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Case Study

How Leaders Should Use Empathy To Energize Remote Teams

October 22, 2021

It’s everywhere today, empathy at work is the best way to work.

As important as it is, there’s a lot of fluff out there about what empathy really is and how to use it in the workplace.

In Businessolver’s 2020 report on the State of Workplace Empathy (USA), a high percentage of employees say that they want more empathy from their leaders at work — a trend for some years now. This year, while 52% of CEOs link empathy with greater productivity, 76% of employees do. And the disparity is likely from a gap in the expectations of both employees and CEOs.

CEOs want to build a financially successful business, but what do their employees want?

Great community & relationships. Personal development. A sense of purpose. This makes sense — success costs hard work, and the best way to work hard is to rely on an environment that motivates us.

So how can leaders bridge the gap between reaching for success and inspiring employees to work? Empathy.

According to Simon Sinek, the true purpose of the CEO is to enable employees to do their natural best for the company. Contrarily, today’s business culture asks CEOs to prioritise the customer, the shareholders, business growth, or profitability to build a successful business.

Simon Sinek
The gorgeous Simon Sinek

Sinek argues that for long-lasting success, a CEO’s priority should be on helping employees love their jobs.

Without a strong workforce, any business is an unscalable, empty promise. But by enabling your employees through empathy, you drive your company to achieve its goals with a new kind of fuel; a psychologically safe environment that energizes employees to bring in their best work.

Futuristic leaders know that if they help their employees value their work experience, they’ll work better. It doesn’t mean singing kumbaya at work all day and handing out paychecks on the double. Instead, it means tracking performance and success metrics — but, using that data to have honest, human discussions with employees about how they’re doing, and what’s standing in the way of them doing their best.

If employees genuinely believe that they can report on the reasons for their failures and challenges with their work without negative consequences, performance will go up. Those honest conversations show you what’s really affecting them, and probably give you a chance to fix them.

To Sinek, if you often have to fire employees, then your style of leadership might need an upgrade. Creating that safe environment for your employees will also be the environment that helps them be themselves, and actively contribute to the growth and creativity in your company.

Happy employee
Happy remote employees = more successful business

It also means happy customers and great customer service, because workers enjoy what they do and where they do it. You can enrich a boring job, or provide encouragement and support as the case may require.

A workspace where people get chewed out for failing to perform (or even fired) doesn’t create an environment that inspires people to do their best. Maybe it worked for Machiavelli, but we live in a different world with developed motivations — we need to ask ourselves less cynical questions.

Empathy provides alternative methods for improving remote employees’ relationship with work.

It’s the opposite of perching over their shoulders, assuming the worst of them, providing one-directional feedback, threatening their jobs, or giving up on them.

This is how leaders of remote teams can use empathy to create a healthy work environment for employees and business:

  1. Using verbal & non-verbal language, give employees assurance that they won’t regret being honest with you about messing up — being confused about their jobs, turning in work late, being sad on some days, and just not being ultimate performance machines all the time.

    Why? Contrary to what you’d expect, being patient with employees and helping them through their shortcomings will improve their performance for the long-term. Supporting them creates the community that they’re seeking, and their jobs will become more important to them.

    60% of workers in Businessolver’s State of Work Empathy were willing to take a pay cut to work in a more empathetic place.

  2. Check in on everyone at the beginning of meetings, and regularly on Slack (or wherever). You can use employee happiness meters to monitor how everyone is doing if you don’t always have the time for a quick chat.

    Why? Mood is tied to performance and behaviour. You can tell how well people will function from looking at how they’re feeling. From Buffer’s 2020 report on the state of remote work, loneliness was one of the biggest challenges. Remote work has social gaps that leaders have to work actively to fill.

  3. Encourage people to communicate and contribute more by being open to them. Presenting yourself in only your best light is not the strategy for success in the 21st Century. Instead, share your concerns, joys, moods, and shortcomings with your team; work & non-work related.

    It’s also helpful if a more extroverted member of your team can help you keep the ball rolling and encourage others to contribute.

    You could even create an online forum to help your team help each other by listening, providing support and finding solutions to each other’s challenges.

    Why? Every action of a company’s leadership tells employees what the culture of the company is. If you incentivise communication, honesty and vulnerability, your team will take on the culture.

    Creating a culture of support and communication will do more to create a safe environment for work, and provide insights into problems they might face.

  4. Keep in touch with what’s happening in their countries, and consider their time zones when you fix times for things. You can subscribe to some headlines, and ask them to share any important news with you. When they share that information, your responses should be based on how you’d feel if it was happening in your country.

