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Let’s build our empathy as co-workers



Days before the global coronavirus outbreak, we were sitting in meetings with co-workers, laughing with peers over lunch, and maybe even planning a big networking event. Now most of us are working from home with no clear end in sight. Few could have predicted or prepared for how much life and work as we knew it would change in a matter of weeks. 


Research by Joseph Grenny found that virtual teammates are 2.5 times more likely to perceive mistrust, incompetence, broken commitments, and bad decision making with distant colleagues than those who are working in the same space. Worse, they report taking 5 to 10 times longer to address their concerns. And this does not account for the fact that we are working in the midst of a global pandemic.


In order to address this issue, Grenny says that the key is to create safety. “When people feel safe, they open up. When they don’t, they shut down. People only feel safe enough to venture into dicey dialogue when those around them generate sufficient positive evidence of their intentions and respect.”  


So how can we build this safety and respect given the fact that nearly everyone is now working remotely? In particular how do we do that for new members of the team and younger workers who have less experience of working with others and rely on their co-workers for their development and learning?


Being an empathetic and supportive co-worker in times like the one we’re finding ourselves in involves a number of ways of behaving. Specifically it’s about being a caring human being.


Really Understand What Each Person is Dealing with at Home

Although everyone is facing the same threat, not everyone is facing the same circumstances.

Think about parents forced to juggle fulfilling their work obligations with caring for their kids in a confined space. Others may be cut off from family and friends, alone, working and living in complete self-isolation. Show your peers you care by taking time to understand what they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. If you have not already reached out to your co-workers, find out how they are coping, and how you can best support them.


Take time to find out:

We won’t know how someone is doing until we ask. It is also really important to remember that just because someone was doing well yesterday, does not mean they are doing the same today. We all know that things are changing on a daily basis.


Stay in Touch Daily

Don’t make the common management mistake of only connecting with people when there is a problem or if they need something. Now, more than ever, we need to get into the habit of checking in daily with our peers. This may be a simple text, “Hey, I was just wondering how are you and your family are doing? Is everyone okay?” or “I know yesterday you said you were feeling a little down. How are you feeling today?” If needed, set up a longer call or virtual coffee to talk through any challenges, or just stay connected. Regardless, show people you care by remembering that they are there. And think about how best to get in touch – many people are tired of the virtual so think about a phone call.


Make it ok to Ask for Help

Offer help to others at every opportunity. Also, show others it is okay to ask for help by doing it yourself. That is particularly important for managers and leaders who are setting an example and a workplace culture. By asking for help ourselves, we supports others to feel safe to do the same. 


Be Forgiving and Patient

If you or your colleague turns in a report late, sends an email without cc’ing you, or makes a mistake, remember to be forgiving and patient. We are all managing an increased cognitive load as we adapt to a new way of living and working and that takes its toll. It is inevitable mistakes will happen. Instead of criticising or picking someone up, take time to check in. Whether we are in a crisis or not, how we respond when people make a mistake has a profound impact on whether or not they feel safe when they are around us.


Make It Okay to Not be Perfect

Messy hair, messy house, and background noise: Make it okay for people to not be perfect by acknowledging it upfront in your virtual meetings. Also, when you share you don’t have it all together, it supports others to do the same.


Share Resources and Self-Care Ideas

Trusted co-workers share resources with each other. Ask what your co-workers are doing to stay well, mentally and physically. Share tips.


Nurture a Culture of Gratitude

Flooding our minds with a constant flow of worry, self-criticism, compounded by a barrage of news and other media, impacts our mental wellbeing. Help nurture a culture of gratitude by always expressing your appreciation, for example when people join a meeting, finish a task, or reach out to offer support. 


And, most of all, just be kind