Remote Work: Empathy is still required

Woman working at the kitchen table

Remote work: We’ve been doing it, but how do we do it better if it’s going to stay?

When we were all forced to work remotely over a year ago, we did it. We had to, and companies were empathetic to the chaotic situation we were all thrown into. We needed time and space to figure out what could work for our families and our jobs. Companies granted that time and space and some even supported financially to help employees create the at-home workspace they needed. Mangers understood and employees understood, and we were gracious with each other. It sucked, we didn’t get to choose, and we needed to figure it out. And we were in this mess together. And then, I think we lost sight of that…

Months go by and somehow we figured it out. Far from perfect, but we made the situation work. Maybe some of us even liked it better – being home meant time spent commuting could be repurposed where needed. Families who once ran around to appointments and events at dinnertime were able to sit down together for that meal. Maybe there were more bike rides and family walks and puzzle making. Maybe some of us found every second of remote working pure misery, but we found ways to get reprieve some how because we had no choice if we wanted to survive this. We found the “me” time we needed doing something that brought us a little dose of good vibes, if even for a moment.

Either way, we’re still standing some 15 months later, maybe with some smiles and definitely with some battle scars. We began on the journey at the same starting place, but we all took our own pace and path. The key continued to be our understanding that everyone’s journey looked different. Listening and empathy continued to be important, but perhaps not as easy as it was at the start.

Now, we are facing another shift: the likely permanence of some kind of hybrid or full remote working situation.

It’s harder to lead with empathy now, though, don’t you think? It’s more difficult to give those allowances and forgive tardiness to meetings or unexpected interruptions and distractions. Are companies going to be okay with employees working at 80% capacity or productivity for the long-run? Unlikely. We need to make the widgets faster, cheaper, better again.  Companies need to define what productive, successful, engaged looks like for them. Is this to be expressed merely in financial statements and productivity metrics? Or will we finally learn to consider the significance of engagement scores and employee experience, and allow them to carry significance along with the so-called “hard” numbers?

My friend and colleague, Tom Rosenak, has said that “effective leadership conversations are the only way we can make this new world navigable and profitable for relationship, business result, and lifestyle needs.” (link to post) I couldn’t agree more. The answer, solution, policy will look different across companies. To be the right “fit”, it needs to be aligned first with the company’s values. Start there, be clear, then figure out how to support those values in the way you shift again.

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