(Is this you?) It’s 7 a.m. – time to get out of bed, walk the dogs, help the kids get settled into their virtual classrooms, grab a cup of coffee and a quick breakfast and find your way to your home workspace. In the beginning, this may have felt like an appealing challenge — no traffic to deal with, getting a headstart on urgent emails, Slack®, all meetings virtual — we got this! However, reality is sinking in that this arrangement is indefinite and possibly permanent. The new freedom of working from home begins to feel overshadowed by a longing for togetherness. After all, people need people.
Warning Sign: Feeling Disconnected from Your Team and Customers
If this describes your situation, you are not alone. Our clients are talking to us about feeling disconnected from their teams and less attuned to their customers. This is code for lacking the ability to use our “empathy muscle”. Will this disconnection cause it to atrophy while we lose some capacity to be fully dialed-in to others; to read their needs and feelings?
Empathy atrophy is likely when face-to-face interactions have been largely replaced with a running dialogue through communication platforms such as Microsoft Teams® and Slack®. And while many people are more productive through this very efficient means of communication, some of the effectiveness (among other things) is lost due to miscommunication. Without the benefit of vocal inflections or physical gestures, it can be tough to accurately interpret e-serious from e-sarcastic, e-formal from e-cold, e-busy from e-angry.
I saw a real life example of this phenomenon in the form of a series of emails forwarded to me by a client. In the string, I saw a simple request evolve into a dramatic reaction. One party clearly wanted data to make the best decision. The other party interpreted the data gathering questions as disagreements with the initial request. Neither saw the conversation going off the rails until it was too late. I know both parties and am certain that their empathic abilities would have interrupted the process much more quickly had the discussion taken place in person.
If We Lose Empathy, We may also Lose our Competitive Advantage.
Research shows a strong positive correlation between empathy and several organizational KPIs, including increased sales, accelerated productivity, innovation, employee retention, and improved customer relationships. One study (McKinsey & Co podcast transcript) evaluated 170 publicly traded companies by measuring 50 criteria that reflect empathy in the culture and with customers. The top ten with empathy outperformed the bottom ten by two times in the stock market. There is no doubt that businesses who can maintain or even improve empathy among their leaders and employees will win against those who allow empathy to atrophy as a consequence of virtual offices.
Exercises to Overcome Empathy Atrophy:
- “Attune in” to understand the unique needs and drives of team members. Whether you use our Psybil® assessment of virtual workers or another means, learn how to tailor your virtual interactions.
- Develop an advice culture. By seeking advice from all people affected by a decision, people will feel like they matter.
- Remember pleasantries when communicating. Our Brazilian IT person appreciates a personal check in, our Marketing Director enjoys a short conversation about a good craft beer and one of our consultants likes to engage in Bears vs. Packers banter.
- Consider your “trust value”. How do people perceive your character and values? Do they see you as being there for the team? Psynet Group helps team members identify areas where trust is strong and where it needs to be developed using a trust equation.
- Maintaining a routine of a structured meeting like Psynet’s POWER meetings introduces some predictability and control during a time when there are more things out of our control. Taking this a step further, hold an EM-POWER meeting that focuses on how the communication and team process is functioning and how each member can participate to improve it.
- Cultivate an accountability culture in which everyone is responsible for maintaining togetherness. Recently, one of our clients held a company gathering in New York’s Central Park so all could social distance while reconnecting in person. Our team holds a virtual happy hour during which no business is discussed. Anyone on the team or organization could be empowered to organize these events.
We can’t afford to neglect our greatest assets — our people. During this ongoing crisis that pushes us to be more inwardly focused, it is more important than ever that we use our own experiences to understand the challenges of others. This is what keeps us connected.
Curious to learn more about how to avoid empathy atrophy? Reach out to us for a 15 minute conversation, or another consulting firm you trust.