How Remote Work Kills Empathy
Moments after the invention of the computer, predictions were being made as to when most of mankind would be unchained to their desks and more workers could conduct their jobs in their jammies.
That day has come. As the coronavirus has forced nearly the entire planet to domicile in their homes for the near future, the globe is getting a better understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of remote work.
I have been able to work extensively with remote teams, and at home, for my entire career. During this time, I’ve seen the potential upside of a decentralized workforce.
At the National Guard, my team in conjunction with ten bases around America was able to coordinate the deployment of over 10,000 soldiers to the frontlines of Afghanistan and Iraq in a matter of weeks. As an investment professional, my companies have executed over a million trades, and thousands of data files have been scrubbed for accuracy by remote teams all around the world.
Today, my life as an international journalist depends on being able to work from anywhere at any time.
I am grateful for the flexibility remote work brings. I have frequented far more lunch and coffee shops than if I had to report to an office. There are countless weddings I was able to attend because all I needed for work was an internet connection and laptop. I have some breathing room regarding when I can exactly start and end my day. And I have been able to rush to the side of friends and family during the darkest hour without any hesitation.
But quarantine remote work is different. We don’t have the luxury of escapes and distractions. Nor do we have the ability to create social bonds the way we did before.
On the list of life’s dynamics that will change with the coronavirus is how we treat other people without any physical exchange. Will greater remote work expand our avenues of empathy or collapse them?
There are signs to be hopeful. Humans are wired to be an empathetic species (even if some of our leaders fail to exude this quality).There is evidence that it is in our genes and there are ways to cultivate a more empathetic persona.
We are empathetic from the early start of our lives. In one study conducted by the Centre of Brain and Cognitive Development at the University of London researchers discovered 18-month babies display ample amounts of empathy.
Some babies were given multiple play blocks while others were given none. When the babies with no building blocks started crying, the babies with building blocks would try to give them a playing block and then join in on crying. Brain scans showed the babies’ sadness was from witnessing other babies in pain. Even when they had no prior experience of exercising compassion and care, they did. The infant’s ability to detect sadness and attempt to mitigate the pain are literally a building block of empathy.
Empathy is also sparked by curiosity. Roman Krznaric, a global empathy advisor (that’s a real job), notes that one of the main foundations of an empathetic person is to be interested in new things and experiences. Remote work allows us to interact with our colleagues in a much different manner. Zoom backgrounds, digital happy hours, and the normalization of disruptive children being heard on calls is a very new experience for most.
Empathy is also environmentally influenced. As wretched as this time is, the global pandemic may force us to be more aware of others’ pain. COVID-19 affects and impacts all communities. No group is immune to the economic and biological suffering that this deadly virus brings.
The onslaught of negative news coupled with what we see in our local communities may lead us to be there for each other more often. Collective pain and suffering are sources of unity. Most of my work calls now begin with a debrief on how our local regions are grappling with this pandemic and end with a call to be safe and healthy.
But I’m pessimistic that an onslaught of Zooms and Google Hangouts can act as a sustainable catalyst for broader social bonds and nuanced understanding of others.
Empathy is fragile. It can be turned on and off. As much as we are inclined to be empathetic, our care for others has boundaries and limits.
There are three types of empathy. The first is cognitive empathy, the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. This type of empathy allows us to see and accept other people’s differences.
The second is emotional empathy (commonly referred to as affective empathy), the ability to share the feelings of another person; pain derived from seeing someone close to you suffering. This version of empathy helps you build emotional and enriching connections with others.
The last is compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) which extends beyond a simple understanding of others’ feelings; it galvanizes us to take action, to assist in ways we can.
In order for our empathy engine to start running we need empathetic accuracy — the ability to have complete and accurate knowledge about the content of another person’s mind and how they truly feel.
Remote work can test the entire ecosystem and variations of empathy.
For us to even embody the first type of empathy, cognitive empathy, we need to become really good guessers. Unless someone comes forth with their thoughts, we have to surmise someone’s emotional well being from their actions.
Distance work makes that task even difficult. Online communication is ripe for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. We’ve all had that Gchat experience: trying to figure out the motivation of a message, whether it’s sarcasm or anger. Or, the most agonizing part of digital discussion: a sudden stop or delay in the conversation.
No amount of video calls will allow us to grasp the mindset of our colleagues. The water cooler chats, coffees, viewing someone’s body language, and lunch events, all opportunities to view how others are feeling, are no longer available.
Office chit-chat, shit talking other employees at lunch, colleague birthday parties, and even basic banter in the hallways can be dismissed as meaningless interaction. But these can be ways we connect and relate with others.
The limits of emotional empathy will be challenged as well. This type of empathy is deeply visual and physical. As Dr. Segal, an expert on social empathy explains, “emotional empathy is possible when we see another person, experiencing an emotion. Then we can simulate or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like.”
And even if we want to help, our ability to be altruistic is severely restricted during these times. The opportunity to be compassionately empathetic for most is constrained as we are quarantined and taking stock of what resources we currently have and need.
Another downside of remote work is the erosion of community, another avenue to cultivate empathy. Though we often hate the drag of going to our jobs, it provides the bedrock of a net beneficial collective cohort: a place for shared goals and obstacles. A place to escape the banalities and normalities of life. An area to discover greater purpose with others. The more you work from home and are unable to get away, the more you lose those ties. It’s difficult to buyin to the overall goal and mission of your employer when you are so removed from its central operations. It’s harder to think about the greater good and the needs of others you work with.
Work from home can ramp up a feeling of isolation, a trait usually incompatible with empathy. Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of the search engine DuckDuckGo, whose workforce is distributed around the world, points out: “Working remotely, people are never forced to get a drink after work. You’re not substituting work socialness for community socialness. They are in their own communities.”
Empathy also has a duration. It’s not infinite, even during terrible times. As we continue to do our jobs away from others, the patience for dropped calls, delay in response time, terrible lighting during video calls, and annoying background noises will wither away. As we all continually endure through this pandemic, our struggles may become ubiquitous; what’s the difference between your uncertain job outlook, lack of social outlet, and restlessness than mine?
I hope I am wrong. I hope the commonality of our struggles outweigh the frustrations and chaos everyone is experiencing. That the distance from our colleagues will help us understand we all have challenges outside the work. That we can continue to be easier on each other when we’re having a trying day. And we realize that not only do we need physical interaction to be well off, we need an empathetic attachment to truly experience sound fulfillment.
But the possibility of all that right now seems ever so remote.