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Digital empathy

By Dr. Martina Weifenbach, myndway.

Digital empathy – future skill of a learning organization

Empathy is the foundation of interpersonal relationships. It describes the ability to understand the feelings of another person and to respond with compassion. In the world of work, too, empathy as a factor of emotional intelligence is one of the core competencies of today’s managers. Emotional intelligence describes the ability to recognize and deal with feelings as well as the use and appropriate expression of feelings. Human talents have long since ceased to be based solely on intelligence quotient (IQ). Emotional intelligence trumps IQ especially in soft factors such as emotional self-regulation and empathy (Goleman, 2005).

In times of Corona, home offices and digital meetings, our social consciousness doesn’t always have it easy. Empathic skills are put to the test, because how can I perceive and understand other people’s emotions when communication is exclusively via Slack and we only get to see each other in a square screen via Zoom, MS Teams & Co.

This form of working requires new competencies. For employees, being supported to master crises and change is a major concern. According to the Degreed learning portal’s report “The State of Skills 2021,” which examined the global impact of the pandemic, 60% of the 5,000 employees surveyed believe that learning new skills is necessary in the context of the pandemic. 46% would leave their employer if it did not invest in skills development (Tesnjak, 2021).

Loneliness despite constant accessibility

Changes in technology create new opportunities for communication every day. It is no longer necessary to leave your own four walls. Today, people no longer meet in the office corridor or go together to the Italian restaurant around the corner for lunch. Instead, they stay where they are – in front of the screen and switch from the Zoom meeting to the Zoom coffee with the colleague from “next door”. Working on the computer is a necessity in today’s world. While “digital working” brings many benefits such as flexibility and the automation of processes, some challenges arise on the social side.

We are connected and interacting every second, and yet we seem to find interpersonal communication increasingly difficult. How can we be close to our colleagues and employees even from a distance? Social needs are not sufficiently met and the initial euphoria of working from home turns into feelings of loneliness.

So how can we reach out to our employees and colleagues on a deeper level and engage in an exchange without it getting lost in the daily small talk. Especially when we work in a support role, our effectiveness ultimately boils down to how well we listen to and connect with our colleagues. The better we do our jobs, the better equipped our colleagues are to do theirs.

The challenge? Empathy is learned on an individual level. There is no manual for this! When we take personal responsibility to better understand employees* and colleagues, collaboration is ultimately rewarded. Individuals are responsible for how they appear in a digital meeting and how they open and close a conversation. It’s about consciously embracing computer work and constant accessibility and shaping the framework rather than drowning in it.

Companies have a responsibility

Learning empathy can be both emotionally and mentally exhausting. Dealing with colleague*s problems means becoming personally invested in their lives. It is possible that one or the other sees inadequacies, especially within the leadership in their own company, that take their toll.

But what happens when companies and leaders don’t focus on developing and training employees within these competencies as well? Clearly, empathy is difficult to measure in the first place. It may be possible to assess employee* morale through surveys, but the direct impact of empathy is difficult to track.

Especially in times of Corona, when uncertainty prevails and confidence in one’s own abilities dwindles, it becomes more important for companies to help their employees and to show the positive in times of change. In the worst case, the inner resistance to the new situation can turn against the company.

Relevance of the competence digital empathy

The longing for contact shapes our work behavior in many ways. We lack the casual, spontaneous contact in the office that promises variety and also the kind of exchange and resonance that does not necessarily require words or exaggerated gestures, as we know it from a digital meeting.

The distanced behavior is contrary to the actually growing value orientation in our society. This not only has an impact on our communication with each other, but much more an impact on ourselves. Stress is increasing and it is becoming more and more difficult to keep work and private life apart. Many people don’t know how to draw boundaries or allow themselves to simply be unavailable sometimes. In the wake of the Corona pandemic, the numbers for overtime and for burn-out sufferers have clearly increased (Limeade, n.d.).

So what do employees and managers need in order to be mindful of themselves in digital work, to gain distance when necessary, and to support genuine exchange instead of fast-moving, superficial meetings? How can employees also help each other digitally and show understanding for each other? What tools are available?

THE TEAM

Zoom exhaustion

Many and long video conferences are draining and lead to exhaustion. All day we look at our screen, our eyes get tired and we look at the many faces that look back in our direction in the same way. This near unnatural contact feeds our social anxiety. In a video meeting, we have continuous eye contact and accordingly feel like we are being watched by several people at once. In addition, the faces on the screen are oversized. This is clearly unnatural behavior and demands much more than most realize. We also have to make our gestures much larger for the camera than in a non-digital environment. This requires an increased, cognitive energy expenditure from our brains.

TIP

Turn off the “self-view” and minimize your screen with few participants.
Create awareness in your team that it’s okay to turn off the camera sometimes in a video meeting.
Agree on universally understood gestures like “thumbs up” for approval.
Slack exhaustion

Slack and other chat tools also confront us with a high volume of information. We use multiple channels at the same time, where there is also repetition of comments and questions.

TIP

Agree within the team on a communication channel for “xyz” and also on how you want to use it.
Create a moderate framework for comments to avoid an overflow of information.
It’s ok to go offline for focus times!
Mindfulness in video calls

Many meetings already have a set structure with one or two people in charge moderating the meeting. Many listeners get into a passive mindset here, which is where the togetherness in the digital space suffers. Each individual can contribute to shaping the atmosphere in the room.

TIP

The mindful check-in: Start your video calls mindfully: Share with the group how you are feeling today.
Smile: Try to start and end video calls with a smile, sharing positive energy.
Exercise: Find an “energy manager” who invites active breaks after at least 40 minutes in long online meetings.

Genuine connection even in the digital world

Digital empathy is the basis for a trusting and successful corporate culture. Learning organizations are encouraged to expand their understanding of and invest in new skills, because work formats in the digital space will continue to evolve in the future and replace presence events.

To ensure that we continue to create real connections in the digital space and that nothing is lost in our exchanges, we can only work together to shape a mindful culture that holds the following points:

Patience in the digital space
Understanding of people and technology
Genuine exchange about you and me
Creativity in joint work
Growth Culture > Performance Culture

Sources:

Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition. Bantam Dell.

Limeade: New Limeade Study Reveals Troubling Impact of COVID-19 on the Employee Experience, at: https://www.limeade.com/en/releases/new-limeade-study-reveals-troubling-impact-of-covid-19-on-the-employee-experience/?utm_source=Iterable&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter-20210429

Stanford News (2021): Stanford researchers identify four causes for ‘Zoom fatigue’ and their simple fixes, at: https://news.stanford.edu/2021/02/23/four-causes-zoom-fatigue-solutions/?utm_source=Iterable&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter-20210429

Tesnjak, Dan (2021): How poor employee skills jeopardize business success. On Persoblogger at: https://persoblogger.de/2021/03/01/wie-mangelnde-mitarbeiter-skills-den-unternehmenserfolg-gefaehrden

Author
Dr. Martina Weifenbach is a pioneer in linking Digital Innovation, New Work and Mindfulness. She is author of “Mindfulness and Innovation in Integrated Organizations”, Executive Coach and Managing Director of myndway. In her current research she looks at mindfulness from a neuroscientific and organizational perspective. As an internationally trained yoga and mindfulness teacher, she is now leading the way in bringing together her digital expertise with accessible learning formats for employees*, teams and leaders around mindfulness, agile working and sustainable digitalization.