Tele-empathy: The next big thing in digital soft skills

Woman at home on video call with colleagues

“Hey, sorry. I was on mute.” It should be our new national t-shirt.

If you’ve said this recently, you’re in the club. You’re among the millions who have been working at home in the wake of the pandemic.

According to the Physicians Foundation, nearly half of all doctors are using telemedicine appointments. Nearly every teacher in the US this year made the switch to online learning. What do they have in common? The ability to connect emotionally with patients or students is proving to be a struggle.

“New Connections Academy teachers often learn that what makes them a great virtual teacher is their communication skills,” says Mickey Revenaugh, co-founder of Pearson’s Connections Academy, a full-time online school program for grades K-12.

Trying to be human through the lens of webcam may be the next big skills gap, as working from home continues for the foreseeable future. Over 7,000 people in seven countries agree – in Pearson’s Global Learner Survey, 77% of people said that teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me that working remotely requires different skills than working in an office. What are those skills? 89% say that people will need to develop more digital skills, such as virtual collaboration, virtual communication, analyzing data or managing remote team.

Two researchers from Pearson explain.

“Communication and collaboration are two soft skills that become even more important when working virtually,” says Elizabeth Moore, Director, Learning Research & Design. Although these skills have always been important for employees when in the office, they are even more crucial when answering the challenges posed by working solo in front of a computer screen.

“Communication is important but different in a virtual environment,” says Jessica Yarbro, PhD, Senior Research Scientist. “Formal communication has to be more important. You can’t just pop over and have an informal chat.”

But you can teach and learn digital communications. Mickey says that “Connections teachers are specially trained to excel in online teaching, especially how to engage students in an online classroom and use a full spectrum of communications. They understand how and when to reach out to students and their families.”

The norms of how we operate and engage with people at work are gone and being reset by emails, phone calls, texts and video meetings. But something gets lost in these technology-mediated communications. You just can’t read people’s social cues.

Here is what our experts suggest to build more empathy and keep your soft skills sharp while working at home:

1. Make an effort to keep your camera on

“The decision to have your camera on in meetings isn’t something to take lightly. It helps you pick up on someone’s facial expressions and also allows you to show with your own expressions that you are actively listening,” says Moore.

2. Be more direct, not less

Researchers say that while it may feel awkward, you may need to be more direct to get people to engage virtually. The researchers recommend you do more check-ins for what people are thinking and feeling. And use active listening skills – reflecting and summarizing not only what people are saying but their social cues too. Verbal cues like “let me play back what I think I hear you saying” or “I think I hear you saying” are ways to show empathy and make you sure you really understand what others are saying.

3. Practice active collaboration

“Collaboration is about building on each other’s ideas,” says Moore. “So think out loud, virtually, to let your teammates know what you’re thinking and what you mean, so that they can help.”

4. Address conflicts quickly and verbally

But of course, personal conflicts will happen. And if you can’t ask somebody to talk one-to-one over coffee to address an issue, what do you do?

“I think it is even more important to make a space to talk person-to-person, especially if there are conflicts in a virtual environment,” says Yarbro. She says take conversations off email and do a video call.

Some people will find themselves back in the office later in the year, but remote work isn’t going away entirely. There is no escape from needing develop your digital skills in this new world of work.

“This change has been really hard. But, we’re learning,” says Moore. “We will come out of this with a new and more flexible digital working skillset. There’ll be a more of an expectation that you’ll be polished and skilled in doing anything virtually.”