Shifting Towards a Care and Empathy Model of Business Engagement

Yesterday I took part in a Leicester Business Festival webinar about how employee engagement has changed as a result of the pandemic. We talked about how the lockdown has kept many people away from the workplace, and has introduced employees to new forms of engagement through teleconferencing. Taking part was Donna Reeves, Head of Internal Communication & Engagement, Fenwick; Helen Dargie, Managing Director, We Love Surveys, and Matt Brooks from Experian. The discussion focussed on the manner in which businesses have refunctioned their operations to suit staff working remotely and away from the traditional office and workplace.

The key phrases that were repeated and used throughout the presentations related to engagement, empathy and a heightened social understanding of the lives of those that we work with on a regular basis. Now that many of us have been displaced from our offices, studios and training rooms, and are now interacting via teleconferencing, there is a need for managers to have a stronger sense of understanding of the affected workplace – that is the emotional workplace – and therefore to be able to interact with colleagues with the added dimension of emotionality, feeling and empathy.

The leaders of the future, it seems, will have to be adept at empathising and supporting people, not only creating and sharing spreadsheets and contracts. The shift to remote meetings and supervision via teleconferencing means, also, that Human Resource managers and staff supervisors alike, can no longer assume that their staff are well, and that they are coping with the challenges of the workplace, socially distant or not. In my experience, on a day-to-day basis most employees do not allow their anxieties to surface in the workplace. Our work ethic dictates that our emotions are held in-check and are kept out of public view. If you want to cry at work, do it in the toilets and away from colleagues. Adherence to process often takes centre stage during working hours, and expressions of emotionality are confined to the home, the pub or the therapy session.

What the pandemic has done, however, is disrupt who has control over emotions in the workplace. Being in lockdown means that there is a shift of power away from those who have established themselves as emotional gatekeepers in the past, often men from white and privileged backgrounds. The ability to read someone’s emotions through a screen, however, has suddenly become a sought-after skill. The micro gestures and physical compliance that are assumed to structure our interactions in traditional co-present situations, have been displaced. If we are each sitting before a camera and starting at a screen, then there is a narrowing of the threshold for communication and interaction which makes it harder to sense other people’s emotional and existential states. It’s not so easy to make assumptions and to override what people are feeling, because teleconferencing means that we are once removed from the scene. We can only imagine, and the imagination of those who have traditionally acquired management positions can often be one sided and focussed only on data and not interpersonal experience.

When combined with the limited aurality of a Zoom or Teams call, it is much harder to get a sense of how others are processing their emotions. The signal processing that reduces echo and noise may allow for a clarity and legibility of the content per se, but it also dramatically reduces the nuanced frailty of the human voice. The human ears can detect most marginal changes in state which underlay most people’s vocalisations. Even if we try to hide our emotion, it comes through in the forced manner and effort required to exert additional control. The more we try to control our emotions, the more our wording and the tone of what we say becomes limited, less expressive, and reductive.

Teleconferencing is great for conveying sound, but not so good for conveying meaning. Therefore many of us are resorting to double and treble checking if the people we are working with are okay. How do you feel? How are you feeling? How’s things? The simple gesture of co-present chatter in personal contact is skewed when we are meeting online. These variations of the same question invariably elicit the same response. I’m fine. Not bad thanks. Oh, you know, bearing up. We neither want to know, or expect to be told, that our colleagues are facing a complete emotional breakdown and are ridden with anxiety. Displays of emotion are suppressed and encoded in pleasantries that are casually exchanged before the business of the session is considered. That’s the nature of work.

As employees we are generally expected to maintain our social persona within a narrow set of parameters. We are seldom given space to express forms of perceived weakness, frailty or panic. Nothing slips through the social mask which would indicate that we are letting our emotional guard down. The problem we have now, however, is that all of us who have been displaced by the lockdown, and are practising social distancing measures in the workplace, are now feeling the same pressure. We have been stripped of the safe spaces for the casual encounters that typically help to keep organisations functioning. Actually, for many people the workplace is not a safe space, but is simply tolerated as a collective environment even when it is oppressive and toxic, because we get paid to suppress what we are often really thinking, and focus on getting on with our jobs.

Suddenly, and because of the lockdown, different operators and agents in companies and organisations are now having to learn what is means to work in an equalised environment, through the teleconferencing screen. Individuals now have to present themselves in front of others in a way that can be observed and monitored through a panopticon. Teleconferencing reduces all participants in an online meeting to the same size window on the screen. We are one among many faces in a screen full of similar faces. Who is in charge is not so easy to determine any more? Cues that would otherwise indicate who is leading a meeting, because of where they are sitting, their body language, and so on, are harder to grasp. Equal turn-taking is now more common in teleconferencing and it is harder for one person to dominate the meeting, or for others to sink into the background.

It will be interesting to observe which of the old in-person rituals are maintained once social distancing measures are relaxed. What will be the new practices that have been discovered that people will want to hold onto and keep using? Will the concern for emotions and feeling be at the heart of the new, post-pandemic workplace? Will the ‘dance-for-dominance’ by the ‘usual suspects’, who grab attention because of their status and not their contribution, be reprioritised?

When we are able to work together in person again, if a colleague expresses emotion or anxiety, will they now be taken seriously, or will we relapse back to the established mode of interaction which suppresses expressions of emotion? How will managers of the future be trained and equipped with the skills to work in this affective and emotionally literate world? As well as training managers to process information, do we now need to train them to be social workers, councillors and carers? What are the listening, engagement and comprehension skills that are needed in the future-focussed workplace? Perhaps in the future, managers with technical and process competence will be less sought after than those with social and empathetic competence?

Will the workplace shift to being nurturing space, with less focus on targets and processes, and more focus on wellbeing and enrichment? What should we consider when planning our careers? Should we think of an MBA or a counselling qualification instead? Are we witnessing a shift within our culture towards a more caring and compassionate form of working? We can still value achievement and purpose, but how we achieve and fulfil that purpose is now open to alternative forms of engagement. In archetypal terms are we shifting to an ethic of caring and collaboration? In other words, is a more feminine model of interaction coming to the fore, and are we leaving behind the self-reliant and individualistic modes of working, in other words the more masculine model of interaction?

For me, if there is one lesson of the lockdown, its that we have to think more carefully about how we listen to one another, and how we act on what we hear. Teleconferencing should be thought of as a mirror, and we are seeing ourselves in a different light as a result. Hopefully we can learn and grown from this new insight based on our new shared experiences.

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