How to show empathy in tech-enabled workplaces

By Ross A. McIntyre 4 minute Read

The coronavirus pandemic for many people has represented a driver of personal and professional changes—some welcome, some not so welcome. For instance, if you’re a worker who doesn’t have access to a computer or a dependable internet connection, you likely struggled with the transition to remote work. This deficit is more common than many people realize. In fact, more than 30 million Americans lack access to fixed broadband service, according to the most recent report on broadband progress by the Federal Communications Commission.

This inequity has consequences. A Pew Research Center survey shows that the majority of business and policy leaders, innovators, researchers, and developers foresee a future that’s more dependent on technology. Digital connections will be necessary for everyday activities, creating obstacles for those who lack access. Additionally, the same survey shows that a tech-driven future could worsen economic equality, further enhance the power of Big Tech, and exacerbate the parallel pandemic of misinformation.

While this reality is unsettling, there is hope. The primary lesson companies have learned during the pandemic is that business relies on collaboration, and the foundation of collaboration is empathy. You don’t need to be deeply indoctrinated in design thinking to see this, nor do you need to develop a custom software solution to engage with users in an empathetic fashion. You simply need to adjust your thinking and start putting yourself in others’ shoes.

Technology can help open some of the inroads to more equity—and thereby more empathy—in the workplace. Here are a few strategies to begin the process.

Break down barriers to technology access

Ultimately, empathy helps build a more egalitarian society that can reorient society toward greater inclusiveness; without it individuals and their communities will suffer.

The future should be within reach of all, and one piece of that puzzle is greater access to technology. People should be able to interact with technology in ways that work best for them. Otherwise, it becomes a barrier to employment, advancement, productivity, and so on.

While the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution declaring internet access a human right, the move neglected to address the government’s role in this process. How to make technology accessible now rests in the hands of business leaders. After all, companies should be responsible for stakeholders associated with business: customers, employees, communities, the planet, and society at large. Marc Benioff, the founder and CEO of Salesforce, refers to this as “stakeholder capitalism.” Focus your efforts on more than profits by finding ways to contribute to the broader social good.

According to another survey by the Pew Research Center, 23% of Americans who make less than $50,000 annually don’t use the internet. As a leader, you can bridge the digital divide by reimbursing home internet service for employees and providing computers. But the industry standard of providing laptops doesn’t need to remain de facto. Given that many people currently lack mobility due to the global pandemic, ready-to-use desktop computers that are programmed for remote access may make more sense. These devices are far superior in terms of cooling and ergonomic needs. Further, they’re less expensive to support.

Leverage resources to collaborate

The current environment has paved the way for a wider array of remote processes that can bolster empathy in the workplace. Nearly every industry is quickly adopting and leveraging technologies to enable digital services, such as telework, telehealth, e-commerce, and more. While an adjustment period was necessary, time has shown how these advancements can support smart working models that offer greater autonomy, improve job performance, and enhance individuals’ quality of life.

Consider the rise of edtech, or tech-enhanced education. The conversation has shifted from whether technology should be leveraged to how. The advancement of personalized techniques means that a learning program can adapt to an individual’s learning style, grasp of context information, and better prepare the student for self-directed learning.

Similarly, businesses have accepted that technology keeps them running smoothly and optimizes value. The key is finding tools that maximize uniquely human output. Digital touchpoints currently lack the indefinable energy of group ideation. You’ll need to clear this hurdle in a hybrid work world. The alternative would be bifurcated employee groups of office workers and remote workers, which is neither collaborative nor productive.

Go from a time-bound to a results-oriented format

Leading with empathy can serve as a professional “pay it forward.” How empathy takes shape will depend on your organization, but moving to the ROWE model is often a good starting point. ROWE, or results-only work environments, position employees as active participants in the workplace, empowering their abilities and building passion for their individual contributions. The aim is have workers meeting more success while working from their home or the office.

You’ll need to allow for timing flexibility, set expectations, and provide actionable feedback. Take the following steps and recognize that while simple to identify they can mask considerable organizational complexity:

  • Build a solid cultural understanding of results-only expectations.
  • Define your company mission.
  • Set measurable results.
  • Enable employees with the appropriate technology and resources.
  • Apply a framework that allows you to experiment, examine, and evolve.

We would be remiss if we didn’t use this opportune time to emerge with a renewed sense of individual equality, in which people (versus big corporations) are granted equal rights; to root out inequality; and to spread to all the advantages normally reserved for the affluent.

Ross A. McIntyre is the chief strategy officer at Frogslayer, a custom software development and digital innovation company.

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