    Why? Unlike in-office work, virtual work doesn’t always happen in the same country, and where they live affects their whole lives. It shows them that you care about them as individuals and that they’re your teammates, and not a means to an end.

    If you schedule meetings without their input; not asking for a time they’re comfortable with, and not allowing them some freedom to make changes, working with you will become stressful.

    If your clients are in multiple countries, your employees will easily be able to adopt the mentality of being empathetic about where they are in understanding their experiences and needs.

  5. Consciously treat them as people with lives outside of their work. It doesn’t mean treating their work as low-priority, but instead seeing that their work, family, relationships and personal well-being are equally important and affect each other. If you don’t share about your life, nobody will.

    Strong relationships at work increases feelings of closeness. Just remember to be respectful and not to press them into sharing more than they’re comfortable with. But if they need to talk to someone for a few minutes about their lives, you should be on their list.

    Why? Building good friendships with your teammates helps them feel like “going” to work every day. They work in a place where they feel cared for, and respected, where they’re not alone. It creates the kind of culture needed to make remote work a less lonesome experience, easing the limitations of digital interaction.

  6. Prove to your employees that you’ll always act in their benefit and best interests. Traditional work culture has people on their toes, and unable to trust their employers. Remote work culture should be a step further in the future of work, and we can’t take a lack of trust with us.

    Prove yourself by being consistent in looking out for their well-being and success, and they’ll look out for yours too.

    Why? If you want your employees to honestly care about your company’s success, honestly care about their personal success & well-being. No amount of incentives and/or benefits can turn them into better supporters of your business than you supporting their personal and work goals.

  7. Provide them with honest feedback on their work, or set up systems where they can get honest feedback from their colleagues. When they do well, give them recognition and praise. When they don’t do well, give them honesty, support and empathy.

    Also, give them many opportunities to give feedback on their jobs to help you help them have the best possible work experience they can.

    Why? The brain’s reward systems don’t play around. When you recognise hard work, employees will work harder. That’s because they have a proven technique to get there.

    But without attacking failure systematically, they won’t know how to find success. Not if you don’t show them. There’s also a possibility of taking their shortcomings personally. If they’re hard on themselves, the extra hardness from you is pointless. Instead, help them by showing them where something failed, or encouraging and enabling them to find it.

  8. Humanise your texting by offering enough explanation and over-communicating. Using pre-recorded audio and video (software like Loom) will also help improve the quality of communication at work. Better communication means better execution.

    Also use emojis, memes and GIFs to set the tone for your conversations.

    Why? Text is ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways. Setting the tone of a conversation by humanising it gives us more cues that we miss out on when it’s plain text. On both ends, establish a culture in your company of believing the best of each other, and asking questions when in doubt.

  9. Believe the best of your employees. Give them space to do their work, and let them know that you trust them enough with their autonomy, and can come to you if they have any issues with their work.

    Why? Remote work gives responsibility back to your employees, and it can get tough on them sometimes. If you try to take the responsibility back from them, you defeat the point of working remotely.

    If you have concerns about their productivity, check in with them to see how work is going once in a long while. But don’t put pressure on them. Everyone slips up on their goals here and there.

  10. Be an active listener. That means paying attention to what your people are saying and giving them (verbal and facial or textual) feedback while they’re talking to show that you’re listening.

    Try to lead conversations less, and focus on giving the type of support they need. It could be using your experience to solve their problems, or just being a listening ear. Asking to be sure doesn’t hurt.

    If your employees feel like you’re not paying attention, they’ll stop talking. And low-quality communication reduces closeness in relationships.

  11. Balance it out. It means knowing when to stop sharing, and what to focus on per time. If you set 5 minutes to check-in with everyone, it could take 7 minutes on some days. If it’s moving to 15 minutes, you could then set up a meeting specifically to talk about those things.

    Simon Sinek’s 100% remote team dedicates 75 minutes on Mondays just for it. It helps them keep the update meetings separate.

    Why? It’s a more deliberate way to build the community, support and closeness that knits people together. You could set up monthly town hall meetings or virtual parties, environmental activism, to experience together, what your team has in common.

    It’s a big step, so getting everyone on board will need some preparation.

Businesses need empathy for their clients to give them the best product or service in return for their money and trust.

Businesses similarly need empathy for their employees, to give them the best work environment and leadership in return for their human resources and support. They say if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go with people.

Also, empathy asks people to try to imagine life in other people’s shoes. If you do it for them, they’ll be kind to you and support your success too. Check out his keynote here.

Typical US Salary
With Athyna
Bill Kerr

CEO of Athyna, i.e my whole team is smarter than me. Chronic utopian.

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