Has the Coronavirus Made Us More Human?

How remote working sensitizes us to one another despite social isolation.

Posted Apr 17, 2020

Photo by Thought Catalog On Unsplash
Although we're socially isolated, how can the stressors of teleworking from home boost our empathy for one another?
Source: Photo by Thought Catalog On Unsplash

COVID-19 struck fast and hard. And most of us had to hit the ground running to accommodate our attitudes and habits as we started working from home. Scheduling platform Doodle compared meetings that took place between February 1 and March 1, 2020, to unpack just how much virtual meeting habits have changed as a result of the coronavirus. In March, Doodle reported a 42 percent increase in the number of virtual meetings—inclusive of both group meetings and 1:1 meetings—to the same period in February. In March, a total of 1,309,165 minutes of meetings were booked on Doodle. And at least 11 percent of those minutes were spent in virtual meetings in March.

The Rise in Teleworking Could Be Here to Stay

Due to the unexpected benefits of remote working, experts predict that things will never be the same at work, home, or play. And that’s not all bad. Studies are predicting an increase in remote working as part of the “new normal.” A survey conducted by Amdocs queried 2,000 consumers regarding their opinions on future 5G experiences (the fifth generation of wireless communications technologies supporting cellular data networks) and found that 35 percent of respondents believe the technology will lead to better video conference options, 32 percent anticipate better video training and development opportunities, and 61 percent said 5G will create more opportunities to work remotely with ubiquitous success.

According to Anthony Goonetilleke, Group President, Media, Network and Technology at Amdocs, “As the trend of remote work continues to grow at a rapid pace, 5G will play a critical role in supporting next-generation workforces by breaking down barriers between the physical and virtual workplaces.” According to one source, by 2028, 73 percent of all teams are expected to have remote workers. In the wake of COVID-19, the numbers of employees carving out time for more virtual one-to-one meetings to stay productive and on-target for business growth are already climbing.

The Breakdown of Emotional Barriers

And along with the rise in remote working, experts predict a new era of more relaxed, humane working environments. Business leaders are having to consider more personal issues than ever to accommodate parents who are homeschooling and providing the tech equipment for teleworking. Experts cite a new trend in the transition from office to home in which teleworking has caused people to break down emotional barriers, giving both colleagues and clients a true lens into who people become once they leave the office—a side that many colleagues never shared previously.

Working mom and remote worker Lisa Walker, Workforce Futurist at Fuze, a cloud communications and collaboration software platform, believes relaxing our professional persona has eased the transition from in-office to home-office:

“Don't worry about having perfect meetings right now. For those of us who obsess over the perfect video conference backdrop, get comfortable with your kids coming in and out of the frame or your dog barking in the background. Remember that your co-workers are in the same remote working situation, and sustaining productivity at home is about getting good work done, not looking perfect while doing it.”

Meena Krenek, Principal and Interior Design Director at global architecture and design firm Perkins and Will in Los Angeles, said some of her top corporate clients are actually changing dynamics in a positive way, perhaps because they’re home in a relaxed environment, often not wearing super corporate attire or makeup. “We’re sharing more of our personal life with others... often while simultaneously soothing a fussy child or showing off our pet,” Krenek notes, but wonders, “Will this change professional relationship dynamics? And what will happen once we return to our offices? Will this vulnerability and emotional sharing continue?”

Daniel Stillman, the author of the forthcoming book, Good Talk: How to Design Conversations That Matter, is hopeful that some of this humanity will stick upon re-entry. He believes working from home and collaborating remotely is strangely intimate, because we’re peering into people’s homes and getting a window into their lives:

“Many people hadn't planned to be in this situation, so we're meeting their pets and their kids, too. But we've also been given an opportunity. Our default tools and default ways of meeting don't work as well virtually. Working remotely asks us to be more intentional in how we talk and collaborate—in this way, we're better able to design the experience in ways we weren't able to before. I hope people will learn to bring some of these insights back into how we communicate 'in real life' . . . once we can do that again. My hope is also that we learn that we don't have to get on a plane and get into the same physical room in order to have an impactful, human conversation."

Empathy From Afar

Corporate heads are speaking out more about their concerns for employee mental health as it relates to stress and anxiety, which is a shift for many business leaders. Joe Lallouz, CEO and Co-founder of technology platform Bison Trails, points out that people aren’t just choosing to work from home because they think they’ll be more productive. He says they have to work remotely because of the global health crisis. And if you’re going to reduce people’s stress and anxiety about a shift in the way they work, it’s important to try to make them feel more comfortable, and a little empathy goes a long way:

“The most important thing that CEOs and their leadership teams need to do is recognize that this can be very difficult for their teams. Exercising extra patience and empathy is probably the most important thing that anyone in a leadership position can do in an organization. Remember to give people the actual time it takes to adjust to these work style shifts.”

Other corporate leaders cite tactical problems with working remotely in that it limits a supervisor’s ability to observe and coach employees in the manner they typically would. According to Josh Feast, CEO and Co-founder of the software company Cogito Corporation, the lack of direct observation makes it a challenge to give employees useful feedback, so supervisors are forced to find innovative ways to connect with and manage workers from afar:

“Supervisors can effectively support employees from a distance by ensuring their colleagues feel heard and know they are not alone. Exhibiting heightened sensitivity to emotional intelligence—particularly in a time where physical isolation has become a necessity—is vital. Human-to-human connections still matter. That said, it’s important to go beyond just mindlessly asking how your employees are doing, especially when supervisors can’t simply pass by desks and wave hello. To ensure everyone feels fully supported—emotionally—supervisors must set up alternate methods of oversight. Fortunately, technology is now more human-aware and can aid us in these efforts to remain connected and lead with empathy.” 

Lallouz agrees and underscores that emotional support for one another during this extraordinary time is more essential now than ever:

“Support your team however you can. If your company provides health care, make sure you're arming your employees with the information on where to find resources and the information they need. Arm your team the way you can by providing them with the information and resources they need, not just for their physical well-being, but also for their psychological and mental well-being.”