In a context of remote working (or mask-wearing), where the contact cannot be physical, where we lose a large part of the non-verbal information, it becomes more difficult to capture the emotions of the other, take the temperature of our teams and show empathy.

The webcam limits our visual and kinesthetic fields. During conference calls in audio mode only we completely lose visual cues. And with emails, chat and other digital textual means of exchange, keeping some form of humanity becomes more and more impossible.

We can get an impression of disconnection from reality.  Yet on the other side of the line, there is a real human being talking with us.

To this disconnection is often added an attention problem. It can be difficult for some of us to maintain a high level of attention even during face to face meeting. We are not all equal in terms of attention span. So remotely, working from home, the problem is amplified with the various unusual distractions of the house.

So how can we truly stay connected when the connection becomes electronic?

And what becomes of mutual aid and solidarity between colleagues that happened naturally during a chance meeting at the coffee machine?

Here are 2 key points to help you in your remote team and specifically in the development of distance empathy:

 > What state of mind and attitude to have or to reinforce when one is at a distance;

 > Some tips for sharpening your empathy skills in digital age..

 Remote team leader mindset

  •  Informal time

A remote team meeting is not just to be effective, it is also to strengthen cohesion, connect, ensure that everyone is well and has what he / she needs. Take the time to relate informally with everyone, make sure everyone can express themselves.  Include in your meeting time the 15 minutes you used to have when arriving in a room.

  •  Be proactive / take interest as a leader

Don’t wait for the news to come spontaneously, especially with introverts. Ask questions and listen to form and content and give time and space for people to express themselves in their own way. Dare to express your own remote working problems to encourage others to express themselves as well. Dare to go on these emotional dimensions, by sharing your feelings and asking questions about theirs. This does not mean you are being intrusive, it is showing care and kindness.

Remember the non-verbal information that you relied on (even unconsciously) to take the temperature with the teams, has disappeared so you have to go fishing for information.

  • Welcome without judgment

By wanting to be reassuring or to play down a situation, we can tend to quickly dismiss so-called negative emotions: “but no, it’s not serious”, “don’t worry”.  The emotion is thus denied which can  have harmful consequences for individuals, their performance, morale and their relationships at work and at home.

Welcoming and recognizing the emotions and feelings of each in your discussions, does not mean pouring out and entering the drama, it is about acknowledging their existence. And you can always schedule an individual discussion with a person if the collective context does not lend itself to such exchanges.

It also means knowing how to read what these emotions mean, reading between the lines, understanding the problems or needs that must be addressed: need for support on tasks, or need for connection, collaboration, need for other ways of communicating,  to feel recognized etc.

Tips for sharpening your empathy skills

Active listening requires an effort of attention and also a quality of attention beyond words.

  •  Verbal signs

 Train yourself to hear emotional vocabulary, as we tend to filter these words out in work situations. Pay attention for words such as: frustration, anxiety, pain, worries, anger, embarrassed, lost, disappointed etc. Also in English but in other languages too, there are words that we call emotional markers such as “very” “always” “never” “really” or any other amplifier. They give you a hint that the person is not neutral about the subject she/he is discussing.

  •  Non-verbal visual signs

 If the webcam allows it, pay attention to the posture of the person. Does it seem energetic, present, or diminished and slouched. These can give you hints about a person’s emotional or health state: is it sadness or tiredness?  The position of the neck, the shoulders and the head can already give you some indicators as for the energy level of the person, and potentially on his emotional state.

Of course there is the obvious facial expression: smile :o) or no smile :o( Without becoming an expert on facial expressions and micro expressions like Paul Ekman. Some expressions are easier to decode than others and the subtlety of our feelings is not always completely translatable on our face.

So it’s more about paying attention to these expressions and if some of them surprise you, then ask a question to clarify: “You look down, what’s going on with you?”  The person may be sick or sad.  Or you seem uneasy, is there anything that worries about this decision?” You will offer him/her the opportunity to clarify, or to correct your perception.

  • More subtle signs

If the connection is audio only, then you will have to train your ears to capture subtle signs such as the tone of voice, sighs, breathing, silences and choked voice (struggling to get words out). Basically, you want to hear signs that are out of the ordinary for this person and their usual way of speaking.

In summary 

If you want to stay connected with your remote team, you need to sharpen your empathy and perception skills, train your ears to pay attention to details, and question to clarify and verify your perception and interpretation of signals.

But also remember to be kind to yourself and listen to your own signals.  We are not always capable of the best level of attention even with the best of intentions.  And even if you can develop your empathy skills from a distance it doesn’t mean that you will be able to know or understand everything in the other person.  So try to find a good balance between focusing your attention on the other, creating favorable conditions so that others can express themselves and accept that you do not control everything.