Empathy from in-person working

A lot of people I meet—particularly very senior people, not so much others—talk about the efficiency and productivity benefits of working together in-person. For example, they talk about the ability to ask someone a quick question to unblock you. If that person is busy you can hang around for them until they come off their call or leave the meeting room, grab them for a quick chat, and then continue your work better informed.

Those things are possible, although I’m not convinced they outweigh the other efficiency and productivity benefits of remote working. I often see people organise their work day around their home life when they might otherwise have had to take time off, for example if they have to take children to and from school, wait for a delivery, and so on. These are things that would otherwise require them to take multiple hours off from work; now it’s just a few minutes which they can comfortably make up (and often more), and meetings are postponed much less.

But one benefit of in-person work that’s talked about much less is empathy. This point was driven home to me by a company director from a remote-mostly company. He was talking about a regular remote meeting he attended, which was usually positive but rarely entirely satisfying. Then one day the attendees decided they would have the meeting in person. It required quite a bit of travel for all of them, but the result, he said, was transformational. “For the first time we met each other in person, talked about things other than what was on the agenda, and really got to appreciate each other more. We all agreed we must do it again.”

Empathy can also be established online. I remember the first time I saw one senior executive online, calling in from a chaotic-looking kitchen, baby on shoulder, and I suddenly had a new understanding (and sympathy) for someone who I had previously only seen as a tough-talking business person.

But while that does happen online, it’s limited, and meeting someone in person establishes a deeper, and different, empathy. That in turn has business benefits, because it means we are more willing to help and support each other.

This is not a call to return to all-office-based working. And there are no claims here about how often in-person meetings should occur. But when it comes to making arguments for in-person working I’d like to hear less about efficiency and more about empathy.

Photo by Julie Jordan Scott