Leading empathetically in distance

As leaders, we face all kinds of challenges. Whether it’s conflict in our teams, supporting team members or fire fighting on the customer front. We manage. We deal. We will take care of it. That was at least the formula up until 2019…

Corona disrupts

Boom — in the spring of 2020, Corona hit us with all its force. Companies that emphasized presence in the office all of a sudden had to pivot and send their team members into remote working mode. Gone were the bonding rituals, the watercooler conversations and the spontaneous pair programming sessions. With everything that came our way we were still fortunate in the sense that we were ABLE to work from home. A lot of folks don’t even have that luxury.

Yet… sitting at home on the couch and doing video calls doesn’t replace the in-person interactions that we so desperately crave as humans. Tech folks are brain workers, which means that there is a level of abstraction already inherent to the work we do. Now, we are one step further from seeing and processing who we are working with. They call it Zoom fatigue.

The Gitlabs and Basecamps of this world were probably not even batting an eyelid. They had been working in remote mode for a long time and gathering experiences. But even in the veterans of the remote tech scene teams regularly got together to brainstorm, align and find the common vibe. The connection is severed.

Now, managers need to manage. In the literal sense of the word. In a setting where all norms have been eradicated it feels like we can be happy with achieving the bare minimum. But being who we are, we are motivated by what motivates our team members. And that means looking at all angles, making sure the teams are comfortable and thriving as much as is possible.

Empathy is key in leadership

One of the cornerstones of good leadership is empathy. If I am able as a manager to take my team members’ perspective and to act based on what they are reporting and feeding back it makes the decisive difference. Building up this sensitivity feels easy in an office setting. I can watch and observe. I can gauge the vibe by walking around and surveying. I have indicators and reflectors all around me. Interestingly, people with very high empathy levels can often physically “feel” mood swings in the air.

Challenges that come our way

At the moment, the link to our colleagues is a Zoom call. Or Meets hangout. Or a Teams meeting. In any case, the screen has replaced the 360° sensory experience we had in the office setting. With that, a lot of challenges in building up and feeling empathy with others come our way.

What might not be apparent at first glance, but is often a huge helper, is the state of people’s desks. Creative kinds might have messy desks with everything strewn about. The orderly will be able to measure distance between objects on their desks with a ruler. Whenever there is a break in the pattern, e. g. documents piling up where before there were none, it can be an indicator of a stressful situation. One of my managers once approached me because he had noticed that my desk was so ordered. This was unusual for me and, indeed, it was good that he reached out to me.

In a way, working remotely has democratized relationships. Recently, a member of my network proudly recounted how they used to take the most important decisions sitting together “after work”. This would hardly be possible for people with children or relatives to take care of. But therein lies the crux of the matter, too. If I can’t just walk over to someone and have a casual chat I need to set an appointment. Or at least I need to reach out to that specific person and tell them that I would love to have a call. While I am not a big fan of the element of surprise in general here it can work to uncover underlying issues. Mimics and gestures are much easier to read in person, where a blurry video or a limited headshot might not make things apparent.

Talking about visual cues: it is imperative to leave a choice in whether call participants switch on their video or not. This is not an option for all scenarios. Leaving video on when there is too much stimulus can be detrimental, however. It is particularly applicable for those living with neurodiversity or fatigue of any kind. In two recent workshopsI was part of, facilitators were adamant about participants leaving their camera on. Both went over the course of two days, with more than 10 and almost 30 members respectively. It was already hard for me. I can only imagine what kind of pressure team members must feel to be forced into visual overload by societal expectations, especially when their disciplinary manager is present.

We all want to have happy, engaging, attentive team members in the calls. We all wish for that spark, that moment where we all unite and the feeling is close to as it used to be. Alas, we have to supplement and substitute as best as possible. What we do is we transfer what we know to the new situation. In terms of empathy this means reading the room via the individual videos, checking in proactively with team members and setting up smaller, social calls and activities.

Specifically conflicts can only be addressed with pre-planning. Where before I could draw two team members to the side and enable them to mirror with each other, now I have to set up a pre-planned call. Again, this could be useful in the sense of calming down first and arriving on the rational level. But it also increases the dread, and in the worst case, fear of what is to come. The last thing I want is my team members to feel like something bad is coming up. Taking their perspective, it would make me irritated, if not disturbed, to say the least.

Lastly, and this cannot be overcommunicated, is that the current situation “tempts” team members to work too much. Who hasn’t read one of the last announcements on how company X’s productivity has soared through the roof in the last months? People cannot go out, they are unable to enjoy themselves via the established ways and they channel that energy into working. Because there is literally nothing else to do! While many employers welcome this behavior it is dangerous. Scientifically it has been proven many times over that working more does not equal to working better or more productively. It just looks like that. And people’s health, focus and quality of work is failing. We are already in a global pandemic. We do not need to heap onto the problems.

There are wins, too

But facing all this and still trying to be empathetic there are also a set of wins to be had! Rising stress levels are, to a certain point, offset by the lack of commuting.

Getting to and back from work takes up a lot of energy and can impact life-work balance significantly. If people are more relaxed their creative and empathetic potential is higher. Not to mention that the time can be used to take care of children, pursue hobbies and/or to cook healthily. Gaining 30 to 90 minutes per day (or longer) is no small feat.

Empathy is also built up by knowing more about the other person. With Zoom calls, we got a window into team members’ living and family situations. By now, I have “met” spouses, partners, children and pets — not in that particular order. We have held retros with kids being on their parents’ laps (and probably learning about team management in the same breath). We have seen cats draw attention in the dailies. Calls were made from the bathroom because there is no remote office setup and no space in someone’s apartment!

