How to Lead With Empathy in the Remote World

by Teuta Reci

8 min read · Apr 6, 2021

Empathy is one of the most important soft skills.

It is the ability to understand and put yourself in someone else’s position. It is what makes us human and able to share and connect with others. 

When the world took the biggest hit last year, every leader was challenged to review their leadership style and adapt it to the new work environment. They understood that now more than ever, we need to lead with humanity. 

But what have been leaders' greatest challenges so far? What are the most notable benefits of leading with empathy? And finally, what are some of the best practices? 

Let’s dive in!

The Challenge of Empathy in a Remote Environment

There are many ways to show empathy. It is easier to do it if the person is in close proximity to you. But what happens when the workplace is based on remote work? It definitely becomes more challenging, but not impossible. 

A recent study by Harvard Business Review found that many managers aren’t confident in their ability to lead remote teams, think negatively about this work practice, and don’t trust their workers.

More specifically:

  • 40% of managers are having difficulties adapting to the remote environment and managing their employees
  • 38% of managers believe that remote workers perform worse than in-office workers
  • 41% are skeptical whether remote workers can stay motivated in the long-term

The same study suggests that employees have their own concerns about remote work and how they’re managed by their leaders. 

For instance, 21% said their supervisor constantly evaluated their work while 34% said their managers don’t trust their ability to the work. A great deal of workers also said they needed to be constantly available. 

The end result?

Employees struggling with high levels of anxiety. Considering people are working in situations with additional pressures—such as children being in the house due to homeschooling—the remote work experience becomes even more challenging for the remote worker. 

What do all these numbers and statistics tell us?

It’s simple!

They confirm the fact that many managers have been caught off-guard with the rapid transition to remote work. In return, many workers are feeling micromanaged and mistrusted by their managers. It’s a recipe for disaster!

But not all is lost!

There are some things managers can do to improve empathy in the workplace and support their employees. 

Bear with me as we go through the top benefits of leading with empathy.

benefits of empathy

The Benefits of Empathy in the Workplace

Leading is a challenging task to begin with, and adding empathy to the equation might sound as too much of a burden. 

However, in recent research conducted by Businessolver, 76% of employees agreed that empathy inspires more motivated employees. The same research also shows that:

  • 75% of employees would opt for an employer that offers a strong culture of empathy over an employer that offers a slightly higher salary
  • 73% would change their role, industry, or career path if it meant working for an empathetic leader
  • 83% would leave their job for a similar role at a more empathetic company

It is not only the employees that think that empathy is crucial. From this study, we see that CEOs also associate the financial achievements of their companies with practices of empathy. 

In a rapidly changing world where the advancements of technology and the growing demands, people often forget how important it is to actually take some time to connect with each other.

More and more we see that empathy has to be elevated and practiced as a core value, which will improve the workplace culture, productivity, create more innovation and profit. 

The New Era of Leadership

Leadership means reaching out to people. 

How do you know if the people you are trying to reach are actually reachable? You practice empathy. 

With empathy you can strategize and take the correct decisions based on the effects that they will have on the employees. It allows the leaders to nurture and inspire a new generation of leaders. 

When putting the empathy in practice, the managers and leaders need to be careful at one very critical aspect. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, however, that means to understand how THEY feel in their shoes and not how WE feel in their shoes. 

In the new era of work, successful leaders are doing their very best to practice empathy. 

Empathy has three main components: cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and empathetic concern.

  • Cognitive empathy means recognizing that other people have their own way of seeing and thinking about the world. We don’t need to adopt their point of view but just understand it. 
  • Affective empathy means recognizing how the other person feels and tapping into the emotion and feeling it with them. 
  • Empathetic concern comes after you have understood the other person’s point of view and recognized how they feel. Acting with empathetic concerns involves adjusting your communication to welcome and support the other person. 

Ultimately, practicing empathy can result in a smoother communication, more productive collaboration, and fewer conflicts.

how to be an empathetic leader

Tips for How to Be an Empathetic Leader From Afar

Remote teams enable the possibility of working from the comfort of our homes. This benefit might be a bit problematic, when the leaders have to show more empathy. We have to keep in mind that every leader has their own way of leading and most importantly, their specific team to guide. 

Here you can find some useful tips that will come in handy when you lead a remote team:

Listen First, and Build an Open Communication Culture

Leaders believe that their main task is to inspire and motivate their team to do better. Even though this task is a very crucial one, they forget that the main task that they need to cover first is to listen. 

People want to be heard! Therefore, in any leader's agenda, there should be a quiet time, where they focus on listening to employees' feedback.

  • Never interrupt, while the employee is speaking. Take notes and then give out tips or even guidelines as to how it might be better for them. 
  • Show the employee that you are listening by getting rid of all distractions, such as silencing your phone and putting away anything that can distract you from the conversation.
  • Maintain control over your body language when the employee is sharing information. Do not snap or raise your voice.
  • Ask clarifying questions and repeat back what the employee shared with you.
  • Express gratitude for the shared information.

Be Vulnerable and Show Compassion

A leader is a strong figure. They all believe that showing themselves as indestructible is the way of resonating strength.

Unfortunately, they miss one point: we are all human and we all have our bad days.

Being vulnerable doesn’t mean we are lacking strength, it actually means that we are strong enough to show those moments with the people we trust. And trust is the key to strong relationships.

Always make time to share some of your struggles or even mistakes, this will allow the others to open up freely. Listen carefully and show understanding while the others share their issues as well. During the meetings keep the camera open, this way people feel your presence and your attention towards them. 

Look for Signs During Meetings

Video conferencing is a very useful tool for remote work. While it is not the easiest to understand each other over a screen, it is one of the ways that can connect us when we are apart.

The managers can use this as a channel for decoding the employees' emotional states and the process of communication. Take some time and analyze what’s beyond the surface of the call. Don’t rush to conclusions, but instead appreciate the challenges that the others are facing. 

If you notice someone is getting distracted, not engaging, or doing something else instead, take action and dive deeper. Continue the communication further with them. Find out what has happened and offer them your attention. This is the best way to earn trust and build a positive outcome in the team.  

Make Yourself Approachable

You are a remote leader.

The reality is that employees can not just pop into your office every time they come across a problem.

Neither can they fly a thousand miles to see you in person.

But what they can do is send you a direct message in Slack or a quick email.

Make this easy for them. Have several communication channels open for your remote employees where they can connect with you and chat.

Remember, your goal is to make the other person feel comfortable and encouraged to communicate openly. Employees will grow to trust you more and share with you all kinds of information that can be vital for your company.

Let's end this article with a quote from Tim Cook who once said:

People will try to convince you that you should keep your empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.

distributed guide

FAQs

Q: How do you show empathy in the workplace?
  • Ask questions
  • Be vulnerable
  • Listen to your employees’ feedback
  • Observe signs during meetings
Q: Why is empathy so important in the workplace?
Companies that practice empathy experience an improved workplace culture, higher employee productivity, more innovation, and a boost in profits.
Q: What is an empathetic leader?
An empathetic leader is someone who:
  • Recognizes that other people have their own way of seeing and thinking about the world.
  • Recognizes how the other person feels and tapping into the emotion and feeling it with them.
  • Adjusts their communication to welcome and support the other person.