Situational Empathy

Understanding each other’s situation is central to allowing teams to work more closely together

February 22, 2021

Sometimes facts are so obvious we look past them in search of the deeper, more meaningful truth. As leaders and teammates, that can mean that we look past the important things that really matter to our people in search of a magic bullet or a deeper connection.

One of the most obvious things about working remotely is that it means we are all working in different conditions. Some of us have a home office, some of us have three kids under five and the home office is a toy room. Some of us have to work from the dining table with three other housemates. And all of those situations are much more conducive to work than other, more serious domestic situations that some people are unfortunate enough to have to work through.

Personally, I don’t have a home office or a dining table, so I have a small desk next to the kitchen counter for when I’m not facing clients, and turn the other way to look professional when I’m in video meetings with clients (clients I don’t know well yet, anyway.) Half the time I wind up sitting at the kitchen counter because coffee is more convenient there, and sometimes I’m on my couch. All of these options are easier (but less fun) for me now my daughter has started school.

Working on Remote Agility Framework, we stressed the importance of understanding each other’s situation as central to allowing teams to work more closely together, fostering a sense of teamness, and just plain helping each other get along in their lives.

We added a section called “Situational Empathy” to our Team Launch canvas to encourage our people to share in a comfortable, relaxed manner the aspects of their situation they wanted to that could help their team work better with them (and vice versa.)

One example from a recent Team Launch is Pascal*, a man sitting at home, dealing with the pandemic while also undergoing chemotherapy for long term cancer.

The situational empathy section of the canvas has a few default options that people can vote for, like “The people I care about require my attention” and “My workspace isn’t always ergonomic” but none of them were “I’m in chemo, and don’t want my camera on!” 

But through a facilitated conversation about how our situations were different, and how can we connect through these differences, Pascal felt comfortable to share a little about his journey through chemo, his energy fluctuations and the fact he doesn’t like to turn his camera on.

The team came up with some ideas like using chat during a meeting to show you are interested, and keeping the microphone on when background noise is low so you can give verbal cues.

The greatest benefit came through at the end when Pascal said he already felt more at home in the team than he had in his last team, where he had been for two years. This was simply because the team was talking openly with him, acknowledging his condition, and asking him how they could help him. Just as importantly, they were talking together about how he could best contribute to the team. This made him feel valued and respected.

His previous team had made a common, well meaning mistake. They had been too polite to ask him about his cancer, which had left him feeling isolated and outside the team. Creating a feeling of openness so that all team members feel able to contribute and talk genuinely has huge benefits, not just for the organisation, but for people, and for society.

Talking recently to the scrum master of the team, she still makes sure to speak openly with Pascal, and tells me that the situational awareness conversation has had long term benefits for the whole team.

Some other notes on situational empathy:

  • It really does pay to have the camera on whenever possible in video meetings.
  • When people don’t feel comfortable to have the camera on, that should be ok, but they should find a way to be able to interact.
  • Just as being able to see a face build connection, so does being able to see the real space that the person is in - zoom backgrounds can be fun, and can look more “professional” but where possible, the real background is more intimate.
  • A good team forming activity is to show each other around your “workplace” (ie your home) but this needs to be managed for the comfort of all involved.
  • Equally, if you have small children, it will feel more genuine for you and for your teammates if the children are comfortable and allowed to say hello to your workmates, rather than being hidden away and told to be quiet.My little girl got to know some of my colleagues quite well during 2020, and it made for a richer experience for everyone.
  • Context is key - different levels of empathy are required for different engagements - the above is about a team who are going to be working together long term. Such deep conversation would obviously not be appropriate for a one-off workshop, which would be different again from large scale interactions of teams of teams.

Work is easier when you are able to have open and genuine conversations about situational empathy, and about life in general, with the people that you work closely with.