Remote work was the pandemic’s big gift to employees. While no one enjoyed isolation, almost everyone was thrilled to shorten their commute, spend more time in sweats, and have their favorite tunes and snacks close at hand.

But like the kid who gets a puppy for Christmas, and on December 26 realizes that whether the next 365 days bring snow, rain, or sweltering temperatures, that dog will still need a 6 a.m. walk, remote work came with some not-so-fun trade-offs.

Throughout the pandemic, I fielded calls from colleagues asking for advice on a range of issues.    Although technology problems were urgent and frequently mission critical. Servers and software can be fixed fairly easily. Human dilemmas are not so quickly diagnosed or repaired. The most challenging problems centered around culture.

Isolation was making everyone frustrated and short-tempered. And our virtual communication skills were not up to the task of addressing those negative emotions. Relationships that had been tenuous in the office became untenable in the remote environment. Trust frayed on both the leadership and the employee sides of the equation.

As the tech problems subsided, people became better at communicating through the small screen. However, we also realized that remote work is here to stay, and like the dog that needs a walk, interpersonal relationships are going to continue to require deliberate attention.  

Strengthen Culture

Emotional Intelligence, or the ability to manage our own emotions and understand the emotions of others, is a critical culture-building tool whether workers are outside or inside the office. But it is particularly valuable when people don’t have access to behavioral cues, like body language, that are plentiful in face-to-face situations.

During the pandemic, quiet quitting became a thing.

EI isn’t a superpower or a mysterious psychic talent. It is an ability that can be learned and should be an important piece in workplace education. These five competencies are the core of the EI skill set.

  • Self-awareness—is the ability to assess your own skills and to understand your personal emotional landscape.
  • Self-regulation—means learning to effectively manage conflict, stress, and challenges.
  • Empathy—is the basis for all productive relationships. It’s the Golden Rule with a twist. Instead of treating others the way you would like to be treated, empathy is understanding what others need and acting accordingly. Of these five characteristics, empathy is arguably the most valuable business asset.
  • Motivation—supports developing strategy, setting goals, and staying focused.
  • Social skills—along with empathy, help teams successfully collaborate to get work done.

During the pandemic quiet quitting, or being present without being productive, became a thing. There is little doubt that physical distance from the workplace can contribute to that brand of disengagement.

If you think EI is a soft skill, one of those activities that requires maximum effort for minimum results, these statistics tell a different story. They also highlight the impact of remote work on employee enthusiasm and the importance of empathy in workplace relationships.

  • In June 2020, Gallup recorded the most significant drop in employee engagement since 2000. Only 31% of the working population reported feeling engaged in their employment.
  • HubSpot’s 2019 State of Workplace Empathy study found that:
    •  82% of employees would consider leaving their jobs for a more empathetic organization.
    • 78% would work longer hours for a more empathetic company.
    • 72% of CEOs say that the state of empathy needs to evolve.
    • 92% of CEOs say their organization is empathetic, while only 72% of employees report they work for empathetic employers.

EI gives empathy a seat at the head of the table and is a powerful antidote to employee disengagement. It may seem difficult to incorporate something intangible like feelings into your office routine. Actually, introducing EI is probably easier than more concrete activities, such as choosing a new software platform. However, like that puppy, EI is not a one-and-done sort of activity. It requires intention and continuous commitment.

Create Awareness

The easiest way to introduce EI into your environment is to build awareness about the concept. This sounds simplistic, but employees who are alone in a home office may find it more challenging to remember that their feelings and behavior have an impact beyond those four walls.

A facilitated workshop will put the five EI competencies on everyone’s radar. It can also help you evaluate your group’s current strengths and weaknesses. Surveys and other types of feedback mechanisms are another strategy for assessing group dynamics and learning where skill-building is needed.

To keep the momentum going, follow formal training with more casual perspective-taking exercises. These activities are fun, and they promote an empathetic point of view.

  • Role-playing—divide into pairs and choose a scenario where there are two points of view. For example, a job interview,  performance evaluation, or strategy decision. Each participant plays both roles in the scenario and describes the contrasting emotions.
  • Walk in my shoes—Create a series of questions about various emotions like “How does it feel to be afraid of public speaking?” Or “How do you feel when your bright idea gets rejected?” Each participant draws a question and answers it from the perspective of another person in the group.
  • Photo prompt—Each player selects a picture from a magazine or other source and describes the behaviors that are occurring from several different perspectives.

These games are a springboard for further conversation around emotions, empathy, collaboration, and relationship building. Discussions involving feelings can be challenging. Start slowly. Don’t lead your group into deep water until they have learned to swim.

Communicate Intentionally

Effective communication skills are foundational to EI and a host of other important professional competencies. It’s tempting to become lazy communicators, especially via email or chat. We imagine that because we all speak the same language we are also receiving the same messages. But people tend to hear what they want or expect you to say. And, when you are separated by a screen, it’s easy to view yourself as the center of the dialogue.

Intentional communication brings a sense of responsibility and thoughtfulness to every conversation.

Kevin Martlage, .orgSource’s culture expert advises that healthy culture and collegial relationships thrive on intentional communication. Intentional communication brings a sense of responsibility and thoughtfulness to every conversation. Speakers are called on to deliberately choose words that accurately convey the meaning and the purpose of the interaction. While listeners are responsible for hearing what is said before formulating a response and asking follow-up questions that ensure they have correctly understood. Both participants must be aware of context, or unspoken emotional dynamics and backstory, that might influence the outcome.”

Like all the EI skills, intentional communication requires coaching and practice. There are significant gains to be realized by providing the training and resources that can help employees become more adept at expressing themselves to each other and your customers.

Build Trust

Trust is the single most important ingredient for success in any relationship-building activity. I take that back. The influence of trust extends well beyond the interpersonal arena. When employees don’t feel safe, respected, and appreciated that negativity can significantly impact the organization’s economic well-being.

Trust is even more precious in remote office situations. The inability to directly experience interpersonal interactions creates a blank canvas for emotional goblins like imagined slights and invented hostility to enter the space.

EI and trust fill the negative vacuum with confidence and stability. They are like the proverbial chicken and the egg. It’s difficult to say which comes first. You can’t have trust without emotional intelligence, and it’s uncomfortable to reveal your honest emotions without trust. For a positive virtual culture, practice both.

In other words, as you enjoy the benefits of remote work, don’t forget to take that puppy for its 6 a.m. walk.