The Role Of Empathy In A Virtual-First World
Ketan Pandit is the Head of Marketing at Zuddl. He is passionate about building workplaces that are inclusive, diverse and fair.
In Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm (portrayed by Jeff Goldblum) made a memorable statement about nature’s drive and power: “Life, uh, finds a way.”
Although dinosaurs are vastly different to us bipeds in several aspects, the general principle of adaptation when we’re presented with obstacles still holds true. A more relatable example, the Covid-19 pandemic, has exposed our vulnerability and, in my opinion, our strong survival instinct—and we have come to realize how our decisions can have larger effects.
But in all of this, where do we stand on the trait that closely binds our kith and kin and our friends and colleagues: empathy? Rapid strides in virtual and augmented reality and the sharp increase in social media usage have added another significant dimension to the idea of empathy. It has proven its power to bring people closer, despite both physical and emotional distance. In the virtual world, putting on a milieu or role is very easy, unlike in the real world.
During the pandemic, working from home in the virtual world kept the engines of businesses running. And upon realizing that work-from-home may well become the norm, several large companies and organizations invested in creating a work culture where the virtual space became more than just a platform for meeting targets.
During a global study in October 2021, Gartner interviewed more than 3,500 employees. The pandemic prompted 65% of the respondents to reevaluate the role of work in their lives; 56% said “it made them want to contribute more to society.”
It is no secret that the feeling of connectedness can be harder to attain for many as the world takes steadily to the virtual domain and technology engulfs every aspect of human activity. I’ve seen trust dissolving, anxiety rising and empathy dropping in many people. The Gartner study called it “the Great Reflection” and confirmed that the intent to leave or stay in a job is only one among several aspects that people are starting to question in light of the larger social developments.
Empathy In Virtual-First Workplaces
The nature of work, too, is changing. Empathy can help support motivation and workplace culture. It encourages you to step into another person’s shoes and adopt their point of view. But adopting another’s point of view can be difficult when you’re working remotely. With almost every industry taking the virtual route to some degree, building pro-empathy workplaces should be a high priority.
To be able to do so, researchers and organizations have long been experimenting with advanced tools to communicate important messages and create a better understanding among people within a virtual workspace.
There’s an interesting insight that companies can explore:
A research study published in Academic Psychiatry stated that “technology may have a role in the deliberate practice of one’s empathy skills.” Imagine a day when the line between talking to someone using a computer and in person may become entirely blurred due to advances in artificial intelligence.
The Role Of Empathy On Remote Teams
Empathy is all about connecting with employees in-depth, acknowledging their emotions and understanding their circumstances. Many love to claim that their company is their family, but where they fail is in creating a rich culture of empathy, mutual respect and trust, especially among their employees. While many organizations talk the talk, they are often unsure of how to walk the walk. As the head of marketing at a hybrid and virtual event platform, here are some of my suggestions to help them:
Practicing Listening Skills
Understanding what employees have to say about their feelings—and more importantly, what they do not say —instead of doling out generic advice can help create an empathetic environment in virtual-first workspaces. To allow for better inclusivity, it is vital that employers and managers look at things from a different perspective. There is no better way to do this than encouraging workers to engage in meaningful conversations with their managers and then encouraging the managers to listen with an equal measure of enthusiasm and empathy.
Being Stern, Not Harsh
Working remotely and communicating through virtual platforms while scrambling to maintain productivity is challenging. A resolute stance is vital if productivity declines in an employee, but this does not call for harsh or strict responses. Instead, I’ve found that a culture of reasoning with employees and understanding their viewpoint is much more effective.
Utilizing Virtual Platforms
Virtual event platforms provide remarkable spaces where remote workers can collaborate and communicate with their teams. With the help of tools like translation, livestreaming, CRM systems and others, virtual events can be effective team-building activities—and as a direct consequence, companies can use them to create inclusive and empathy-building exercises.
There are global examples too: One Stanford study explored how virtual reality can help make people more compassionate toward those experiencing homelessness. And the International Training Centre has been exploring VR’s use for training maritime labor ship inspectors.
Changes in work models, driven by the pandemic, have created a range of opportunities and challenges, and one of those is keeping employees engaged and motivated. How can one offer employees a sense of the purpose and value that they should come to expect from work? I believe introducing empathy as the cornerstone of company culture is key to a sustainable remote or hybrid workplace. It is crucial to address any lack of connection to the company’s culture—employees feeling a disconnect are most at risk. There are no two ways about it: For remote teams in a virtual-first world, empathy is the cornerstone of a strong, sustainable work culture. The sooner you take decisive steps toward building a culture rich in empathy and mutual understanding, the better your company is likely to fare.
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