time. If people might be working on different schedules, they can update their status on Slack, or set an out-of-office notification.

  • Provide clarity on how each team member's work fits into the bigger picture.

5. Equip Employees

Making sure that your employees have the things that they need to do their work is an important way to show empathy. Avoid making assumptions about what each team member might have or need. Ask thoughtful questions, and be proactive about predicting what people might need in the future.

Questions to ask when equipping employees:

  • What tools does everyone on the team need?

  • Does this team member have any accessibility needs?

  • What resources does this person use regularly in the office that they might not have at home?

6. Be Transparent

People don’t want to be surprised or confused by policy changes or new projects. The team at Ericsson has some helpful advice for leaders around transparency in times of change:

“Be clear about what you do and do not know. Don’t spread rumors, but also do not wait for every detail to be ironed out before sharing important information[...] That transparency will be appreciated and builds trust.”

– Ericsson

Ways to be transparent:

  • Be explicit in setting expectations for each team member.

  • Share clear objectives with the whole team.

  • Provide regular guidance and feedback to team members.

7. Let Trust Be Your Guide

Trust assumes that people will do their best and respect the other members of the team; it starts with the expectation that people are showing empathy for each other. Trust is also foundational to remote work.

“The best thing you can do as a manager right now is to suspend your disbelief and put utmost trust and confidence in your employees that they will do the right thing—which they will if employers provide a supportive structure.”

– Brian Kropp, Distinguished Vice President, Research, Gartner

Management consultant Angela Schafer agrees that it can take people a little while to adapt to a new remote work environment and expectations. But she says that this isn’t a permanent state.

“Most people will figure out how to get things done, sticking to the articulation of the outcome [...] In times of disruption, you need to get out of the way and let that happen.”

- Angela Schafer for Chartered Professional Accountants Canada

8. Increase Recognition

People working in isolation can feel underappreciated, so you need to step up your recognition efforts to ensure that everyone feels that their work is being valued. Gartner points out that employee recognition doesn’t need to be expensive; sometimes acknowledging a team member at a staff meeting, offering development opportunities, or tokens of appreciation can go a long way to making someone feel special.

Things to consider about recognition:

  • Consider different methods of recognizing people, such as an announcement in a team meeting, a note in a team email, or a post on Slack.

  • It might be more difficult to notice when people are succeeding if you don’t see them at work. Implement some simple surveys, an opportunity for people to nominate a colleague, or add some new digital ways to measure success to make sure no one gets overlooked.

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