Leaders, use empathetic language when talking to remote workers
Sarah Stealey Reed
We’ve reached the Era of Empathy. To succeed, managers—and even organizations themselves—must demonstrate a level of understanding and sensitivity to attract and retain workers. While imperative within an organization—office-to-office and desk-to-desk—this becomes even more important as workers continue to move outside the office and transition to telecommuting.
Remote workers are gradually becoming the norm. Half of the U.S. workforce telecommutes at least part of the time, according to a survey by Global Workplace Analytics. Not to mention that the work-from-home (non-freelance) population has grown 103 percent since 2005.
So how do you create a sense of personal investment in company culture—how do you establish a sense of teamwork at all—if no one is meeting face-to-face? How can the language you use when talking to remote workers make them feel better connected? Empathy might help your organization get there. When using such dehumanizing modes of communication as email, word choice becomes your only conduit for empathy. Choose your words with care.
When using such dehumanizing modes of communication as email, word choice becomes your only conduit for empathy. Choose your words with care.
Belinda Parmar, CEO of London-based The Empathy Business, a global consultancy that specialises in the measurement of empathy, writes in a thoughtfully worded email: “Empathy is good for business and for employees—and in a remote office environment, empathy is key to survival.”
Be thoughtful about your mode of communication
To help telecommuters feel heard, talk with them in their preferred medium—email, Skype, Google Hangouts, phone, postcard… whatever it may be (well, you might have to limit postcards to special occasions).
“The more you can personalize it, the more you engender a feeling of empathy,” says Adam Waytz, a psychologist and empathy researcher at Northwestern University. “It’s harder to give remote workers a sense of connection because physical distance creates psychological distance. How do you reduce that distance? Technology that gets people talking on the phone or virtually with one another can go a long way to humanize people.”
When a worker prefers email, respect that choice by emailing when it fits the task at hand. Regardless, you should schedule some regular face-to-face or voice-to-voice time to get to know one another. “If all of our communication is done through text, it’s far more dehumanizing than giving each other the opportunity to see other other’s faces or [hear each other’s] voices,” Waytz says.
Use empathetic language in conferences
Each technology calls for its own empathetic language. Video conferencing or phone conversations present a special opportunity for the type of storytelling that humanize a manager—and her employee—to one another.
Video conferencing or phone conversations present a special opportunity for the type of storytelling that humanize a manager—and her employee—to one another.
“Make it personal by acknowledging the ‘work-life’ blend,” Parmar writes. “Bringing a personal story into a hangout or Skype call helps to show the team that you recognize the importance of a balance between work and life. Narratives also improve our ability to empathise; personal stories help us connect in a meaningful way.”
Take the chance to find out what you have in common with your workers. “[A strong leader] conveys a sense of similarity, finds out what they have in common with another person, engages in reciprocity to show that they’re committed to the other person,” Waytz says.
Beyond that, leaders should tackle negative topics with tact—think Radical Candor—being equally willing to give and get constructive criticism, he says. “They convey this openness to criticism and to hearing things that go beyond: ‘Tell me what I want to hear.’”
Leaders should give a ratio of five positive comments to every piece of negative feedback, says Bill Gentry, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership. This ensures that workers feel confident, but have enough criticism as fuel to do better. “It’s going to make people more engaged in the job and to want to continually improve.”
In terms of word choice, be very specific about the impact that an employee’s negative work had on the manager or the team, Gentry says. “We have a three letter abbreviation—SBI—the Situation-Behavior-Impact [model of feedback]. You clearly tell the person: Here was the behavior you displayed at that meeting, so that person knows the impact it had on a leader or even on your team.”
Once you’ve given the SBI feedback, make sure it was clearly heard. The method is simple: “With a remote coworker, ask that question: ‘Let me hear how what we’ve been talking about resonates with you. Let me hear your opinions about how that connects with you. Let me hear your perspective.’ In their own words, they can repeat what you said, and it’ll help them connect with you and to make sure they’re hearing the words you’re actually saying.”
Make email human, too
In an email, you can still share personal stories. But be mindful of whether your employee prefers to cut to the chase. “Some people just want to get to the point,” says Gentry. “For others, they want to have a quasi-conversation in the beginning: ‘Hey, how was your vacation?’ As leaders, we need to fit our communication style to how people want to be communicated with. If all they want is the facts, that’s fine. But if they want more, take the extra minute or two to say, ‘How was your weekend, what did you do?’ That extra minute or two can go a long way.”
Don’t ramble on too long, Parmar cautions. “Within the first three lines of an email, let the recipient know exactly what you need from them.” This shows respect for their time.
Even the structure of your email sends a message to employees. “Key to empathy is reassessing your ‘cc’ and ‘bcc’ emailing,” writes Parmar. “Some of the least empathic companies in our Empathy Index tend to have a high level of ‘cc’ and ‘bcc’ emails—this suggests a lack of trust and a culture of disempowerment.”
If your team is getting bogged down by emails, try something new, Parmar suggests. “Experiment with a more empathic technology, such as Slack or an Instant Messenger program like FireChat. These programs are more efficient and enable a more humanistic mode of communication.”
Teach empathy in a virtuous cycle
“The key is that more empathy correlates to more productive, happier workers,” Parmar concludes. “Thankfully, empathy can be taught. Implementing ‘empathy nudges,’ small changes to process, behavior and self awareness can improve business within six weeks.” Those “nudges” are small, systematic actions that remind workers to take a walk in someone else’s shoes.
“The key is that more empathy correlates to more productive, happier workers.” - Belinda Parmar
Your company could sign up for an empathy measurement program, such as those offered by Parmar’s The Empathy Business. Regardless of whether you pay for an outside course, an organization with telecommuters should be deliberate in training empathy, Waytz says. “I do think it’s important with remote workers to put empathy top of mind because it’s not going to naturally occur. They need to be very specific about how they’re going to train empathy. I’m not aware of an empathy training program catered to remote workers, so I think there’s a real opportunity there.”
For starters, managers can help empathy trickle down throughout the company—by talking about empathy directly, he says. “The type of messaging that tends to improve empathy conveys to people that empathy is something that can be learned and is malleable. When you give people that sense that empathy is not something we’re born with or not, people put more work into understanding others.”
Apparently, the most empathetic language of all highlights the word itself: empathy.
Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.
Based in Sacramento, Rebecca Huval writes about design and the many ways it intersects with our world, including tech, food and culture. Her bylines have appeared in publications such as the Awl, GOOD and Communication Arts, where she served as managing editor. Find her on Twitter: @bhuval.