Corporate work is built on relationship building, negotiation, camaraderie, and interpersonal challenges — all of which are 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.
However, you can take concrete steps to improve your empathy for remote work.
Here are ways to increasing your ability to understand the context of communications and be more empathetic in remote work:
- Understand the channel
- Cultivate perspective-taking
- Establish boundaries
1. Understanding Channels
The first step towards creating a model of empathetic, virtual communication is understanding the channels most present in your daily life. Some channels are more asynchronous, e.g. email, and some are more synchronous, e.g. 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.
2. Cultivate Perspective-Taking
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.
On a practical note, even taping post-its with reminders on your laptop or changing your password on your computer to something mindful can remind you to take a step back, reconsider the other party’s perspective, and know it’s not all about you.
3. Establish Boundaries
The third step is creating 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.”*
If you feel negativity, it’s your prerogative to note it and step away. And if certain channels often cause negativity, you need to set up times and places to interact with them so you can remain as objective as possible.
If you’ve effectively understood the channels you interact with and made a plan to cultivate empathy, you can decide where the boundaries lie that allow you to understand others’ perspectives while protecting your own, all while remaining present in the necessary communications in your life.
*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
About the Author
McKenna Sweazey is a remote and hybrid management author and a VP of marketing at Silicon Valley data start up. Having spent years working in global organizations, managing remote teams around the world, she’s spent years refining her management skills to be as effective in person as from 6,000 miles away.