Empathy and Communication in a Virtual World

February 1, 2022

By Lori Thelen, SVP, Account Management

It has been said that empathy is the key to great leadership. Empathy is having the ability to sense another’s feelings; to feel what they feel. It’s the old idea of “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Empathy keeps our team engaged and motivated, and empathy helps us deliver the best client service. Empathy means you pick up cues; you sense unspoken emotions. During these days of the great re-evaluation, it seems that this could be one of the keys to retaining our team members and giving them the best work experience.

But in a virtual workplace, where we quickly move from one Teams call to another with little time for lunch or even a bathroom break, how do we know the true state of our employees, team members, and friends. How do we know how they are doing when the hallway chats and coffee bar talks are no longer in play? Do we rush into meetings without asking about each other’s weekends, understanding what is on their plate, or even taking the time to know how they are doing?

To be empathetic towards others on our team and in our workplace today, we need focused effort and intentional communication to uncover their feelings, pressures, and situations —beyond what we see on the Teams call — or we will never know what they feel.

We all want to feel valued in our jobs. We want to share and celebrate the wins. But often, we move from call to call to call, and it becomes easy to just keep working and not even pause to notice. Let’s not let that personal connection slip through the cracks any longer. Only with effort and intention will we create an environment where our team members feel seen and understood.

The struggle to do this into today’s largely virtual workplace is real. But here are a few guidelines that help.

Just Ask

From my bedroom/virtual office over these past 22 months, I have observed that our lack of intentional communication can lead to ambiguity and assumptions, and when this happens empathy goes out the window. When needs and expectations are not spoken directly, when they’re left up to interpretation on a message board or email, it is easy for people to opt out because they are feeling too busy, or make assumptions that someone else will respond or pick up the ball.

We need to be direct and ask if they can take on this project, or why this deadline was missed. See what is on their plate personally and professionally. If someone asks for more time on a project or to move a meeting, don’t assume they didn’t prioritize it; simply ask what is going on, and what else are you working on, or how can I help you?

Eliminate Ambiguity

I have heard it said that anything ambiguous will be perceived as negative. Take the time to eliminate this from your team by being clear and direct and open to answering questions. Clearly communicate what is expected on a project or task, so your team understands what the expectations are and the deadline.  Avoid saying things like “if you have time to help” or “please send ideas by Sunday.” Rather be specific: “I need your help and expect two ideas from each person on this email thread by Sunday at noon.” Give people the option to call you for clarification and try to create the virtual “open door” so the team members know they are welcome. This will lead to honest conversations where you can practice empathy. We don’t always have the opportunity to read facial expression and body language, or swing by their desk to clarify. It will save time and pain to just be direct and clear when you communicate.

Full Attention

To practice empathy, we need give our full attention to our people. I am preaching to myself here. It is so tempting to multi-task while on a 1:1 with the camera off, but we need to resist and not give into distraction, because our presence is the greatest gift we can give to our team. Showing up, checking in and being truly present and interested in their work, lives, and interests is imperative. Take the time to give constructive feedback, celebrate the wins, and work through the challenges with helpful guidance that leads to growth and stronger relationships. Remember that in our virtual work environment, there are many dynamics at play that make each day unique and unpredictable. On any given day the need for empathy could be around the corner.

Only through empathy will we keep our best team members and truly collaborate to deliver the best work and creativity that matters.

Lori Thelen is SVP of Accounts in TMA’s Dallas office, overseeing accounts including Frito-Lay, Advance Auto Parts, and Papa Murphy’s.

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