It’s a new world of work. Disrupted operations and fragmented environments that have scattered the workforce are creating a very different dynamic for leaders. It’s raised the bar, compelling you as a leader to adopt a more personal style of management where you have to react more empathetically through greater awareness of the stresses and strains your team is under.

In the old workplace, you may have focused on how well you were projecting confidence and conviction through your words, and how successful you were at persuading others of your vision, ideas, and decisions. You could see up close how your audience reacted – what worked, what didn’t. Meetings that went well, and meetings that missed the mark. Part of your success as a leader was determined by recognizing how people responded to you and adjusting your behavior accordingly.

You’ve also been attuned to your company’s, department’s, and team’s rhythms, alert to tiny details that communicated the views and emotional state of particular colleagues and the office community. Examples of these signals include: the facial expression of the receptionist, the presence of huddles around certain cubicles, and the number of messages on your desk or in your inbox.

The new realities of leadership

This implicit awareness is now essential when practicing empathy in a virtual environment, and must be purposefully cultivated. Leading from afar, your first action is to discern and decode new signs in these altered settings. The second is to lean in proactively during your interactions with your team members, putting aside any assumptions, and gathering detailed, accurate information. Third, leaders have to put aside personal opinions and perspectives in order to understand each employee’s point of view and take action based on the needs of that specific person and their situation. 

It’s not an easy job. Leaders need sufficient data to understand what their employees are going through. “We have a focus on Deepening Empathy with our teams,” says Marilyn Chapman, the Chief HR Officer of global telecommunications firm NTT, who recently emphasized this new way of working with 1,300 of the company’s leaders worldwide. She urged them to pay close attention to employees’ specific situations, so they can respond appropriately.

Another upside to showing greater empathy: when a leader engages more deeply in a conversation, not only do they glean more useful information on what’s troubling a team member, but the employee also experiences a positive, empathetic connection. To practice effective empathetic leadership across a distributed company or team, first distinguish the signals and decipher what they mean:

6 steps to showing empathy from afar

1. Recognize routines

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This new way of working will lead to new routines for your team. Paying attention to these will help you identify each employee’s habits and cues so you can spot whether they’re coping well, distracted or struggling, and what might be wrong. Have they established new, productive habits yet? If not, is there an issue? Are they reaching out much more than they did at the office? “Remote working routines are likely to be consistent with office-based ones,” observed experienced remote leader, Heidi Melin, CMO of Workfront. Someone who didn’t typically drop by her physical office is not likely to ‘drop by’ in a virtual setting. If new habits are contradictory or adoption seems hesitant, it’s time to ask if someone needs help.

2. Observe signs

Video conferencing provides the best channel to ‘decode’ communications and emotional states. Brian Day, CEO of Fuze, stresses video as a critical tool for effective remote leaders. “I read employees’ facial expressions and body language,” he says. “I notice who is engaged during a call and observe physical reactions to what’s being said.”

If someone is glancing off-screen, fiddling with something, looking listless, leaning away, or not turning on their video, take the next step: delve further. The empathetic response is to find out – directly and from colleagues – rather than make assumptions or judgments, since many work (or non-work) distractions could be affecting someone’s participation.

The empathetic response is to find out – directly and from colleagues – rather than make assumptions or judgments

3. Listen actively

Pay close attention to your team member’s voice tone, timbre, pitch, and the words and phrases they use. If someone sounds stressed, hesitant, or isn’t speaking up, what are they signalling? A client of mine, who is a trading team leader in financial services, listens attentively to remote clients’ and team members’ updates over the phone, comparing their tenor in previous calls. If a client’s mood seems off or a colleague sounds distressed, she will ask questions to confirm or amend her interpretation before going ahead with her new sales idea or guidance.

4. Ask questions

In order to empathize, pose open, supportive questions to draw out details of how that team member is coping. “Why weren’t you paying attention on the call?” is likely to prompt a short, defensive response rather than honest dialogue. Instead, ask: “Is there anything going on that I could help with? I sensed something during our call.” This approach shows caring, withholds judgment, and encourages trust. The employee is far more likely to share openly and explain what they’re going through as well as be more forthcoming in the future.

5. Be approachable

Heidi Melin, from Workfront, makes an effort to nurture relationships and two-way dialog with her team. She deliberately makes herself very accessible as a remote leader and actively welcomes team contributions, which promotes empathetic interactions. She uses Slack, email, and now regularly has an open video ‘room,’ so team members have many ways to connect and chat. Brian Day, from Fuze, launched ‘Ask Me Anything’ video calls when the crisis escalated to build trust and promote transparency across the company. This allowed everyone to feel informed and included, as well as offering a safe space to raise issues and voice concerns. Whatever you choose to do, your goal is to foster an empathetic environment where everyone is comfortable and encouraged to communicate openly, and you are modelling these behaviors.

6. Personalize your responses

Leaders have to put their own points of view aside in order to react with empathetic understanding of an employee’s particular point of view and situation. Responding appropriately to each individual requires what Marilyn Chapman from NTT calls “a variation in leadership.” Moving on from impersonal and imperial directives, leaders have to be open and authentic and adapt their style and approach for each team’s or employee’s specific needs and temperament. This means communicating with extra sensitivity, since lockdowns, family tragedies, and economic hardships may well have added to a team member’s stress. 

A burned-out direct report, overwhelmed by new work conditions, might need warm appreciation and coaching. An older team member who has been struggling with new digital tools in this remote landscape, and health-related anxiety, could benefit from kind reassurance as well as training. A younger employee, feeling financially insecure with many furloughed friends, might be comforted by a career discussion. An emerging leader, whose parent has just been hospitalized, might need very gentle handling and mental health support. 

Remote working conditions are accelerating the conversion of leadership styles from ‘command and control’ to ‘connect and communicate,’ emphasizing empathy. Leaders have a unique opportunity going forward to deepen personal and professional relationships, become more attuned to others’ perspectives and experiences, and better manage, motivate, and support employees wherever they are working.

What empathy-centered leadership looks like