Practicing Empathy With Your Virtual Team
Practicing empathy with your virtual team

Practicing Empathy With Your Virtual Team

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written on May 2020 by Magda Sowierszenko

I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we’ve wanted someone to understand our feelings at work a bit more. Workplace empathy is something that we all desperately want more of, but can never seem to get! This is true no matter where you work. Empathy requires you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and think about the context surrounding their specific situation. But knowing the full context is a bit tricky when you’re working by yourself in a remote office. We still of course can all try to take people’s concerns into consideration, but you might not actually know what these concerns are. 

Empathy in a remote job requires a bit more investigation to fully understand what’s going on and how that may make some employees feel. Practicing the skills you need and being more empathetic yourself is the only way to start being on the receiving end of empathy too! You can’t just take, you have to give. In fact, 60% of workers according to a Businessolver report are willing to take a pay cut to work in a more empathetic workplace. So, for all you managers, HR professionals, and business owners out there take note! 

“I think empathy lies at the core of managing and leading virtual teams. In essence, empathy means understanding the needs of your virtual team. And if you can master that, you’ll understand how to motivate your team to get things done and be a much more effective leader.”

Hassan Osman, PMO Director at Cisco, Author of “Influencing Virtual Teams,” “Don’t Reply All

Now more than ever there is a huge need for more empathy with the COVID-19 outbreak. A lot of us are being put in difficult positions in work, family matters, and general life which is having a knock on effect on almost every detail of our lives. Your remote employees, which probably number a lot more now, are all in unique positions that we need to keep in mind when making decisions. 

This is especially so with remote companies who have workers from different cultures too. Even without COVID-19, being sympathetic and understanding to possible cultural differences you may have is an essential tool in cooperating well together. Fortunately, there are easy methods and strategies to help you to become more empathetic. This can all be achieved by finding out more about the situation and context everyone is in, so let’s take a look and get stuck in!

Make check-ins part of your regular meeting routine

This tip falls under the category of best practices for meetings. Before rushing straight into your agenda, it’s always worth spending 5 minutes to complete a mindset and feelings check in with all attendees. You could even put it in your agenda before the meeting to factor in the time it takes, and make it a formal part of your meeting. The idea here is to simply spend some time asking how everyone is feeling and the general mood. This will help you greatly in increasing your empathy when dealing with a person, their work, or other actions they are doing. 

“I highly advocate that you “over-communicate” with your team. One way is to stay in touch with them every day or every other day to check in on how they’re doing or if they need anything. And this doesn’t have to be too intrusive. A simple question such as “Is there anything I can help you out with?” or “Just checking in – all good on your end?” over a quick instant message helps you keep your finger on the pulse.”

Hassan Osman, PMO Director at Cisco, Author of “Influencing Virtual Teams,” “Don’t Reply All

There are a number of questions you can ask depending on what’s most comfortable for your team and what works for them. You can even turn these questions into a ritual, so everyone already knows what to expect. Have a think about asking questions in this general direction:

  • What’s currently got your attention right now?
  • How has your day been so far?
  • What do you think you’ll be able to contribute to the discussion?

The point of these questions is to allow people to open up, bring up topics that are bothering them (both work and non-work related), and to talk about what they feel they can bring given their situation. It may take a while to get people to answer wholeheartedly at first, but more often than not once people get used to the process it’s difficult for them to stop talking! Always go first as an example when you start to work this into your meetings, it will help give people more confidence when they see you opening up too.

“Be sure to use video when you do some of your check-ins so that you can pick up some non-verbal cues about how the person is doing. Jordan Husney, CEO of Parabol, has a great meeting icebreaker that I’ve adopted.  I ask what baggage people are bringing with them into the meeting. It could be good baggage (something positive), or bad, beaten up baggage (something difficult). It allows people to provide more context about where their mindset is before you get into the business topic

Sacha Connor, Founder & CEO at Virtual Work Insider

Be an active listener

We may think it’s easy to listen and take everything in that someone has to say, but the difference between active and passive listening is actually huge. Active listening requires all your senses, and your full attention too. When running a remote meeting, it can be tempting to multitask and work on other projects at the same time. But by doing this, you miss out on the context and feeling behind somebody’s words. You also need to make sure that you’re seen to be listening, otherwise the speaker will think that you’re not really engaged. 

Gaining context of someone’s situation requires more than just listening to what they’re saying. Active listening also involves non-verbal cues, so make sure you have a video call to take in the full situation. Smiles, eye contact, and posture are all important in getting the whole picture and meaning of what someone wants to communicate. Without these, it’s difficult to empathize with someone on a deeper level.

Develop and nurture relationships with coworkers

Let’s face it, the number of meetings you have with a coworker doesn’t always equal the amount that you really get to know them. You need to spend time outside of meetings to really gain some context in their situation and what issues they may be having. Not all of your team will want to socialise explicitly outside of work, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t take the time to be more personal within work hours. There is plenty of socialising to be done outside of meetings! Using some of the questions we mentioned earlier but in a more informal way will do a lot to help you understand the feelings and situation of your employees and help you to empathize.

“Be vulnerable. It’s important for the managers and senior leaders to show their vulnerability first in order to create the psychological safety for others on their team to open up and be more vulnerable with them.”

Sacha Connor, Founder & CEO at Virtual Work Insider

Empathetic workplaces are key

Paying more attention to your surroundings and making yourself known to be a listener is most of the battle won. The key point here is to pick up on things, context, and situations that require some extra effort to see. 

The effort isn’t much, but makes all the difference when it comes to helping you understand someone’s situation and how it affects your team. It’s only one of the skills that you need to have in your toolset though. Luckily, here at Remote-how we’ve created some amazing programs with lectures and workshops from top remote experts. Make sure to head to the link below to learn more about how you can make remote-work work for you!

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