Empathy is key to remote work (or why your coworkers can't feel like Darth Vader)

empathy remote work


This is one of several key principles to making remote work, work. See the entire series called remote work mental models.


There’s a real person behind that black helmet, er, avatar!

When you work with people in different locations and spend most of your day communicating online, it’s easy to feel like your coworkers are robots, not people. After all, most of the time they’re just a tiny little avatar on your laptop screen.

This phenomenon is known as the online disinhibition effect (see research on the topic).

When we think about interoffice relationships, you inevitably develop bonds with real interactions: your lunch buddy, your cubicle mate, that one coworker who always has a full candy dish at their desk.

It’s hard to create that personal bond online, so as a result you start treating them differently in subtle ways. Maybe it's easy be sarcastic when communicating behind a screen. Maybe you become visible frustrated on a Zoom call. The list goes on and on.

You need work habits to remind you that your coworkers are people, not robots

If you plan on building healthy long-term working relationships with your coworkers, building real interpersonal systems, even when we can’t be up close and personal, is a crucial part to remote work, especially when most communication happens over quick-fire chat messages on Slack.

It’s much easier to treat an employee who feels like a robot in a less thoughtful manner. Miscommunication runs rampant with this combination and feelings can get hurt.

While we have specific tactics (see our coffee shop coworking example) you can use to humanize the remote work experience, the most important thing you can do here is to get to know your coworkers on a personal basis, create trust, and to implement routines to continuously be reminded that they are more than just an avatar.

Sometimes you "paint" an inaccurate mental picture

Here's another scenario - have you ever “met” someone online and started communicating with them online before meeting up in person or via Zoom? Before you jump on the Zoom call or chat in person, there’s always a little bit of awkwardness because you don't know what they are like.

For all you Netflix viewers, this is exactly what happened in the show, "Love is Blind"

You probably ended up creating a mental expectation of what the other person will be like based on a few, short digital conversations beforehand. 

The expectation is created in your head and it may be accurate, but more often than not, it’s pretty far off! 

The same principle applies to working and communicating remotely. You may quickly look at Slack and see that a coworker is offline during the middle of the day. Instantly, your brain goes to the worst possible place - “oh that person isn’t even working right now” you might think.

It’s true - that person may be literally slacking off. But they also might be offline because they don’t want you to annoy them with chat messages as they try to do deep work.

Assume positive intent

Instead of assuming the worst about someone, you should assume positive intent. This is especially important when communicating with others over writing.

It’s super easy for someone to quickly fire off a chat message that may be interpreted the wrong way. When you assume positive intent, you seek to clarify someone’s position in scenarios where ambiguity exists.

When you assume positive intent, you might read a message that could be interpreted the wrong way and instead of compounding the problem by quickly responding with your own poorly formatted message, you ask them to hop on a quick call and get clarity in real-time.

This takes practice and mental fortitude.

Ready for the next principle in the series? Read about why results matter more than hours worked.