How to Build Empathy for Remote Colleagues
3 techniques to ‘see’ people as fully-realized human beings
In the summer of 2008, my director called me, and a guy we’ll call Dan, into his office. I wondered if one of us — or both of us — was about to get fired. Dan and I were supposed to work together. But it seemed like the only thing we excelled at was exchanging angry emails and tense phone conversations. After two weeks of this, our boss intervened.
But instead of yelling at us, he staged a conflict management session. We aired our grievances. We came up with a workable compromise. Before our boss let us go, he mandated that we go out to lunch together once a month — at the company’s expense — to maintain our working partnership.
Those monthly lunches cemented our friendship. Dan and I had the same sense of humor. He was always there for me when I needed a second opinion. I was the first person he told when his wife became pregnant. In the end, the only reason Dan and I fought was because we jumped into working together without getting to know one another first. Since we worked in a traditional office, our boss spotted the problem quickly and implemented a solution.
This story might have had a different ending if it had happened in 2010, when our company went remote. It might have taken months for our boss to spot the problem. And going out to lunch isn’t a sensible solution if your colleague lives far away.
Remote workers must learn to spot — and proactively manage — inter-colleague conflict. We need to build empathy quickly so we can “see” our colleagues as people with feelings even when we interact largely through emails and instant messages. This article will discuss three of the techniques I’ve used in my decade of remote work to build empathy for people I don’t meet in the physical world.
Find Your Colleague’s Strengths
It’s hard to empathize with people if we think they have no redeeming qualities. This is a sad fact of the human condition. Fortunately, most people have something they’re genuinely good at. Does your colleague always turn in her work on time? Is she good at making people feel welcome? Try to find the moments — in meetings, in instant message chats, and in emails — where she shines.
If you can’t see your colleague’s strengths, the problem may be you. We’re all prone to affinity bias, which Bailey Reiners describes in her article 12 Unconscious Bias Examples and How To Avoid Them in the Workplace as “the tendency people have to connect with others who share similar interests and backgrounds.” People who plan before taking action might look down on colleagues who act first and course-correct along the way. Highly analytical employees might look down on more intuitive ones.
A high-functioning company needs workers with a spectrum of strengths. Everybody hopes the accountants love accuracy and that the sales folks can figure out what consumers want. Learn to value the things others do well that you aren’t good at.
Get In Front of Their Face — if Only for a Few Minutes a Month
Humans are hard-wired to build connections in person. Working remotely doesn’t change that. Fortunately, just as you can stay connected to distant family members via video calls, you can build warm working relationships with colleagues the same way.
Schedule regular face time with the people you work with the most. Once a month is usually the minimum cadence needed to keep a relationship cordial. Does the thought of asking your colleague for a monthly meeting intimidate you? Ask for just one. Then put a note in your calendar to reach out and schedule a second one a month later. If you do this a couple of times, it’s easier to say “You know, we’re really productive during this slot, do you mind if I add a reoccurring monthly meeting to our calendars? We can always cancel if we have nothing to say.” And then make sure you always have something useful to say.
Use that first meeting to find out how your job intersects with theirs. What do they need from you in order to do their job? Do they need to get that information at a specific time of day to hit their deadlines? Do they work in the same time zone as you? Take notes and keep them where you can find them later. Subsequent meetings can be more social, but this first meeting will set the tone of your working relationship.
Meeting with colleagues monthly (or more often) helps you get to know the people at the other end of those emails. You’ll find it easier to think of them as fully-fleshed people with feelings, instead of as text on the screen.
Use the ‘Three Reasonable Scenarios’ Exercise
Even when we hold regular video calls and look for our colleague’s strengths, they might still annoy us from time to time. And it’s easy to decide that they’re morons. Why else would anybody do what they just did?!
In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he explains that the part of our brain that looks for patterns is really good at making snap judgements. He calls this System 1, and it “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of volunary control.” (Thinking Fast and Slow, pg 20) This is a life-saving skill if we’re out hiking and see a cougar. It works less well when we invite a colleague to a brainstorming session and they have nothing to say.
We can’t stop ourselves from making snap judgements. But we can get into the habit of giving those snap judgements a hard time. One way to do this is to become your own Devil’s Advocate. When a colleague does something annoying, challenge yourself to come up with three scenarios that would explain his actions in a reasonable way.
The ‘Three Reasonable Scenarios’ Exercise in Practice
Let’s say you’re working with your colleague Jose on a project, and he turns in sloppy work. And when you email him asking for correction, he sends you more sloppy work. At this point you may be upset and assume Jose is a freeloader.
But what if he isn’t? What if Jose cares about doing a good job, and something happened that’s affecting his work quality? Maybe Jose just lost a relative to Covid. Maybe his partner was laid off, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to pay his mortgage. Maybe he’s having a tough time concentrating because his kids are homeschooling next to him at the kitchen table. We don’t know if any of these things are true. But then again, we also don’t know that Jose is a freeloader. Thinking of ways to falsify your assumptions can help you moderate your response to the situation.
Assuming the best puts you in a win or break even situation. You can approach Jose directly and ask him if he’s okay, letting him know you’re worried something may have happened because he’s missing deadlines. When you reach out with empathy you’ll often get an honest answer. If he is a freeloader you’ll find out pretty quick and then you can bring in his boss. If he is having tough personal circumstances, you can create a game plan to get the work done. And you save yourself from kicking him while he’s down.
Building Empathy for Remote Colleagues is a Skill, Not a Gift
Humans are hard-wired to use tone of voice and body language to add context to our interactions. We’re accustomed to building relationships face to face, in real time. But that doesn’t mean remote workers are doomed to acting like trolls. We can build empathy for people we don’t see every day. Add these three techniques into your daily routine. You’ll find that your work relationships improve as your empathy grows. And who knows? You may find your next best friend.