Things like that make us human and more relatable. If I hadn’t had these glimpses I might have never known about some of the circumstances my team members faced this year. We can be thankful that they trust us with this information and open up about their struggles.

For people who have issues with high-context scenarios calls can actually make it better. If you ever had colleagues who are on the autistic spectrum you might have noticed that they don’t always look people into the eyes. This behavior, of course, is not manifested in everyone on the spectrum. And even for those who are thriving in high context video calls have advantages. I will be very honest in saying that I have had calls where I only looked at my counterpart for half of the time. Putting up another tab, I took notes or looked up something that we discussed. It helped me to keep my overall focus and stay empathetic throughout. Especially in crisis situations, having the physical distance can support in staying calm and rational.

This is another advantage — video calls reduce the level of visually perceivable nervousness. Kneading hands, sweaty brows, rhythmic leg movements… I would only barely notice them or not at all. This can make it more relaxing for the team member and increase the feeling of psychological safety.

Strategy for leading empathetically

So what is the best strategy for leading empathetically? There is no perfect formula. What helped me was to perceive the scenario as “physically distant, socially close”. What do I mean by that? Instead of focusing on the fact that there is a physical distance between two or more parties I approach all of my exchanges with the thought ”how can I get close to this person today?”. Maybe there is something I don’t yet know about them. Or I find that they need a round of venting instead of me pushing for follow-ups on their objectives. Most often, it is about having an open ear and really, actively listening to what the other person is saying.

Another aspect of the strategy is the long-term enablement of individuals and teams. Some might thrive in the remote scenario, others might struggle with things that were evident before. A good example of this is the often-quoted increased need for documentation. In tech teams, it is apparent that everyone needs to document their work. But how much? Beforehand, I could just as easily go up to the colleague and ask them about how they had approached it. Now, with the “call wall” in place I need to think even more carefully about what I will scribble down and what I can safely ignore.

Enablement means, again, listening and paying attention to what the team and its members need. This can take the form of technology, more venting time, flexibility or more social get-togethers. As a coach, I strongly believe in impulses. I have observed that most team members already have a good idea about how to tackle issues they were facing. They simply needed some input to make it happen or to be motivated. But I would have never found that out if I hadn’t stuck to my guns to unearth the possibilities.

“Staying positive” is an argument that has been touted in the last months as THE thing that we should never lose. It’s rather easy to tell someone to “just be” something or other. Why do we fall back into generalisms and platitudes in times of upheaval? The reality is that it’s not good currently. But it’s also not hopeless either.

The best strategy for keeping and conveying empathy is a healthy dose of realism. This essentially means that we work with what we’ve got. Looking into available resources, they don’t have to be materialistic. Will the headphones make calls better? Yes. Should companies think about sponsoring part of the power and internet subscription costs? Absolutely! Nonetheless, resources can be spiritual, motivational, patterns from the past, curiosity, and so forth. Nothing keeps managers from trying out which of these resources will fit the bill to keep somebody’s spirit up. What helped me a lot, for instance, was knowing that reduced traffic would clear up the air. This is a very rare occurrence in Berlin and when, for a couple of days, it was oh so quiet I enjoyed the crips flow into my lungs.

Lastly, the best measures are nothing without vision. What made so many team members feel so bleak was the fact that Corona impacted in an unforeseen way. There was nothing certain to look forward to. Within the second wave many companies at least haven’t gone back to the same reactions from spring — letting people go in masses and freezing their budgets in a dead grip. We might not have all the answers right now. Nevertheless having a plan, a goal to work towards, an identity… this is what helps to orient and make sure we are able to focus on what is right ahead of us. The possibility to switch between the meta level and being hands-on on the ground rises in importance when we all year for stability.

A set of measures

So which measures can leaders implement to make sure that they are empathetic? How can they signal that they put their team members’ needs first? The following list if items is a non-exhaustive array of recommendations:

  • Regular check-ins, even if there are currently “no topics”
  • 1:1s are not just for work aspects
  • Enabling maximum flexibility in the workday
  • Giving leeway to team members, e. g. reducing hours temporarily because of child minding
  • Openly talking to the team about anything that might be relevant
  • Getting the team’s feedback on various items, anonymously and non-anonymously
  • Providing trainings, e. g. on communication, feedback, conflict resolution, remote working, etc.
  • Reducing pressure overall
  • Setting realistically doable objectives for development
  • Encouraging direct exchange with higher-up line management and stakeholders
  • Remapping of responsibilities
  • Providing external coaching
  • Understanding and respecting mental illness
  • Understanding physical reactions to working remotely

There is always more we can do. But being aware of the heightened need for empathy, reflecting on the best approaches and “just doing it” are already great first steps. Team members will see and feel this. And provide corresponding feedback.

What are your experiences with leading empathetically during the pandemic? What did you keep, what changed? What would you recommend others to do?

tech (people) {code} is about all things human in tech.

From and for project and product people, engineering managers, developers, and all those curious about the people code.

tech (people) {code} is on Twitter, LinkedIn, anchor.fm and YouTube.

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Franziska Hauck is a coach, mediator, consultant and advocate. tech (people) {code} is her hub for all things human in tech.

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Franziska Hauck

Franziska Hauck

Franziska Hauck is a coach, mediator, consultant and advocate. tech (people) {code} is her hub for all things human in tech.

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