How Empathy Can Be Misconstrued In A Remote-First World

Remote-first leaders are finding themselves at a crisis point for how to express and act on the empathy they feel for their workers.

By Miva | February 8, 2022



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“Pony walls” in open-concept offices have long been a popular format for promoting communication and interactivity. The half-height partitions allow managers to get an immediate feel for the emotional temperature of a workspace, ask for feedback, and be visibly available to help with any issues that come up. However, with 15% of all U.S. workers now working from home (double the amount from 2019) managing the emotional health of a workforce is no longer as easy as leaning over the cubicle wall. As Rick Wilson describes on this week’s episode of the Dragonproof Podcast, remote-first leaders are finding themselves at a crisis point for how to express and meaningfully act on the empathy they feel for their workers. 

Despite how quickly society has adapted to pandemic working conditions, a lot of people out there still feel like they're drowning,” Rick says. “Most business owners are acutely aware of the stresses on their remote workers right now, but many are at a loss for how to assess and address those needs.” 

Scott Winter, whose company Brain-Friendly Dynamics develops interpersonal training and coaching programs in the private and public sectors, joined Rick to discuss why creating an environment of psychological safety is always important for work culture, and even more so for today’s remote workers. 

What is psychological safety and why is it important in today’s remote workplace? 

“Psychological safety” refers to the degree to which workers feel safe contributing, questioning, challenging, or simply “being themselves” at work, without fear of negative consequences. The concept, originated by Dr. William Khan and later developed by Harvard Business professor Amy Edmondson, posits that the freedom to take creative risks is crucial for good performance and happy culture. 

These needs have been heightened for everyone who has recently moved into remote work due to the pandemic, where conditions naturally inhibit an easy flow of communication and collaboration. 

“Three big themes that I'm seeing out there are a sense of overwhelmment, a sense of isolation, and a sense of powerlessness,” Scott says. “What you're trying to do is help people figure out what they have control over, and figure out what their next best step is.” 

Psychological safety is critical for employees to get into a “flow” state, which Scott describes as a state of consciousness wherein workers feel and perform their best. 

“I think we all find those moments where time just slips away. We get into that zone and we can get a lot of stuff done, and psychological safety plays into that flow state. With [concepts like] flow and psychological safety, what we're really trying to do is help managers understand that employees need to feel safe, and that it's okay to struggle.” 

The first step to building a healthy psychological culture: How to assess problems 

For a remote-first company, finding solutions requires more participation by leaders and more dialogue. “People want to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and validated in the workplace,” Rick says. “How do you find out if your staff is feeling this way? Start by asking them.” 

A dialogue with staff that includes questions like “when do you feel your best?,” “what will help you perform your best?,” and then, “how can we help facilitate that?” encourages people to be forthcoming about their needs and a become partner in achieving them.  

If no such dialogue exists, employers may see other evidence of culture problems...such as an uptick in resignations. The number one reason cited in a recent M.I.T. study about “the great resignation” is toxic culture--when workers feel disrespected, their issues unheard, and their achievements unseen. 

“People want to feel valued,” Scott says. “They want to feel like they're making a difference. If people feel good, they perform well. If people feel safe in your presence, they're gonna be loyal to you. Employers will see the bottom line start to drop out from underneath them if they don't have that safe culture.” 

The top goal of a psychologically safe workplace: empower workers to help themselves 

Employers must strike a balance between taking ownership for emotional wellness in the remote workspace, while encouraging personal responsibility and agency for those team members. 

“There's an element of helping people learn. If you have a culture that is heavily dependent upon the leader to tell people what to do, and there isn't a lot of autonomy, then you're creating cultures of learned helplessness,” Scott says. Instead, “Get teams to start solving their own problems, and let leaders focus on what they need to be good at doing, which is building their businesses.” 

Engaging employees fully in the meaning of their work and the value of their contribution is an ongoing process which needs to adapt along with conditions. As the digital economy increasingly drives more companies to embrace remote work, employers need to devise new modes of keeping that dialogue fresh and open. This can be as simple as requiring cameras on during staff Zoom meetings, to recreate that “pony wall” feel. 

“A big part of it is looking at what rules are gonna get us to the vision that we have for ourselves, in terms of maintaining this remote-first culture,” Scott says. “Be clear on that, and then ask the team on how to make it happen as well. I don't think it needs to just fall on a leader all the time. Employees have really good ideas too!” 

Rick agrees and points out that programs which nurture psychological health and flow are not simply the domain of giant corporations with elaborate H.R. systems. 

“Even a very small staff stands to benefit from this kind of approach, because every single worker always has more potential to grow and contribute,” Rick concludes. “If people have a purpose, if they feel heard and respected, and feel that they have personal agency, it's amazing what you can unlock.”  

To hear the full conversation, please visit the Dragonproof Ecommerce website.

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Author's Bio


Miva offers a flexible and adaptable ecommerce platform that evolves with businesses and allows them to drive sales, maximize average order value, cut overhead costs, and increase revenue. Miva has been helping businesses realize their ecommerce potential for over 20 years and empowering retail, wholesale, and direct-to-consumer sellers across all industries to transform their business through ecommerce.

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