Building empathy in a year of distance

Regardless of your new normal—or however long it’s been since you even thought of the word “normal”—every engineering team has experienced significant change this year.
Author
uplevel
Tags

We’ve built new skills, changed our ways, and practiced unbelievable resilience in a complex time. Remote communication and management are easier than ever, thanks to collaboration tools (like Slack) and data-driven tools (like, ahem, Uplevel), yet we’re still facing unprecedented challenges.

In 2020, there is so much at stake. Work issues now fall somewhere below “urgent,” taking their place after a global pandemic, political polarization, million-acre wildfires, and a pivot to homeschooling. Managers already perform superhero-status duties every day, but there are some missions too great to be solved before 5pm. In times like these, our best investment is in establishing empathy. When we make space for others’ struggles and life circumstances, we can better weather the storm.

How can managers nurture empathy on socially distanced teams?

Tip 1: Embrace the Slack status.

Start with small changes. Opening this small, yet direct communication channel allows team members to announce their availability with low effort. Rather than asking permission or needing an excuse, engineers can simply update daily online hours for all to see. This straightforward practice focuses on the objective truth without leaving awkward room for subjective judgments. What about a real-time change in plans? Choose a “can’t talk now” emoji for the whole team and encourage its use as a status or a quick DM response.

Tip 2: Start meetings with a “rose/thorn/bud” exercise.

Kick off the next meeting with a rapid round of sharing. Start with a simple question, like “What’s your rose/thorn/bud today?” Each person answers in a few words (or longer, depending on your timeframe and meeting purpose). This gives everyone a chance to share their highs and lows, receive support from the group, and understand each other beyond the context of work.

  • Rose: Something good that is happening or happened recently.
  • Thorn: Something challenging that is happening or happened recently.
  • Bud: Something that you’re looking forward to today or this week.

Tip 3: Use Jira and Git data to celebrate high-performers and support low-performers.

Sometimes it’s easier to use data, rather than gut feelings, to provide an explanation. Utilize data from Jira and Git to identify team members that are flying through tickets—and those that would benefit from a lighter workload. Everybody responds to bandwidth differently, so you might pair these findings with Uplevel visualizations at your reimagined 1:1s. Notice any superstars? When they hit big milestones, take the time to properly celebrate! With the unexpected lows of this year, we can all use more wins.

Tip 4: Try asynchronous meetings to support flexible schedules.

One of the likely barriers to empathy might be the frustration of cancelled or low-attended meetings. There are valid reasons to miss a meeting, many of which are beyond our control right now. When you can, try asynchronous meetings. These game-changers alternate collaborative brainstorm sessions with independent working time, allowing team members to contribute at different times or in different ways. (They also provide video breaks to prevent the infamous Zoom fatigue.) If needed, space out the sessions between morning and afternoon to better support team members with kids. Calendars already packed with meetings might benefit from some changes to improve meeting health.

Tip 5: Let comedians and artists do the work.

Some things are challenging to discuss with coworkers. Allowing these conversations anyway can support everybody’s well-being. Fortunately for us, artists and comedians have long been perfecting this balance of awkward and necessary. When you’re feeling some type of way, consider recruiting the help of resources like xkcd, Cartoons by Hilary, or the dinosaurs at dinosandcomics. Want an empathetic conversation starter? Check out the thought-provoking posts of We’re Not Really Strangers or So You Want to Talk About. For kind reminders on hard days, look at Happy Not Perfect.

Tip 6: Assign new working teams for the next sprint.

After several months in our own bubbles, we might assume that other people live within similar bubbles. In reality, some team members are adjusting to frequent alone time, some are juggling kids and dogs, and others are negotiating with difficult roommates. Working with someone that usually sits on your periphery at work can spark empathy for that person’s life and working style. Mix up the teams for your next sprint and let the novelty open minds to alternate experiences.

The road to victory is paved with empathy

We’re all committed to the work. We’re all responding to the current circumstances as best we can. When asked how we can improve, Uplevel employees most often share one need: more flexibility. When given the time and leeway to achieve our goals, we’ll show up how we can. Of course, it’s possible that burnout will loom overhead. Try a radical approach, like setting aside a day or week for an all-company OOO.

Want more help in managing a remote team? We launched new features and created an e-book to guide the way.